Why account managers shouldn’t just do as they’re told

Why account managers shouldn’t just do as they’re told

Many years back – goodness me, it was almost in the last century – I was a Senior Account Director at a long-gone London integrated advertising agency.

For my sins, I was put in charge of annual graduate account management recruitment.

Each year a new crop of prospective Frank Lowes* would turn up for our recruitment day, and each year I’d have to explain to them what it was that an Account Executive actually did.

And whilst there were plenty of questions about the kind of grunt work that they’d be doing in their first month – writing contact reports, checking copy, researching clients’ markets and so on – there were very few questions about the kind of mentality an account exec would need to have to succeed in account management.

Most were under the (perhaps not unreasonable) impression that the account team were “the voice of the client in the agency”; “driven by client service”; “there to make sure the client got what they wanted”.

Many of them were a more than a little thrown when I explained that account execs are not actually there to take client instructions.

This isn’t quite as flippant as it probably sounds.

Clients generally appoint agencies because they want help with their communications.

They want to grow market share, beat the competition, attract new customers, retain existing customers.

Sell, in other words.

Yet not all client requests to an agency add value to the selling process.

Copy comments that add two dozen syllables to a radio spot can’t be “taken on board” unless the client is happy to pay for spots that last 10 seconds longer.

Concept amendments based on personal subjectivity – I once had a client try to reject a concept that featured a dog, because they were bitten by a Dalmatian as a kid and thought others might have the same phobia – are rarely going to result in a better answer to the brief.

And as I’ve written elsewhere ( * old chestnut alert * ) an ad is rarely made more effective by having a bigger logo.

An account handler who takes verbatim instructions from a client, and then immediately hurtles through to the creative team to re-brief them will quickly learn that acting as a dumb postman (or post girl) isn’t going to get them the respect or trust of the creative department.

Nor is it always likely to lead to the client getting more effective communication.

Simply parroting what the client wants without stopping to understand why adds zero value to the creative process.

Curiously enough, the same applies in reverse, too.

An account handler who unquestioningly takes a concept from the creative team without stopping to understand why it meets the brief is going to run into the same kind of treacle when they come to present to the client.

Indeed, if an account handler doesn’t really understand how the concept in their hands came to be created in the first place, clients will quickly start to wonder why they can’t just talk to the creatives directly.

This doesn’t mean account handlers should be obstructive, of course.

Clients don’t want to deal with obstinate account handlers (and actually creatives don’t want to deal with them either).

And of course there are plenty of times when what the client wants makes perfect commercial, creative sense.

But even on those occasions, the most important word in an account handler’s vocabulary is not “Yes!”, but “Why?”

(Delivered in the most gently inquisitive tones, of course).

Which is why the most capable account handlers do not just do as they are told: they stop and question what they’ve been told to do.

*ask your parents, if they worked in advertising

Simon Hayhurst

LinkedIn profile

January 2021

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