Account handling: the cross functional collaborator

In wandering through the interweb this week I picked up great chatter/interviews with leading account guys at Anomaly, Amalgamated & TBWA/media arts labs. A summary of this is below. I was also struck (again)  by the forward looking approach of RGA who continue to build their talent pipe with the excellent Berghs School of Communication.  Check out their excellent make day video on the link too – makers got to keep on making…

Onto the account handling stuff. A guy called James Vincent has steered the Apple account at TBWA/media arts labs (the shop built to service Apple’s needs) & has been credited as the global account director running the thriving day to day business.

He’s also a dying breed.

It’s a fact that many agencies are reframing dedicated account management roles & it’s becoming increasingly rare to find many James Vincent’s in the world. New York shop Amalgamated & BBH have both rolled out new interdisciplinary agency models where senior client contact is much, much more of a team game than ever.

And so it should be. But arguably it always has been. Historical models had too many decisions taken without a proper interteam discussion/consultation. How to lead a client is more collaborative than ever but someone needs to be responsible for translating the clients agenda into agency action.

This is how the guys at Amalgamated frame up their approach:

‘Amalgamated is, by definition, a blend. We aspire to be a collection of the very best minds across all disciplines working in a truly collaborative fashion.

We believe that the best functioning team is one that spends a lot of time together and resolves their differences together. It is okay to disagree here, but it’s not okay to do so disrespectfully. This is true at the top, and all the way through the agency.’

This is the right approach. But being collaborative doesn’t mean being fuzzy about role definition. Quite the opposite in fact. In a T shaped environment it’s more important than ever to define what we’ve been calling ‘the core awesomeness’. This is because in order  to collaborate effectively there needs to be a respect for each others discipline.

Think about a jazz quintet – Miles Davies wouldn’t consider trying to play the brushes on the drum kit during the bass solo. The focus of the group is about being an expert in your respective instrument so that the collaboration enables something new & groundbreaking to be played.  A recent presentation by the excellent team at Doberman pointed out that one of the key requistites to get from A to Unkown in a project is the Swedish phrase: ‘is i magen’. Or having ice in the belly. It’s a scary place to go (particularly where the good stuff is) into the unknown.  And a new set of core values are definetly emerging for modern account handlers & some of them are explored here.

Speaking at the 4A’s account management conference, Anomaly founder Carl Johnson once described the job of account directors as one of the hardest in the business. Noting that they are frequently a target for abuse within their respective agencies. If it’s any indicator – account roles in the US – increasingly skew female & hold average salaries ranging between 40,000 USD for entry level positions & 150,000 ++ for more senior posts (dependent on the reputation of the shop). Over the past couple of years the more senior posts were the hardest hit in the recession & this cost has been some of the simplest to drive out. As the hiring comes back in the US – in a post digital era – agencies are becoming even more focused on finding tech focused ad talent – sometimes roles like creative technologists/programmers are priortised ahead of the role of ‘the suit’.

This isn’t suprising. There are a lot of empty suits. And the role has not really benefited from a sense of continual professional development that you see in many large client organizations. Particulary at a CMO level.

But this isn’t the only reason. The brain drain to other professions we’ve lamented before & some of the biggest factors driving the marginalization of talent is that ‘the middle ground’ is woefully ill educated & often functioning in an out of date operating system.  If the OS is broken the best ‘software’ in the world won’t run & the chances of getting great work out become increasingly remote. As the brain drain increases it leaves the junior suits with more & more to do – and in some agency models this is basically like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

But the sands are shifting again. There are concerns growing about a tech bubble thanks to the Instagram valuation & this seems to playing out as a new model in Silicon Valley. Tech crunch are calling this ValleyWood. They are putting the value on a type of engagement that’s driven by a few micromoments in your day and that the future is not simply about short term revenue generation. It will be interesting to see how Wall Street reacts to these valuations in the medium term as the economy in the US (and globally) continues it’s recovery. But for now the sense of uncertainty (and opportunity) is a palpable, cultural driver.

These types of cultural drivers are what Amalgamated has focused it’s model around & there’s more for curious suits here. 

But this uncertainty has another interesting dynamic at play too. Consider 2 of last years biggest account shifts in the US: MillerCoors moving creative duties for Miller Lite (and consolidated planning) to DraftFCB (it’s long term Coors shop) & Kellogg’s decision to consolidate all its North American, European & Latin American work at Burnetts. These decisions were driven by a client’s comfort level with a relationship. And crucially – with veteran, knowledgable account leads.

There’s not many out there – but the one’s that make it rain & understand the game are the one’s you want. The one’s that embrace a new way of working with clients & a new operating system in agencies. And understand that building a healthy working relationship is about output, delivery & trust.

‘It’s defintely the part of the business that’s seen the biggest marginalization’ says Marty Stock (who runs DraftF CB’s Miller Coors business). ‘At a lot of places, the role has devolved into basically a professional golf partner or lunch buyer’.

The reputation of account men/women as ‘glad handlers in grey wool suits wining/dining clients’ is a notoriously hard one to shake. I blogged & talked about ‘the old role model as dead’ at Berghs earlier this year. And will probably write about a new ‘uniform’ at some point in the future too that’s probably going to be based around jeans. But to remaster the discipline (regardless of what they are wearing) the wise words  of Mr Stock are worth listening to. He says:

‘The job is to balance the creative & business objectives in order to best grow a brand. If creative gets too important then you might as well write a screenplay or go take a course at art school. But if creative gets too reined in, the magic of a great campaign & the multiplier effect on sales just isn’t possible. Above all else – my job is to worry.’

That’s something that resonates with his client the CMO at MillerCoors who earlier this year told Ad Age that Mr Stock ‘often knows that I have a problem before I do’.

Mr Stock also riffs off the quarterback analogy we’ve been discussinghere. That back in High School he played football as a lineman. His job was basically to clear out obstacles so that his team teamates could score. And that in many ways his role is much the same in todays modern, collaborative agency environment.

The Kelloggs guy at Burnett’s is a chap called John Shehhy. He say’s that he’s puzzled by some shops & their move to de-emphasize account management given how many moving pieces there are in a modern, integrated marketing effort. See more on why this is a great time for ambitious account handlers from the excellent IPA sessions here. 

Hybrid teams are the future. And so are hybrid models. But role definition is key. As is group leadership. And a need to translate the client’s real agenda into a success for the agency & it’s future relationship.

This is a sentiment that Microsoft would also agree with. ‘The single most important piece for success with agencies we work with is the actual orchestration of the effort’ says the companies chief creative officer – Gayle Troberman. ‘This is why we look to build relationships with strong account management in our agencies.’

RGA – another very modern agency – has built a strong focus on account management for it’s model too. See here. This – to me – is probably one the best indicators for the future of account handling.

And another key reason why the entire industry needs to take a long, hard look at the discipline so that it can collaborate in a new agency OS & respond to the needs of modern clients.

Thankfully, the team at Hyper Island are doing something about this & have a very forward looking course that you can learn more about here.  Team dynamics are key. But so is a client focus around the commercials. In many ways we’re still in what Bill Bernbach called a world where ‘the energetic displaces the passive’. And those that really want to change the model will do so & will bring their clients with them too.

In a world where the account handler is a cross functional collaborator the future belongs to the brave.

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