Breaking Account Management Better
Account management has an image problem. It’s so much more than paying for cabs and pressing flesh with clients – even hardened creatives acknowledge they couldn’t (or wouldn’t be stupid enough) to do what we do. And yes, it can feel a bit like thanklessly navigating a never-ending stream of problems, but maybe that’s the satisfying bit – knowing you made something brilliant and extremely complex happen, and kept lots of people mostly happy along the way. So why are we still labouring under an old, belittling stereotype? If account management was a brand, how could we break it down and rebuild it…but better?
We might start with a nice moodboard. Disrupt a few visual category codes and behavioural conventions. Create a clear role for the brand. Get a deep understanding of our consumer. Post-pandemic, the goalposts of how we work with clients have shifted again – so it’s time to make sure our product is always evolving to be fit for purpose.
Starting with those visual codes. Pre-covid, the classic image of an account person hadn’t morphed that much in 60 years. From Pete Campbell’s skinny ties, to the JWT-esque pink shirt & loafers, to the more recent jeans-and-a-nice-polo-shirt combo. Maybe some box fresh Converse for a bit of edge. And ladies – well it doesn’t matter really, but make sure you have some heels in your drawer for big meetings. Regardless of gender, we still get stuck with the bland ‘suit’ label, a reductive swipe at what we do – or don’t do. Other than wear a suit, obviously. Personally, I have a few visible tattoos, favour battered Adidas over a Manolo and have never worn a suit in my life – unless you count being cajoled into a playboy bunny outfit for a slightly weird TBWA party in 2006. Not conforming has probably been career limiting – especially combined with biases around being female (take the notes), short (no gravitas), blonde (dumb). But contrary to the facade that ‘suit’ suggests – an actor in costume taking to the stage – many of us find it hard to be something we’re not.
On the up side, it feels like things are already shifting for the better. Remote working has changed how we dress, or don’t dress…especially in a heatwave. Mercifully the stiletto is out, running gear and no-make-up days are in. We’re judged less on our appearance to ‘sell’ work – more on what we say and the quality of our output. There’s still a time and a place for smartness, but it’s slipped way down the charts. This shift extends to non-visual codes – the way account people behave, communicate and build relationships has changed, but again the stereotype endures. I asked around for descriptions of the conventional account person and got some pretty brutal gems: wheeler dealer with the gift of the gab. Silver-tongued mansplainer. Slimy, salesy, loves the sound of their own voice. Likes a drink. Meetings in the pub. Banter. Money, money, money. Saying what people want to hear. Schmoozing. Screwing people over for the sell.
Ooof. That might not be the reality so much any more, but it’s still a perception that we need to continue to smash. There’s no need for any kind of hard sell, this isn’t Homes Under The Hammer. Clients can see through it, and it makes people feel defensive. There is also nothing wrong with letting the clients see a bit of the legs kicking underneath the swan. Smoke and mirrors are so 1990’s, transparency and collaboration are key. Smoothing things over will always be a big part of what we do, but showing your workings out helps people feel part of the journey and more likely to follow your line of thinking.
We’re finally realising that empathy and emotional intelligence is critical to the art of account management. The ability to read a room – or a Zoom – and sense how people are going to react, pre-empting potential conflict and making everyone feel heard. Clients want truth and authenticity, not a second-hand car salesman. We’ve all heard of the general shift towards more traditionally ‘feminine’ leadership/working styles, but we need to make sure this trend continues upwards to leadership positions. Gravitas and presence are two words that get bandied about at a more senior level, without real understanding of what they mean. Ultimately what this boils down to is, do people believe you? Do they trust you when you say something will be done? Do you say what people need to hear, even if it’s not always what they want to hear? This kind of consistency and rigorous commitment to the truth is what builds long-term trust.
We need a clearly defined role for the account management brand. Parents and friends are still asking ‘but what do you actually DO??’, baffled by our mystical Chandler-like ways. Account Management suggests bean counting – which is obviously part of it, and some old habits like picking up the tab will always die hard. But a more accurate description might be something like Relationship Management. Because ultimately it’s about managing the dynamic between agency and client. And because ‘Client Services’ sounds like some sort of sex work menu.
Lastly, we need a deep understanding of the motivations, struggles and implications driving our consumer. What keeps our clients and agency teams up at night? Why do they do what they do? How can we deliver exactly what they need, even if they didn’t realise they needed it? We need to show that we understand things from their perspective as well as how to meet our own goals, because when people feel heard they’re more likely to respond positively. Lots of this stuff applies to life relationships in general – validating feelings is an extremely neat parenting trick.
At CPB we talk a lot about ‘Breaking It Better’ with clients, breaking down their brand and building it back up again but stronger. And it’s definitely time to give account management a rebrand – the old stereotype is no longer fit for purpose.