Why account people need to get creative to survive

Dorian Burns-Coyne on how account managers can add value by getting out of their lane and broadening their mind.
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By Dorian Burns-Coyne

As creatives and strategists are tasked to do more with less, the role of the account person is becoming largely marginalized, and the future of their practice within agencies is a topic that has gone largely unaddressed. It’s time the account person invests more personal passion and evolves to become more creative, collaborative and nimble than ever before.

Yes, this is an article about account management.

Pre-2008 was a much simpler time. CPGs were an account manager’s dream – budgets were plentiful, media plans had a handful of channels, timelines were talked about in months and quarters and, as long as relationships between clients and creatives were maintained, you could count on your annual raise for a job well done.

Then the recession hit. The App Store launched. Facebook went corporate, and agencies had to react. It also meant account people had to change. Additional deliverables, shorter timelines, broader understanding of new mediums and technology and, of course, smaller budgets.

Now it’s 10 years later and we’re seeing this shift once again. People like P&G’s Marc Pritchard are touting their new “Fixed and Flow” agency models. AI, machine learning and more algorithms than you can think of are being developed. All of it is in the spirit of becoming more efficient, effective and economical. Marketers are demanding more dollars be allocated towards creatives and, if you ask Pritchard, almost three quarters of the budget should be.

It sounds like the account person is on the cusp of being cut from the equation – unless they can add to it. Today, and moving forward, the great account leads not only know the client’s business inside and out, execute great work and are excellent at establishing and maintaining relationships like they have in the past, but have experience exercising other skill sets –whether they be creative, entrepreneurial, strategic or anything that can add value to the task at hand. That doesn’t mean accounts can tell creatives how to do their jobs because they’re a “social guru” –rather, it allows the account lead to refine the ask more than they typically would and focus on what really matters.

This doesn’t mean an account manager needs to become a jack of all trades. But spend time exploring other interests that can broaden your mind and skill set. Some of the best account people I’ve met have been musicians that perform on the weekend, artists that host exhibits, entrepreneurs that run a small business, aspiring authors that write in their spare time. What made them better wasn’t these talents, but that they could use their broader skills to pinpoint a problem faster, or provide a perspective that strengthened an idea. This isn’t new to the industry – creatives are encouraged to expand their perspectives continuously. Account people however, have largely stayed in their lane, and now the department’s value is coming into question. The list of deliverables isn’t going to get any shorter and the timelines won’t get longer, so it’s time to add value.

There’s a classic case that asks the account lead who would they hire if they had won a new piece of business on a tennis brand: the person with years of experience in the industry or a former tennis pro looking to break into advertising. The answer was either; what really mattered was if the candidate could adjust their skill set accordingly to deliver on the ask. This remains true today, but if there were a third candidate with agency experience who knew that Stan Smith wasn’t just a sneaker trend, they’d blow the others out of the water.

Long gone are the days of the two-dimensional account person. Agencies and clients are looking for staff  with a diverse skill set, and those that aren’t are getting left behind. If the great account lead of the past was the one who handed the ball off perfectly to the creatives so they could run it into the end zone, the great account lead of the future is the quarterback who can assess a very cluttered, competitive field in a snap, determine the best play, and deliver it in a way that’s as surefire as if it came from Tom Brady himself. Without all the glitz and glamour, of course. After all, we’re just the account person here.

Dorian Burns-Coyne is a freelance account director in Toronto.