man with briefcase

man with briefcaseWhen I started in advertising many tree rings ago, it wasn’t unusual for relationships between agencies and brands to last decades. Now we live by an adage that the agency must begin planning for the departure of an account as soon as the contract ink is dry.

Accounts come and go very fast these days. A thick paper towel has a longer useful life than many agency relationships. We lament over the whys, and then plan for the departure of our accounts.

There aren’t whys. There is one WHY.

It’s the gradual decline in the respect and training given to account people, and the plunge in our ability to attract and retain account management superstars to our business.

Most agencies – especially in digital realm but increasingly in traditional – think account people are a dime a dozen. They roll in any yutz with a business suit and the ability to carry a bag. Because account people are seen as an optional administrative extra, a cost rather than an asset.

Tighter margins, the rise of the holding companies, increasing creative costs, blah blah blah. There’s a myriad reasons why agencies have cut back on the account discipline. But if you were running a hospital and an increase in patient deaths was driving down patient counts, you wouldn’t solve the problem by firing the doctors.

That’s what agencies are doing when they reduce the number and quality of account people. That’s what they are doing when they drop a 22 year old with no experience into the role of primary agency contact. That’s what they are doing when they ask the media lead to also bear the responsibilities of account management. I am not bashing 22 year olds or multitasking MDs when I say this. I simply point out that these are not models for success if you place any sort of importance on client longevity.

Great account people are great. They can be the incredibly valuable assets of an agency because they form relationships, provide continuity, and deliver great thinking on a daily basis. It takes a special temperament to be a great account person.

It’s murderously hard to do well. An account person is responsible for strategic thinking, daily tasks, the care and feeding of the temperamental people around them, revenue, profitability, and building bonds of trust.

And yet most agencies treat them like crap.

Often when the agency world gets hold of someone with the myriad strengths it requires, we respond by burning them into the ground by giving them too many accounts or making them play St Jude – the fixer Saint you throw into a disastrous relationship that through neglect has been turned into a desperate situation.

Great account people are rare, just like any other great type of people. What I have seen over the past decade or so is the systematic driving out of the business of those great account people. We either don’t attract them because no one wants a devalued and thankless job, or act in ways that drive them to quickly seek client side jobs.

Great account people are born AND made. They possess a set of smarts and personal qualities that make them the most valuable assets an agency – or a brand – can have. And they learn from other great account people how to turn their innate abilities into remarkable engagements.

The faint rainbow to this storm of instability is that quite a few account people are tough as nails. There are still some greats left walking into shiny agency offices every day. For that our industry should be very grateful.

For those great account people that are reading this, I hope this homage to your skills and abilities reminds you of how important and remarkable you are.

And for those agency leaders who are reading this, I assert that the “inevitable loss” of that account you are worried about might well be remedied if you valued, supported, trained, and rewarded your account people better.

About Jim Nichols

Jim Nichols is Senior Partner - Strategy at Catalyst S+F, a marketing services company based in San Francisco. Surrounded by so many youthful Internet marketers every day, he fancies himself at 47 the "Oldest Living Digital Marketer." He keeps a daily blog profiling start-ups for ad:tech, is a is a frequent contributor to iMediaConnection, and has also contributed to ReadWriteWeb, Venturebeat, Brand Channel, MediaBizBloggers, and Daisy Whitney’s New Media Minute. You can also find him on Twitter @CatalystaJim


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