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By Joshua Belhumeur

You Schmooze, You Lose.

The traditional accounts role (a la Peter Campbell of Mad Men) is a waste of money, and clients are starting to realize it.

Ensure deadlines are met and expectations are exceeded.

Serve as Agency liaison with client marketing staff.

Develop briefs for client projects.

Presents plans and concepts to client.

These are responsibilities lifted from real job postings for the Account Executive (AE) position at a typical advertising agency. They are client-facing. They handhold. They upsell. They are a “liaison”, someone who bridges creatives, technologists and clients. They have people skills.

An entire career path for a single role.

One job title isn’t enough. An agency needs a vertical structure so there is a career progression: Assistant AE, AE, Senior AE, Account Supervisor and Director of Accounts, or some variation thereof. An attractive marketing major with a bright smile out of college can start a career in Accounts as an Assistant and be doing almost the same job function 15 years later with a more senior title, triple the pay and some people under him. An entire career of “ensuring deadlines are met” — AKA sending frantic emails to the project lead; and, making sure “expectations are exceeded” — AKA delivering polished presentations of whatever creative is handed to them.

Of course relationship-building, managing expectations and putting together a timeline and budget to organize all the specifics of a campaign is essential. And yes, a little schmoozing here and there is necessary given that we are social creatures and want to collaborate with people we actually like. But what I find questionable is just how few skills and little practical knowledge traditional agencies expect from their Account teams and how much overhead they devote to it.

Huge costs with minimal return.

A good friend of mine that works at one of the largest DC agencies told me about status meetings with upwards of 8 account people in the room, all billing a task hourly rate, while few of them actually spoke up. And those that do speak out often bog down the process trying to get the more technical team members to educate them on specifics rather than contributing anything of value to push the project forward. The client called them on the excessive bills for 30 minute meetings and forced them to cut it out, but it’s no secret that most agencies will burn through retainers with practices like that.

In one of our own collaborations with a highly respected political and activism firm we witnessed the same pattern. In fact, I was the only person in a weekly status meeting of 10 that was tied directly to the production process. Everyone else was a partner, vice president or account executive, all contributing their own small, subjective pieces of input or judgement. And while they may be smart and experienced people, they aren’t adding enough to justify the cost. Most of them are billing a higher hourly rate than me, even though I was the only guy in the room who could contribute both to strategic ideas and messaging while actually understanding the intricacies of digital production to discuss feasibility and execution. At least 30% of our billed meeting time consisted of me educating a room full of account people on the kind of basics clients would expect out of their agencies. Again, this is at a highly respected communications firm.

In my observations, many traditional account people amount to high-earning, college-educated customer service representatives with occasional strategic insights. Most of their time is spent deferring to the judgement of other members of the team.

They don’t project manage. They stand on the sidelines cheering the team on while someone else calls the plays.

They don’t ideate. Maybe they throw in an idea or two and if they are lucky they are invited to the creative table. But it’s a common among creatives to frown on account people “over-stepping” their team’s boundaries.

They don’t know specifics. Especially in the realm of digital, it’s rare for an account person to understand the technology. They rely on the production team as a crutch: “can you explain this to me so I can relay it to the client.”

They sometimes don’t even define a plan of action. There’s a “strategy” department for that. They just sign-off on it and pass information back and forth.

An account person who can’t drive the process is extra overhead and more distractor than contributor. And that is not to say that there aren’t excellent individuals in account roles out there, many of our current agency partnerships have such people. But in those instances, we have to ask whether the talents of those individuals are being properly leveraged when the agency defines their role and departmentalized them the way they do.

The 21st century approach to accounts.

At BRINK, as we grew from developers in a converted garage into a full scale agency, we had to start taking our client-facing roles seriously if we wanted to build long-term relationships and continue to find new business. As we pondered structure and roles, we analyzed the traditional agency model and were dismayed at how little agencies tend to devote to the actual work. Additionally, we were surprised by how often the client-facing person lacks any real expertise.

We made the conscious decision that the person we wanted to be in communication with the client should also be leading the process. They aren’t the cheerleaders, they are the coach. They create a game plan in collaboration with the client, a strategy that serves as a foundation for the team to work from. They are not only encouraged to be part of the creative process, but they drive it. They are not just a liaison, they are leaders.

When we hire for this role (what we dubbed the “Strategist”) we look for a skilled individual with a high capacity for creativity that knows many of the mechanics behind our work. Those all important communication skills are the icing on the cake that makes them ready for the job, but we don’t believe those skills should be the cake itself. We believe an accounts team that almost entirely exists to schmooze is waste. And in the rapid pace of digital, clients are starting to discover that too. The nimble agencies are rapidly growing while the more traditional agencies are struggling to figure this digital thing out.

I have to ask how Roger Sterling, Peter Campbell and the rest of the Mad Men accounts team would cope with the digital media landscape. Probably about as well as many traditional agencies making the transition today.

Every agency needs someone to support the “grunt” work on proposals, scopes, scheduling and budgets. I consider these an entry-level task and a great way to introduce someone out of college to the industry. They will quickly learn the components of a campaign and receive the foundational knowledge they need to build on. But that does not make a career, and neither does talking to a client.

Hiring the right person for the Strategist position is more difficult because it requires a well-rounded, smart and ambitious person. But that’s exactly the type of person we want representing our company in face-to-face interaction with our clients. And it’s what clients should be demanding more of when paying $100 – $300 an hour rates they are.

By Joshua Belhumeur