Agencies slaves no more

Catrióna Campbell on why account handling needs a rethink

We get paid for brave, boundless thinking, for ideas that make our clients’ products and services meaningful. The calibre of our thinking correlates to the calibre of our people. And yet, repeatedly we read another report in about the talent shortage in adland, as talent is lost to the tech giants like Google and Facebook, to start-ups and to the management  consultancies.

So, it was an uncomfortable wake up call for me when even on a recent visit to a dedicated advertising course, a masters in advertising class of 40 people, not one person put up their hand when I asked (presumptively, it turned out) who wanted to pursue a career in account handling. Would-be creatives and would-be planners yes, but no would-be account handlers.

When I asked why, there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the role; a suggestion that the job is not really where you get to use your brain – whether that is the left brain, or the right brain. A simmering thought that the job is not that intelligent or as highly regarded as, say, being the creative or strategist on a piece of work. It scares the crap out of me.

Doing right by clients: The idea of ‘client service’ belongs to a Mad Men era when liquid lunches and golf was all the rage. 

Account handlers are the people who tend to run agencies. Adland has never faced such a challenging time: fragmentation, inattention, transparency, mistrust, management consultancies, the shift from retainer fees to project fees and the rise of the internal creative department. I could go on. To survive, and thrive, we are going to require a new generation of entrepreneurial and fearless account handlers. The future leaders of our industry.

It means attracting the very best talent to the role. To do that, we need to build the profile of the discipline. Ironically for people who work so much in building perception, we are still projecting an image that is more familiar with the tropes of Mad Men. We are not reflecting the richness and diversity of the job. The problem is crystalised in that many account handling departments in the world’s top agencies are still ‘client services’ departments.

Ahh… client services. I’ve long had a personal beef with this phrase. Some might call me out for getting caught up on semantics, but I’ve never ‘served’ clients. It is a word that belongs in spas and restaurants. I’ve collaborated, challenged and been critically objective of my client’s businesses and brands. The best account handlers I’ve ever worked with have inspired me with their ability to disagree with their clients without falling out.

The art of telling clients what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. All in the name of creating the most effective creative work. It is what leads to genuine client partnerships too. My clients know they can rely on unabashed honesty, to tell them an uncomfortable truth – but they know that we all sit around the table for the same reason – to grow their business.

The idea of ‘client service’ belongs to that bygone era when the role involved liquid lunches and the golf course. Client service jars because it feels so subservient and so passive. Brilliant account handlers have always had to bring energy, urgency and vision to the role. Account handling is a tireless pursuit that is based on building ideas, not knocking them down.

It’s about being all over the tiny details and the big picture. Problem solvers, business leaders, number crunchers, room readers, relationship builders, and embracers of raw, iterative work. Not surprisingly, a role this demanding requires tenacity, resilience, and genuine, relentless love of creativity. Otherwise, why would we ever contemplate doing it?

It sounds like I’ve created a long list of attributes that do not exist – but they do, they just come with the shorthand of ‘good account person’ and ‘bad account person’. (NB, I’m always hiring the former). To attract and recruit talent, we need to redefine the role of account handling for advertising today and build a role profile that excites and motivates.

All agencies must help in the development of intelligent and empowered account leaders. It starts with a change in the job description but requires a lot, lot more. Genuinely setting people up for success through training and development plans, coaching and mentoring, and reward and recognition of the value they bring – to your clients, yes, but to your agency too.

Catrióna Campbell is managing partner of independent creative agency The Public House. The agency’s unashamed and much-espoused catch-cry is ‘Boring Doesn’t Sell’








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