Is great account management a lost art at advertising agencies?

First of a series

Like everything else in advertising, account management is changing.  In this case, though, it may not be changing for the better of agencies and their clients.

Account People of Ye Olde Marketing

I never advocate for a return to the past, but a fast review of history is instructive.  Advertising agencies have only been around for a century or so, growing out of the business of media sales, especially newspapers.  Up through the 1940s, when radio was an important medium, the account executive was a multipurpose player, handling clients, research, copy, talent and production.  (If you want a good insight on this period, read The Hucksters by Frederic Wakeman.)  Starting with the creative revolution of the 1960s, the modern account executive role took shape.  The guy (yes, they were mainly guys) who represented the agency to the client and the client to the agency.

Some Things Don’t Change
Regardless of era, the greatest account people then and now are the ones who bring ideas to their client.  Creative people bring creative ideas, media people bring media ideas, and planners bring strategy, but the account people should bring business building ideas.  It’s not enough to know what the agency sells and how to deliver on it.  You have to gain intimate knowledge of the client’s business (like thisand this).

Something Changed

In the last decade or so, there have been signs that account management lost its way.  While you can still find great account people at advertising agencies, you also find many who bring no ideas, no curiosity, and not much else beyond project management.  Read these points of view by Babita Baruah, Lakshmipathy Bhat and Robert Solomon and see if they don’t ring true.  A year or so ago the New York Times ran an article suggesting the “account executive” title was outdated.  Back in 2010, Advertising Age observed that some agencies were indeed cutting the department entirely.

Something Needs to Change

I’ve had this discussion with a number of people from around the industry, and unfortunately there is a lot of agreement.  Delving deeper, there’s a sense that more experienced account people know or remember what it’s like to be a business partner, not an order taker.  We’re not training the less experienced people, however, like we used to do.  The art is getting lost because we are not passing it along.

Account Management at a Crossroads

Starting with this and a few more posts, we’ll try to start a discussion about the state of account management, and how to ensure it adds value in the modern advertising agency.  I’d welcome your comments and suggestions, starting in the space below.