There has been a growing concern among senior clients and agency leaders that something is going wrong with the account management function. What additional value do they bring to the table that strategic planners, creatives, technologists and project managers don’t?

Perhaps this most starkly manifests in pitches where the person who is understood to lead the client’s business in the agency ends up doing the last five minutes armed with a Gantt chart and an organigram. No wonder they feel undervalued and demotivated.

Senior agency heads acknowledge that it has become the most “squeezed” role within the agency. The discussion led us to ask two big questions: is the role still needed and should we give it away for free? The answer is a resounding yes and no.

So, what is causing this problem? On the one hand clients and agencies, grappling with an always-on world, have sought greater flexibility and speed to market, with the inevitable focus on delivery roles and the growth of effective project management. On the other hand, the increasing demand for customer insight has meant the increase and introduction of strategic planners across every discipline. Both of these roles are attracting the demotivated account manager, compounding the skills shortage.

What clients get is too many agencies with too many people all struggling to join the dots on their behalf.

Imagine going out for dinner and popping into one restaurant for your starter and then going into another for your main course, a third for your dessert and a fourth for your coffee. For many clients it feels more and more like this and perhaps it’s time we just had one kitchen, several menu options and one front-of-house team that knows what’s in season; what to recommend from the menu, how you like it and what wine goes best with what.

Clients see this front-of-house team as one that has a greater commercial awareness of their business, has their best interests at heart and can anticipate what’s coming down the road.

However, what clients get is their agency always trying to sell them another capability without much thought about how to simplify things, merely adding to the complexity. If, as a client, I only have an hour and I have three parts of the agency to meet, that leaves only 20 minutes each so the relationship will start to slide. Significantly clients are calling for more pitches because “nobody understands my business”.

Agencies are beginning to respond to this challenge. They are creating core hubs comprising a lead planner, a creative and account lead supported by inner rings and outer rings of capability that offers a potential solution to clients on how their account might work.

But crucially the one role missing from the supporting rings is account management. There is no chart that shows how this will all be glued together; no chart extolling the virtues and value of these commercially savvy people to the client. This is a missed opportunity.

The short-term solution has resulted in more senior managers being drafted in to be more hands-on with clients. This is not a sustainable situation and there are probably three observations to make:

Firstly, those joining agencies go through project management-or delivery-type roles and those that love it stay and those that don’t seem to move, anecdotally, into planning.

Secondly, when promoting someone into an account director role the step change to building a relationship with a client and understanding the wider commercial agenda of that client seems to be too much of a stretch.

Thirdly, the workforce is changing. Many young people between 27 and 35, prime ages for senior account manager/account director roles, are off travelling, creating a big talent shortage just when they are needed most.

About the author: Tony Spong is managing partner at AAR Group UK. Picture: SUPPLIED/IAS
About the author: Tony Spong is managing partner at AAR Group UK. Picture: SUPPLIED/IAS

If the client is looking for someone with greater commercial awareness, that’s a very different career path to a delivery-focused one.

Cultivating commercial awareness must start with agencies placing more value in the role and investing in a new breed of entrepreneurial leaders who are curious and passionate about the client’s business, organised, collaborative and outstanding communicators to bring everyone along on client and agency side.

We have some of the building blocks and perhaps a new role will start to emerge, but we will need to look at structure and career paths to ensure we end up with the right skills in the right place at the right time. Until agencies value and invest in the role, clients won’t pay for it. We need to involve them in the debate and now seems a great time to start.


If you are curious about why clients told us “curiosity” is the most valuable attribute their account lead needs to have, sign up for the next IAS Masterclass that explores the latest research into how you can reinvigorate the account management role.

Save the date 

Date: February 11 2020
Time: 2pm to 5pm
Venue: Gordon Institute of Business Science, 26 Melville Road, Johannesburg.  
To book: e-mail robynne@agencyselection.co.za

These masterclasses are free of charge to subscribing agencies and their staff. All names and titles of staff members must be registered with IAS before attendance is approved. For non-subscribers a cost of R3,000 ex VAT per person attending will be applied.

For more information visit https://www.agencyselection.co.za.

This article was paid for by the Independent Agency Search and Selection Company.

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