On account people
This one is very “ad agency” focused, sorry.
If you hear someone calling your account service person a “suit”, you should probably tell them to fuck off1.
I am a firm believer in the importance of good account service (or client service, or account management, call it what you want) people when it comes to a non-garbage future of advertising. However, I am very aware that trash-talking account service is a time honoured pastime in strategy (and creative) departments in many agencies. This is unwise.
People vs Person.
A great account service department is a pre-requisite to doing great work even remotely consistently. For a strategist, your accounts people represent the opposite side of the coin.
You’re supposed to be the expert on people. Your accounts partner is the expert on person - as in, the person you’re selling to, the person who’s buy-in you need, the client (or clients). When you truly understand and balance both of these audiences, and you can sell the person on what the people want or need, you can do things like… get the right brief approved, or get buy in on the best creative idea.
Most strategists, if we’re honest, are way better at people plural than we are at person singular. Charisma and charm are part of the job (as is true of anyone who presents for a living) but looking at things in the macro and societal scale isn’t always conducive to thinking about what one nuanced individual wants. A good accounts partner can argue with you about that balance and help you find the right way to sell a plural view to a singular human.
Great strategic thinking isn’t just correct, it’s convincing. And in balancing the audience that buys the work, and the audience that buys the product, two heads are better than one.
A place to hide.
Account service gets a bad rep because it’s the easiest place in an agency for mediocrity to hide2.
A 5/10 strategist will be called out on every bad brief they write, will run bad client working sessions / presentations, and will deal with frustration from both account service (for making them look bad) and creative (for setting them up for failure). A 5/10 creative will get called out in creative reviews, in client presentations, and realistically by their CD more than anyone.
A 5/10 account service person can still do all the basics just fine. But they’ll miss the opportunities a great one will identify, they’ll miss the chances to help other teams succeed, and they won’t optimize the work before it has a chance to get hung up on a manageable detail. A 5/10 account service person perennially looks like the people around them could stand to step it up by about 25%.
A 2/10 account person gets fired for not doing the basics, don’t get me wrong. A 10/10 account person makes 5/10 strategists and 5/10 creatives look like high performers, probably to a greater degree than a 10/10 creative makes strategy and accounts look good (but it’s close) and definitely more so than 10/10 strategy makes creative and accounts look good3.
Find the proud ones.
It’s depressingly common that the shitty attitude some people have towards account people leads to accomplished, senior account people… not wanting to be thought of as account people anymore.
I’m sure a good chunk of this is wanting different challenges as you get more experienced and senior, but one of the more common things I hear from a great, experienced, impactful mid-to-senior account service person is that they ‘really see themselves as more of a strategist’, or ‘generally think they act in more of a creative role’.
I am 100% in favour of people following their passions and not letting a specific role define them, but when you meet someone who genuinely LIKES being in account service, or recognizes it’s a unique and essential skill, you should hold on to them for dear life.
(This, by the way, is the exact same thing as preferring to work with a strategist who actually wants to do strategy, rather than one who really wishes they were a copywriter. It’s not wrong to want to do something else, but generally people who would rather be elsewhere make worse partners, in work and in life.)
A proud account service person is the one who will get into the trenches with you and theorize the best ways to get a client to buy into an insight that doesn’t make them feel good, rather than insist you change it to something easier to sell. They’ll watch 6 hours of rough cuts with you and figure out who needs to make which argument to sell the best version of off-the-wall work to a client that prefers ads with proof points and pretty people. They will let you know at the outset of a project what words or concepts are proverbial land mines.
A proud (and happy) account service person is looking for a way to excel, more than a way out.
As a strategist…
I’m saying all of this from the perspective of a 15-ish year career mostly spent in strategy, so YMMV. But generally I’m convinced accounts is the most valuable and most underrated position in the average agency, and that’s partly driven by my experiences working in accounts and seeing where I fell short. I was a 7/10 account person at best, and I could see how it meant missed opportunities for great work on all sides. On the other hand, the best work I’ve ever done (including the examples referenced above) happened when I worked with an acount service person who was as passionate about their role as I am about mine.
I barely wrote last year, largely because I was focused on figuring out how to both be a good dad and do my job. I can’t guarantee a timeline (this is far from my biggest priority, despite enjoying it) but I am trying to write more this year, so we’ll see what happens.
Yes, this was 100% an attempt to ‘shock’ you into reading the rest of the email. Did it work?
Yes, I will read (and potentially acknowledge) the inevitable hate mail replies / valid arguments against this statement.
In my experience, great client management can sell work that nothing else could, great creative can paper over weak strategy or poor understanding of the client need, and great strategy can convince a client that you are a great strategic partner, but still lives or dies by the work.