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Rebuilding The Bridge

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This summer witnessed the most new-business activity ever. Stability in client-agency relationships? Many clients think nothing of going through an agency every two or three years.

Some changes are justified, of course. Clients live and die in 90-day lifespans, from one financial reporting period to the next. With short-term results being an important, often critical performance metric, CEOs and CMOs are under tremendous pressure—the average CEO lasts less than five years in the job, the average CMO a mere 22 months. This kind of pressure does not leave an agency with an opportunity to recoup from a slow quarter or two, even if a weak quarterly performance is not the agency's fault alone. Throwing the agency under the bus along the way may be cynical, but at times it's a fact of life.

Agencies, however, are often willing participants in their own executions by ignoring the cardinal rule of client-agency relations:

You win new business with creative. You keep the business with account management.

The last couple of decades have not been kind to the ranks of account management. Agencies found themselves on the losing end in the fight for top-drawer talent, unable to match the financial incentives that business consultancies and investment bankers offered MBAs.

At the same time, clients started to reduce compensation, and many agencies responded by cutting back on training programs at the time when they were needed most. And as the ranks of agencies were contracting, many account managers were left without an essential tool for their development: senior-level mentors. And many of those who had the experience and the interest simply did not have the time to mentor.

But perhaps the most significant development that pre-empted account managers of their relevancy and significance was the emergence of account planning as an influential part of the agency team. The relationship between account management and account planning became a zero-sum game, with account planners pre-empting account managers in the critical areas of consumer knowledge and creative strategy development.

It was a confluence of these events that led to the perception that account people play a generic and commodity-like role in their clients' businesses. And not surprisingly, by emasculating that discipline, the nature of the entire client-agency relationship deteriorated.

What used to be a marketing partnership is now, in too many cases, a relationship in which agencies are treated as vendors (which may explain the emergence of procurement departments, of course—but that's another story).

When I got my MBA from Columbia and went to work at Bates as an assistant account executive, my first client was Warner Lambert. One of my first jobs was to help my boss draft the marketing plan for Trident chewing gum. Yes, the agency was drafting the marketing plan. Same was true later on when I was a senior account person on Procter & Gamble accounts—as an account person, you were expected to provide marketing leadership, be proactive and "know" the brand as well as the brand manager did.

For many clients, however, the agency, and especially the account executive, is no longer an equal partner.

Yet this is the perfect time for account managers to assert themselves again. Leadership—being proactive, passionate and visionary—is needed now more than ever. Clients are challenged as never before and seek a helping hand as never before.

Account management has to reclaim a meaningful role by understanding the client's agenda and responding to it. It can do so by helping the agency reclaim a role as a marketing partner, not just a creative vendor, that can be relied on to meet such challenges as developing smart promotion ideas to product innovation to channel extension.

In a word, account management can become the bridge for taking the agency back to the future, from creative vendor to marketing partner.

This is a historic opportunity for brand managers and account managers to reconcile. Clients went through an even more dramatic restructuring than agencies during the last decade. That thinned the ranks of marketing within corporations. Brand managers are seeking outside help, and that can be the foundation for renewed intimate involvement by account managers in their clients' businesses.

It is an opportunity for renewed stability that ad agencies might ignore at their peril.