What makes great account people great?
Ishould have seen it coming. My agency did excellent work for this client--work fueled by invention, guided by insight, crafted with care and precision. Still, when the client called me into her office to fire us, I should not have been surprised.
Yes, we did great work. We also missed deadlines, exceeded budgets and avoided input as if it were a disease that would infect the advertising. Most important, we didn't listen and didn't hear the client's growing frustration.
The client told me that as much as she liked and respected our work, she could not withstand the pain of dealing with us. "It's just too hard," she said. "If I have to chose, I'd rather have an agency a little less talented but a lot more committed to getting the mechanics right."
As she walked me to the elevator, she stopped and said, "Good work, bad process." By "process," I knew she meant not just budgets and schedules, but the whole relationship that governed, and ultimately undermined, the account.
That was a long time ago. But every time I read about an agency being dismissed by a client, in spite of terrific work, I am reminded of "Good work, bad process." Or to put it more broadly, "Good work, bad relationship."
I learned the hard way that great work is not enough to keep a client from walking. Since then, I've come to understand that great work and great relationships are not mutually exclusive. In fact, more often than not, great work emerges from a great relationship, not the other way around.
If I'm right, then agencies need more people in all disciplines and departments as committed to building the client relationship as they are to delivering great work. They especially need account people with extraordinary intellect, integrity, resourcefulness, diplomacy and presence to lead their accounts.
Great account people have always been a rare commodity. Today, agencies must compete with the lure of Wall Street and Silicon Alley, making it even harder to find and retain potential stars. While agencies need to redouble their efforts to recruit new account-management talent to the business, they also need to focus on making the account people they have more effective.
Agencies must understand what makes a great account person great, and use what they learn to train, mentor, motivate and compensate the people with the greatest potential. Creative directors must regularly acknowledge the critical role account people play in making the work. Senior management must lead the transformation from a culture of disdain to a culture of respect for account management. And account people must be worthy of that respect by becoming better communicators, idea generators, business strategists, problem solvers and diplomats.
The agencies that do these things will find it easier to attract account-management talent capable of nurturing client relationships that foster great work. The agencies that don't will want to focus on new business--because they're going to need to replace the client that just left. K