The Incredible Shrinking Account Exec

The traditional suit is disappearing, but the best are taking on a bigger role

In reviews like Cablevision’s current $100 million Rainbow DBS search, deep-pocketed clients seeking integrated solutions are making the holding companies their first point of contact. Cablevision is following a course set last year by companies like Bank of America and TAP Pharmaceutical Products.

It’s too early to tell if the corporate boardroom will replace the golf course in setting the tone for client relationships. But the perception is growing that account management doesn’t own the client relationship anymore.

The decline in prestige dates back to the recession of over a decade ago. Starting salaries dropped, causing much of the talent that might have been drawn to Madison Avenue to turn to more lucrative careers at management consultancies and client organizations. As the ad industry was cutting back and eliminating training programs during that downturn, clients were making new multidisciplinary demands that required a broadening of skill sets. Then account planners arrived from the U.K. and, along with management consultants, encroached upon account executives’ strategic responsibilities. Finally, the unbundling of media meant that planning and buying for clients moved away from the agencies in general and the account executives in particular.

But many observers believe it was the erosion of account management’s power base—strategy—that dealt the biggest blow, especially when it comes to influence with marketers. Less empowered, account managers now deal with a revolving door of executives in client organizations and have a harder time building relationships at the top echelon. Gone are the good old days in advertising when agency executives had the time and access to “grow up” with clients and build lasting ties.

“With their dedicated link to the customer, account planners built a mystique that you needed a whole class of individuals dedicated to ownership of client strategy,” says former top Saatchi & Saatchi executive Michael Jeary, now president and COO of Della Femina Rothschild Jeary & Partners. “As that gained traction with clients, that undermined the traditional role held by account management.”

In large part, the dumbing down of account management—even if it came from outside the function at first—became a self-fulfilling prophecy when it came to drawing and developing a midlevel generation of suits. At worst, they’ve been relegated to bag handlers, parental suits who present the work of their “wild and crazy” creative departments. And as one agency CEO put it, account execs have been reduced to “traffic cops.”

“Ninety percent of the [industry’s] account management people are glorified project managers, who—by the way—are happy to be project managers,” adds Tony Wright, chief planning and strategy officer at Ogilvy & Mather North America, whose career includes experience in account management. “No one disputes that the running of timetables and budgets is an important thing. But there are two different kinds of [account] people with two different career tracks. You need to separate out the two streams of talent.”

That’s exactly what Geoffrey Roche, a former Chiat/Day creative director, did when he started his Toronto agency, Roche Macaulay & Partners, in 1991. (The agency became Lowe Roche after its 1996 merger with Lowe & Partners’ Toronto operations.) He eliminated the account director job, dividing it into two roles: strategic planners, who work closely on clients’ brands, and project managers, whom Roche now calls business managers, who are responsible for getting the work through the agency on time and on budget.

“The role of business managers is more like that of a traffic cop, and that’s a dumb thing to spend $150,000 [a year] on,” says Roche. “They get the dirty work done at the agency and client level and allow strategic brains to be free to do what they do best.”

One of those brains, Janet McNally, who works on Nestlé and Johnson & Johnson at Lowe Roche, comes out of a more traditional background as an account director but prefers this way of operating. “Nobody can do everything well. This frees you up from mundane details that require skill sets that some people are good at and love,” she says. “[As strategic planners], this allows us a more holistic approach beyond just developing a creative brief. We’re able to get more involved in things like the media component, and we develop a better understanding of our clients’ business.”

While that arrangement has served Roche’s company well, on a more macro level, the industry finds itself with a scarcity of talent capable of running large, complex pieces of business or managing agencies.

But Ogilvy’s Wright, echoing others interviewed for this article, emphasizes that where some people see a crisis, he views it as an opportunity for smart people eager to embrace a changing role. “Because of the difficulties of integration, a really good account person is more important than ever before since there’s a real dearth of them,” he says.

Says Brian Brooks, chief human relations officer at IPG: “It’s not just that they’re smarter or work harder. First, they bring real added value and have real strategic input—some have worked as planners, some have not—and secondly, there is the ability of some individuals in terms of the totality of clients’ business challenges, not just about their advertising needs.”

In the view of many, the evolving role of the account executive is analogous to that of an executive producer. “Management is still the driving principal, but they have to do more things now than in the past, like coordination of all different media and acting like an old-fashioned Hollywood producer who had to produce a hit movie. We’re trying to produce a hit campaign,” underscores Tom Carroll, president of the Americas at TBWA.

Adds Bonnie Lunt of Bonnie Lunt Management in New York: “Think of an account person as a producer, in that they now have to be cognizant of what’s going on with a brand across all disciplines.”

That, and the fact that some clients are hiring holding companies and not individual agencies to handle their accounts (Coca-Cola and Verizon, for instance), has given rise to a new breed of senior account executive: the holding-company über-suit. These executives are conversant in managing across multidisciplinary operating units or running business development from that perspective.

At IPG, Bruce Nelson was named chief marketing officer three years ago. Last October he successfully marshalled multiple IPG shops to successfully defend Bozell’s $170 million consumer and affluent-market Bank of America account in a review almost no one expected IPG to win. While Siboney, Jack Morton, Weber Shandwick, GlobalHue and R/GA helped save the business, Nelson, from his offices at IPG, effectively runs the account.

This month, Kevin Allen, director of corporate development at McCann-Erickson, was named chief growth officer at IPG. He is charged with increasing demand for integrated marketing services among existing clients. “Account management has been an industry constituency that’s been adrift,” he admits. “For people [in our industry] dealing with strategy, they’ve developed new tools, things like brand stewardship. Creative people can make great ads. Media [executives] are reinventing themselves as information architects. Account people aren’t redefining themselves. They should be. It’s about leadership. They should become the growth officer for clients in this most profoundly difficult operating environment.”

For Matt Seiler, evp, chief insight and integration officer at Omnicom, proximity to his client has changed his view of working in account management. Seiler, former managing director at Wieden + Kennedy in New York, was tapped two years ago to integrate all of PepsiCo’s businesses across holding company units. Working out of PepsiCo’s headquarters, he says he sometimes feels like “an accidental client.”

“This vantage point is so great,” he says. “Agency people tend to think what’s paramount in their lives is paramount in their client’s lives. Things like promotions, PR, event marketing are incredibly important to clients; so are things like bigger business issues—more than you think when you’re at an agency.

“If you’re [an account person] at an ad agency, particularly one that’s lost an account’s media planning and buying, you’re in an uncomfortable situation,” he says. “You can be relegated to being a bag carrier if you don’t think about your client’s business differently.”

Separate media planning and buying operations have different account management structures and ways of working with the agencies they share clients with. Within agencies, the ascendancy of media in client priorities has also boosted the influence of media directors. “With the formation of media specialists, the traditional role of the media director has evolved into that of a communications director with much greater focus on client service,” observes Laura Desmond, CEO of MediaVest.

In cases like Coca-Cola and Kraft, where MediaVest works directly with the client, there is little need for agency account executives to play a role. According to Desmond: “Among clients, there’s the realization that media is about communications planning. Contact is as important as content. Media is more closely aligned with determining consumer effectiveness and consumer ROI. As media specialists become a bigger reality in the business, it renders account management at an agency to an uncertain place. In many instances, we directly interact with our clients.”

McCann-Erickson has shifted account people over to the media buying unit at Universal McCann. “If anything, the unbundling of media has created opportunities for account executives,” says Mark Stewart, chief strategic officer at Universal McCann. “Account service is alive and well, even though it may not be called that [at Universal McCann]. It still drives the relationship and helps coordinate with the variety of entities we do business with.”

Indeed, the word service—with its overtones of servant—in the job description of account execs conjures images of long lunches and business meetings at the 19th hole. To be relevant in the fast-changing world of their marketers, agency account executives need to assume a more aggressive attitude toward their clients’ business problems. If the last decade has diminished the stature of the account executive role, the coming years need to bring a new era of self-empowerment.

Account managers aren’t becoming obsolete, “but they need to change or die. They need to become part communications manager and part entrepreneur, where you drive a client’s business as if it is your own,” says Jeff DeJoseph, chief strategic officer at Doremus.

Adds Omnicom’s Matt Seiler: “You can’t just be as smart as your client about their business, you have to be smarter.”