One of the most demanding positions in advertising requires a blend of attention to detail, authority, business flair, people skills, flexibility and – yes – a love of creativity.
Wining and dining, champagne, swanky business trips. That’s how Mad Men portrayed the daily life of account people. But what does it really mean to be the interface between the agency and the client, making sure everyone’s needs are met? And how do you get good at it?
What does an account director/account manager do today and has the role evolved much over the years?
Champagne may still figure in, but it’s a demanding position. Jean-Baptiste Destabeau at Sid Lee Paris explains that “the account director has a dual role. His chief responsibility is to be the link between the agency and senior clients…He’s there to put in place a vision on the different accounts in his portfolio, to ensure everything goes well on the different projects, and to develop clients. Within the agency, the account director works with a team of account managers and sets the rhythm. He’s in charge of managing projects and ensuring deadlines and budgets are respected. For that, he solicits agency resources (planners, creatives, producers) and checks in with operational teams on a daily basis until a project is delivered. An orchestra conductor, if you will.”
Chioma Aduba, Executive Account Director at McCann NY agrees. “I think the typical answer you’ll hear is that an account director manages the client, but the truth is, the account person manages the business. I think any good account director is really trying to drive their business forward through the most creative vessel possible. They chart the vision and help both the agency and client arc in that direction.”
The scope of the role can vary as well. Amy Walloch, Account Director at Leo Burnett; explains: “Understanding that many clients desire to do more with less, the account role has evolved to cover anything from helping with creative brainstorms to writing strategic briefs. While these may not reflect how the roles were years ago, I think it has helped to make account team members more well-rounded.”
Milo van der Meij, Business Director at DDB Unlimited Amsterdam, has also noted a few changes in the role over the years. “What remains the same is the goal to help create the optimal creative business solution for your client in order to give them the thing they require: more grip on performance. What has changed is the toolbox you need to be able to advise on, and know how to use. Not only within advertising but also on digital, social media, product development,
So what sort of qualifications and experience do you need today?
“There isn’t really any ideal path to becoming an account manager or director,” says Jean-Baptiste. “You’d think you’d need to graduate from an ad school, but that’s not really the case. That’s the beauty of this career…What matters most is not where you come from, but your attitude and qualities. It’s super interesting to work with people from different backgrounds: they bring fresh ideas and give new perspectives.”
Chioma agrees that education isn’t everything. “Most account managers have a bachelor’s degree. There are of course few who don’t and few who have more. I think the most important qualification is strong curiosity and good hearing; there’s a lot of listening involved.”
Amy of Leo Burnett relies on agility. “Due to the fact that we wear so many hats, the ability to multi-task, pivot and handle tough conversations are the top three qualifications you need to be successful.”
But she adds that experience is key. “I have found that experience at a range of agencies of all different sizes has helped to diversify my skills and knowledge, because every agency is run so differently.”
What key skills are required?
As you can imagine, for a role that requires so much coordination, organization is key. Chioma considers it a basic skill, along with problem solving, business acumen and strong people skills. Amy adds leadership, management, maintaining a positive attitude, clear communication and the ability to pivot.
Jean-Baptiste of Sid Lee Paris agrees, and stresses that it’s important to be “curious and know how to adapt, as well as have good relationship skills, which will help with clients and internal teams. And, even if account men/women aren’t creatives per se, it’s always good to have a certain sensibility for it.”
But, like the role itself, required skills are evolving. Milo of DDB unlimited Amsterdam counts digital and data skills in the mix these days. “This is where your added value as a business partner comes from.”
Does the historic tension between the creative department and the “suits” still exist? Or was it always a myth?
Stuffed shirts versus creative egos – that’s what’s often portrayed on TV. But if that battle ever existed, most agree it’s not a part of the industry today.
Amy of Leo Burnett explains that “over time, as more new people have joined the creative ranks, the approach has changed to a more collaborative one. I have found in my career that my creative counterparts on the whole appreciate objective input and guidance from the account and strategic teams with the common goal in mind of making the work better.”
Jean-Baptiste acknowledges there may be a little tension sometimes. “But I don’t think it’s unhealthy. We work together to think up, sell and produce beautiful creative work, which we can all be proud of. Account managers and directors listen to creatives but creatives also listen to account teams because they know the client and, if necessary, can adjust ideas to adhere to the brief and serve the client’s needs.”
Milo agrees that teamwork is valuable. “The best ideas and solutions can originate where there is no hierarchy or siloes. Co-operation is key.”
Incidentally, he points out that he hardly ever wears a suit anymore.
If you’re new to the role, what are the ways of becoming more effective?
Becoming a member of the team is just the beginning. If you want to be effective, Chioma says you’ll need to work hard and “understand the goals and the vision, and figure out how, in your own way, you can push the business towards that.”
But not everything is intuitive and there will be some things you can only pick up along the way. Milo at DDB encourages people to be open and ask questions. “Allow yourself the time to experience, and the freedom to make mistakes. That way you will learn.”