Pete Brown of Zambezi: a (premature) requiem for the embattled account manager

Glad-handers, suitcase carriers, number dialers, yes men, punching bags, order takers, middle men. Frankly, account people don’t always have the best reputation. And in some cases, it’s probably deserved. The fate of the account manager has been debated far and wide, some people think account management should be killed altogether and others think the discipline is more important than ever.

As with most such arguments, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. What I do know is account management has a perception problem. While I’m usually the last person to argue semantics, it’s time for account people to redefine their narrative. It’s time for them to clarify their role as business leaders and harness creativity to drive capitalism. It’s time for them to boldly recognize themselves as Creative Capitalists.

I think the biggest issue facing account people is that we’re generalists living in a specialist world. Back in the day, account people had a lot more control. Just think back to the Mad Men era, there wasn’t account planning or project management or data and analytics. With each new specialty that’s emerged account management has been marginalized bit by bit over the years. As the consultants in office space said, “What would you say you do around here?” And while one could argue you need a generalist to manage all the specialists, I think a better use of energy would be to focus on where account people can add value.

So where can account managers add value? What is their specialty? I would argue that even with all of the changes to our industry over the years, the one thing that hasn’t changed is someone still needs to be responsible for the business. Specifically, someone to grow the client’s business and grow the agency’s business. Before you call me a “suit” hear me out. Often lost in all the offsites, ethnographies and searches for the perfect director is the question: why are we doing this in the first place? Having clarity around the client’s business and someone that can architect and direct the process accordingly leads to better briefs and better work. No small task. That’s why I think the term account manager falls woefully short.

Account people need a job title that’s more befitting of their role, something more aspirational. Something like a creative capitalist. A creative capitalist is able to quickly diagnose a situation and create a plan to capitalize on an opportunity or solve a business problem.They’re natural born leaders who can rally creative people around that mission. They’re multi-talented multi-taskers who are able to do a lot of things exceptionally well. They have an entrepreneurial mindset that allows them to impact both the client and agency’s business. Less Mad Men’s Pete Campbell (below) and more Elon Musk.

So what are the traits of a successful creative capitalist?

Curious – First and foremost. Creative capitalists have an analyst level understanding of their client’s business. They know the competitive set like the back of their hand. They read and route relevant articles. They listen. They visit stores. They set calendar reminders to listen to earnings calls. They do ride-alongs and conduct impromptu focus groups. They demonstrate a sincere passion for their client’s business.

Clarity – Rather than passively accepting a client brief, they use their expertise in their client’s business to go problem hunting. A good creative capitalist is always asking “Why?” As Socrates said, “It is almost impossible to educate someone with an answer until he or she is invested in asking a question.” They work collaboratively with their clients to clearly define the business problem and the role communications can play in solving that issue. They get alignment across agency and client teams on what success looks like and create a plan to measure. If strategy is responsible for the brief, creative capitalists should be responsible for defining the mission. Having a clear mission engages the team, provides clear filters for strategy and creative development and ultimately leads to a much more efficient campaign development process and better work.

Entrepreneurial – Creative capitalists need to think like entrepreneurs. Once the mission is defined, they make a plan. If it were my money, what would I do? What can the client afford? What resources are needed to get the job done right? Hint: maybe the solution isn’t always a writer and art director.

Executors – They execute that plan flawlessly. It’s not enough to set a mission and move on. Creative capitalists need to make sure the strategy and the creative address the KPIs. They need to sweat the details and be quality control for the agency. Ultimately, the account person is responsible for the agency’s product. The buck stops with them.

Effective – Creative capitalists measure and merchandise. They impact their client’s business. They embrace the recap and show results. Being able to evidence effectiveness makes the work more meaningful and less disposable, makes the agency look good, makes your clients look good and makes everyone money.

It’s time for account people to rise up and take some pride in their craft. Their role is critical and it’s time they get some credit. After all, I’d rather be a creative capitalist than a paper pusher. How about you?

Pete Brown is managing director of independent creative agency Zambezi.

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One comment

  1. Absolutely on point! they are the Executive Producers, the CPA’s, agency/client business counselors and advisers and the problem solver everyone runs to. Amen to you Pete

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