What to do about embattled agency account managers?

Much debate (in some quarters anyway) about agency account managers – are they an endangered species in whatever adland is emerging from the crisis? Does anyone (apart from them of course) care?

Suits, as they used to be known, have never been the most popular. Creatives, mostly, abhor them although some realise that they play a vital role in selling their wonderful work. Which they’re ill-equipped or unwilling to do themselves.

Many agencies have started in life saying they won’t have any. Saatchi & Saatchi in its very earliest days although some might have asked what exactly Maurice was doing there. WCRS (Wight Collins Rutherford Scott) was another, although Scott, who ended up running the show, was a suit from Ogilvy.

Fetchers, carriers, bag men (not bag ladies note – mostly), they gradually created a role which encompassed the giddy spectrum from selling work, ordering the coffee and piloting clients through the summer season. Need a ticket for Wimbledon, Mike or Graham can fix it. (This latter skill is not so useful now, of course.)

Now the multitude of agency managers are suits, especially at the holding companies although not usually the CEO (revealing in itself.)

An alternative title for them might be cockroaches (no, don’t leave now.) Here’s industry analyst Brian Wieser telling Bloomberg a couple of years ago that holding companies (often likened to dinosaurs) might instead be likened to these unlikable roaches: despised and trodden upon, they somehow survive against all the odds – unlike dinosaurs.

This was before Wieser joined WPP’s GroupM of course.

But he’s right and advertising, like other service businesses needs facilitators. And these cockroaches have changed over the years. The 80s and 90s saw the emergence of what we might call the agency actor manager, most notably Frank Lowe who, first at CDP then his Lowe Howard-Spink championed creative inside and outside the agency – and, crucially, had the ear of the top execs at the likes of Tesco and Heineken. There were others (not quite so actorly) including Nigel Bogle at BBH and Jay Chiat at TBWA/Chiat/Day. James Murphy, now at New Commercial Arts, is another.

Unfortunately there have been many others who tried the same trick and fell flat. If you don’t get creative, you look like a poseur.

The real criticism of suits – account management in general perhaps – is that they’ve lost the ear of the very top clients, the CEOs of the world’s big companies.

Now there are CMOs in the middle and, from a creative agency perspective, media agencies. Plus, of course, serried ranks of consultants. In a data-mad world an account manager needs to be able at least to talk a good game alongside the supposed management wizards. But, often, they don’t get a hearing at all.

Here’s that doyen of the trade, Mad Men’s Roger Sterling on a big RFP.

Cynical maybe, but different to the consultants. How you teach this, I have no idea.

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