Why Great Account Management Is Like Pornography

John Newall, president of McKinney

The following op-ed was submitted by John Newall, president of McKinney. 

There is perhaps no topic in advertising that has been more passive-aggressively debated than account management and the value, or scorn, it creates.

Some agencies have built their business models with the claim they don’t have it. Every four years, it seems, the trades proclaim the death of the role is imminent. In turn, every eight years or so we see some story about an account person who was pivotal in a big new business win or an incumbent “suit” who has been asked to sit on the client side of the table while they shop the account around. So why is it that account folk seem unnecessarily necessary?

Because beyond these cyclical headlines, I see more and more RFPs demanding to know who will be leading the business. When you get to that point, account people remain one of the most defensible “heads” in staffing plans. And I know for a fact that great account management can be critical in winning new business.

In my view, it’s undeniable that an assemblage of strong account people provides a competitive advantage for any agency. And that raises another question: What makes a good account person? I believe the answer is something akin to the Supreme Court’s definition of porn: I know a good one when I see one.

While the Supreme Court’s definition might be good enough for pornography, we clearly need to do better for ourselves. How can we identify, grow and reward great account managers if we don’t know how to define what makes them great? After all, account management is more than a department, it’s a cumulative set of skills. Here’s my take on what distinguishes great account people from adequate ones:

  1. Leaders AND Managers Some agencies have reinforced the distinction between leadership and management by renaming it. While we haven’t done this at my agency, I do believe how you label something makes a difference, because people will tend to live into the label you give them — or one they give themselves. To me, this is not an either/or conversation. Stephen Covey said, “You manage things and lead people.” There’s never a time in an account management career when you get to stop managing things, the big question is how well do you lead people?
  2. Possibility Creators You are not a leader if you can’t move people to follow you. You must have a stated agenda from which you intend to lead, intentionally. If you are an account person, your “followers” include both clients and agency folk. The first step in attaining followers is to create a new vision of what’s possible that compels people — normally, the brand is at the center of this. This new vision must feel better than the sometimes equally powerful pull of the status quo. You must then devise a plan, and lead a conversation, that creates daily accessibility to this new vision so new muscle memory is developed.
  3. Connectors The ability to connect with and mobilize people is essential if you are truly great. This is not an event — it’s not a speech, a town hall or department meeting. It’s a continuous investment to ensure the vision you have established constantly matches with an individual’s version of what they are looking to create for themselves. And it’s often the case that you are helping them create that better future version of themselves.
  4. Advocates Advocacy is what an old colleague of mine would call a “fat” word — its meaning is expansive and can be broadly utilized. My meaning is drawn more from the legal realm. You must advocate for your clients and their success, you must advocate for your agency and the power of their ideas, you must advocate for superior individual contribution to the greater good. More importantly, you must constantly advocate for your vision of what’s possible, and its attendant plan, by making an airtight case for it. Long after the meeting that made people feel good, or even ridiculously excited, what will be left is a rational argument for the case you made. So while Maya Angelou is correct, people will not forget how you made them feel, when you are not there to make them feel that way, the case you made for your vision will keep them centered and focused.
  5. Appreciators Another “fat-ish” word. And one of my favorites, with two distinct but similar meanings: “to recognize the full value of” and “to increase the value of.” Great account people do both. They appreciate the value of all the resources around them, especially the people. Then, they intentionally set about increasing that value by deploying those resources.

While I can certainly appreciate the Supreme Court’s definition of porn, I would advocate for the notion that it’s time to bring a deeper, more nuanced definition to what makes truly great account management. Things that are defined tend to have more value and, without question, are much easier to replicate. The more we can replicate our practice at the highest level, the fewer reports will be written of our greatly exaggerated deaths.