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Account Managers: Look for the Ducks

Several years ago, while working on the external agency side, our chief strategy officer said to me one day “You’re like a duck, outwardly gliding effortlessly across the water, while under the surface paddling madly away.” This is probably the best description I’ve heard of a good Account Manager.

Agencies typically assign an Account Manager as the point of contact for creative projects, with good reason. They’re relationship specialists ­– unflappable, patient, flexible, diplomatic – with the best ones possessing a highly adaptable social style, which elicits from the client the coveted “he/she just gets me” that’s music to the agency’s ears.

With the growth of in-house agencies’ volume and tier of work, many are asking, “Do I really need a separate role of account manager? How are they different than a project manager? Do I need both? Can I hire a hybrid?” If you’re working through these questions and wondering whether or not account management is a role that you should add to your team, consider carefully what makes this person different from your other team members.

A skilled Account Manager brings to the table specific key attributes that that can increase the value of your in-house agency’s offer. Let’s look at three qualities that make these creative people unique and essential to your business.

Relationship Builders
First and foremost, Account Managers are relationship builders. They bridge the wants and needs of the clients with the proposed creative strategy through the careful crafting of a creative brief. They are naturally inquisitive, always wanting to know why. They’re curious about their clients, the product they’re selling, the business in general. They are delighted to see the words on a creative brief come to life. They spark ideas, generate excitement, sooth ruffled feathers, defuse challenging situations. They bring all the necessary resources together and communicate relentlessly, not only the “what” but the “why.” And, in that creative presentation, they are the empath – reading the room, noting who is leaning in, whose arms are crossed, how people feel about the work and how can they best manage this situation?

Focus and Fearlessness
Account managers are the firemen of your agency. They rush into the burning building because someone needs to save the baby. They remain calm in the face of “difficult” clients, unrealistic deadlines and the dreaded scope creep. They are experts in saying no, without ever using the word “no”. They steer, they cajole, they persuade incessantly. They are relentless in their desire to find a way to get the work done, and done well, especially when they need to get five days’ work done in three.

They hold their creative teams accountable, but provide them support when needed. Clients want brilliant creative and the account manager wants to make sure that what’s delivered exceeds expectations. All the while, they keep everyone calm and focused, like the duck, appearing to do this effortlessly.

Humility
Account managers know they are not the star of the show, that’s the job of the creative that’s being presented - out front in the sequined dress. They’re happy to let the creative take center stage, all the while beaming from the sidelines and always ready to head backstage to queue up the next act.

They are not as emotionally invested in the creative as those who executed the project and whose hearts and souls are in the concept, so they are able to see the client’s point of view and deliver that feedback diplomatically to the creative team in a way the team can act on. When the client says blue and creative says pink, they can help find just the right shade of periwinkle to please both.

The Creative Partnership
These key attributes make your Account Manager the “go-to” team member, a trusted partner, a confidant and a very valuable resource for your agency. As you build your team, consider the traits these individuals bring versus focusing on the tasks that they do, as that can be misleading or seem redundant with other roles.

In fact, the Account Manager, Project Manager and Creatives are a well-balanced three-legged stool. The soft skills of Account Managers balance perfectly the tenacious discipline of a Project Manager with the fluid iterative mindset of the creative team. Each plays a critical role in the checks and balances dynamic of a creative group, and each is unique in the personality they bring to the team.

If you haven’t yet established an account team or are considering ways to enhance your current group, understanding the value and unique traits good Account Managers can bring to your agency is a critical first step. Like the duck, not only will they make the work appear effortless, they’ll be able to fly and take your entire team up with them.

With gratitude to Bill and Rosanna for your inspiration.


Valerie Fedun

Valerie Fedun has spent her career in agencies of various sizes, supporting both external and in-house teams. Recently she built and led the account management team for TIAA's award-winning in-house agency. At Cella, she brings that expertise to agency operations, seeking more efficient ways to manage process across diverse in-house agency teams. 

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