What to Expect from Your Account Executives
By Mike Carlton
My father was an advertising agency account executive. He loved his work. And was quite good at it.
His career spanned from the late 1920s to the mid 1960s. His clients covered a broad spectrum. Most of his work was on major consumer brands. But he also handled some highly technical b-to-b clients as well.
Dad was a superb writer. He was an ardent student of the language. And he had the magical ability to capture the essence of any proposition with a few memorable words. That was important since almost his entire career was during the copy-contact era. Before creative became a separate agency function.
He was classically educated. Lots of history, composition, literature, philosophy and the like. And his avocation was theater. He keenly understood that good advertising must touch the emotions. And that theatrical drama plays an important role in effective communications. For the rest of his life, Dad and my Mother continued to be very active in our community’s amateur theater.
In those days agencies, even the ones handling big brands, were pretty small. Advertising media was largely confined to print – newspapers and magazines.
While radio existed, commercials were generally limited to announcers reading agency produced scripts, with maybe a group singing a jingle. And early TV advertising was not much more than radio with pictures.
The account executive wore many hats. He - and it was almost always a he –helped win the business, managed the relationship with the client, did the market research, planned the strategy, sold the concepts, wrote the copy, bought the media and then administered the billing.
About the only thing the AE didn’t do were the visuals. They were designed and produced by the agency art department following the AE’s creative lead.
Being an AE was an important position. Quite rewarding. And lots of fun, too.
It’s Sure Different Now
Today, many AEs have become diminished generalists in a growing field of specialists. They are now surrounded in the agency by experts in research, planning, creative, media, interactive, PR, emarketing, social media, etc.
On top of this, most AEs have received little training. Almost all formal training programs have been discontinued. And worse yet, many experienced agency account people are so busy they don’t have time to mentor the newbes.
Unsure of how best to contribute in this confusing environment, many AEs have retreated into the tactical area of micro-managing client jobs as they move through the agency. Or, have focused more tightly on personalized client relationship building.
But unfortunately, this relationship building is often with junior client people who have little strategic influence within the client organization. Others, old enough to remember, wistfully continue questing for the “good old days.”
It almost seems as if a lot of AEs are deliberately marginalizing themselves.
And definitely not delivering the value that agency leadership should expect!
So, Just What Should You Expect From Your AEs?
There is no question that the role of the AE is in flux. And AEs flying by the seat of their pants are not likely to advance the situation much. What made a good AE in the past is not what will make for a good AE in the 21st Century.
And that role is certainly a lot more than the glorified schlep that we have let many of them become. They can do so much more than that. And we should expect that. But that will only come about with conscious effort by agency leaders.
The place to start is by profiling what your ideal 21st Century AE should be like.
To define the attributes of the ideal AE let’s look at two distinct dimensions. The first dimension is the set of basic human characteristics that are part of their DNA. The second dimension is made up of the specific work responsibilities they must fulfill as AEs.
Basic Human Characteristics
These are kind of like the raw materials a 21st Century AE should be expected to bring to the table. These should come from deep inside them. From their backgrounds in education and general life experiences. While these characteristics can be enhanced within the agency it is not the agency’s responsibility to teach them. Incoming AEs either have them, or they don’t.
As an aside, almost anyone in the agency business would benefit from most of these basic human characteristics.
These characteristics can form something of a check list when considering prospective AEs. Basic things to look for when judging their AE potential:
Very bright, and enjoy thinking deeply.
An unrelenting natural desire to understand things around them and how they work. And why people behave as they do.
An affinity for people that is far greater than an attachment to things.
4. Life as a Sport
A sense of sport that life is something of a game. Competition is fun and to be sought out rather than avoided.
Sometimes you win. And sometimes you get knocked on your butt. But the resilient get right back up again every time.
Recognizing that change is the only constant and quickly accepting change and adapting to it.
Being strongly empathetic so as to effectively bridge the gaps between differing positions and personalities.
The desire, spirit and ability to create economic value where none existed before.
9. Sense of Humor
Able to embrace the inherent humor of life and to laugh and enjoy it.
10. Positive Mental Attitude
Constantly recognize that the glass is half full, not half empty.
A trust in gut feelings and the courage to act upon them.
12. Self Assurance
A balanced belief in personal worthiness that is neither cocky nor timid.
Seeking out and appreciating the context in which all things exist.
A good juggler who avoids the tedium of singular repetition.
While it is unlikely that any one person will be strong in all of these basic human characteristics, outstanding AEs usually exhibit most of them. So folks that don’t measure up well on this list would probably be more successful, and happier too, in some other line of work.
The second part of this discussion revolves around the specific on-the-job responsibilities of the 21st Century AE. We see seven areas in which a successful AE must excel:
1. A Business Mindset
The AE is the ongoing business connector between the client and the agency. The AE must make sure that the relationship delivers the business outcomes in the marketplace desired by the client and simultaneously delivers satisfactory business results for the agency. A tough balancing act. And, no small task.
The objective is client market success. Not just client satisfaction.
This will take a keen business sense. With the ongoing ability and judgment to make sure that a win-win business relationship is not only created but maintained in the daily stress of getting the work done.
The 21st Century AE will not only understand and internalize this business necessity, but will enjoy the sport of building and maintaining a deep, strong and mutually satisfactory business relationship with everyone, both on the client side and within the agency.
2. A Superb Diagnostician
Too many agency-client relationships fail because the agency has not adequately diagnosed the client’s business needs. Client organizations are increasingly complex. Their needs are harder to read. Taking things at face value is dangerous.
What they say, and what they feel may be quite different. And client wants may not necessarily equate with client needs.
In this environment, really penetrating the psyche of the client is increasingly important. It must be done more scientifically and programmatically. Superficiality will not suffice.
The 21st Century AE should be primarily responsible for thoroughly and systematically understanding the client from the inside, so that the course the agency takes is completely congruent with the client’s real needs. If this diagnosis is right, the agency’s chance of success is dramatically improved.
3. Marketing Expertise
Unfortunately, too many of today’s AEs only speak advertising’s language. They are not skilled in the nuances of marketing that are required to really understand what is going on in the minds of the client’s marketing people. What is happening within the client’s channels of distribution? What alternative pricing models might be appropriate? What marketing challenges the client may be blindsided by?
Internalization of the client’s marketing needs can assure that the solutions the agency provides are more holistically on-target. Thus, the 21st Century AE needs much better knowledge in the discipline of marketing and to become more highly skilled in integrating that into the agency’s thinking.
4. Empathy with the Client’s Customers
Truly effective communications requires personal empathy. And the more the agency people are able to view the world as the client’s customers do the better.
And, no one is in a better position to take the agency lead in understanding the client’s customer’s thinking patterns than the AE.
This level of understanding goes way beyond participating in things like focus groups. It goes way beyond information gathered in client briefings. It requires that AEs go out of their way to regularly “walk in the shoes” of the client’s customers. It requires great sensitivity to know them with an intimacy exceeding that of the client or anyone else in the agency.
And, remember that thinking like the client’s customer is quite different from thinking like the client.
With this kind of knowledge, the AE is positioned to help assure that the agency’s work is not only relevant but powerful with these customers.
5. A Skillful Salesperson
Salesmanship is not a dirty word. In fact, it is a noble endeavor. Salesmen and saleswomen serve humanity well.
Salesmanship is vitally essential in helping clients grasp fragile, embryonic concepts. Yet few of today’s AEs have ever had professional sales training or experience. Much of agency conceptual selling is done by winging it.
That’s a real shame. Because, if appropriately prepared by a sales skilled AE, the client can more quickly recognize and accept the benefits of the agency’s proposal.
6. Grasp the Opportunities of Non-Traditional Media
Many agency AEs are very comfortable with TV and print. But, non-traditional media (which is not just the web but a whole lot more) can be a strange new world for them. Often, they either avoid it or defer to specialists within the agency or to outside experts. This is a big mistake. And, a potentially big AE retreat.
The 21st Century AEs must be able to work holistically in the client’s behalf. Thus, they must have a clear understanding of how to use new marketing communications techniques as part of the client’s overall activities. And most importantly, how to create the right mix of the various tools available.
This does not mean that they need to be PR practitioners, gorilla promotion gurus, social media mavens, product placement experts or web tech-heads. But, the effective AE must have dramatically more knowledge and skill in the application of non-traditional media, and how it fits within the client’s big picture.
7. Think Like a Producer
Embracing this concept is perhaps most important.
In a theatrical sense, there is a big difference between being a “star” and a “producer.” The star is on stage. The producer makes the show happen. 21st Century AEs must see themselves primarily as producers rather than stars.
That’s a subtle but important shift in thinking. The AE is essentially the producer of the agency’s success with the client, and ultimately the client’s success with its customers. They are responsible for orchestrating the application of the various specialized skills and talents the agency applies to meeting the client’s needs.
This is a very high level responsibility. And, it takes a careful adjustment in psychological mindset. Its effectiveness and efficiency requires skilful use of the resources available. Not too much, and not too little. Like a master chef at work, the AE’s production must be just right.
The 21st Century AE will be very comfortable letting others be the stars. They will take pride in being known as consistently masterful producers, without whom the stars would not shine.
You’ll note that in the above there is no mention of project management. The sad truth is that today many AEs spend half or more of their time on client project management. This is a waste of their valuable strategic talents.
As an increasing number of agencies are discovering there are better, more cost effective ways to manage client projects. This is often done by expanding and renaming (as project management) the agency’s traffic function. It becomes sort of traffic on steroids.
People fulfilling this new role of project management have direct client contact on projects, increased authority within the agency, and enhanced etools with which to move and communicate client work.
Their focus is tactical. Thus freeing the AE for the more strategic activities. This is not only effective. It is also very efficient.
Also missing is any mention of virgin new business development.
AEs should be charged with developing increasing income from their clients, but this is different from virgin new business. They also can, and should, participate in new business cultivation and pitch development.
They should also network extensively within the advertising/marketing community. But it is unrealistic to expect the typical AE to be an independent rainmaker. That is a responsibility of agency leadership that is generally not delegable.
Make no mistake; populating an agency with the kind of AEs described here is not the sole responsibility of the individual AEs. They can’t do it all on their own. Nor is it the sole responsibility of agency leadership. Each must play a role.
The individual must have the necessary basic human characteristics. All the training and mentoring in the world will not overcome missing raw material. Potential AE candidates need to be screened carefully so as not to put anyone in a position where performance will likely be mediocre.
But once a candidate with the necessary basic human characteristics is identified, the responsibility shifts to agency leadership. Even the best people cannot excel if placed on auto-pilot. The agency must set up and maintain specific responsibilities and performance expectations. And then train and mentor the individual so the desired outcomes are measured and achieved.
Without careful attention to these dual responsibilities many AEs may continue to underdeliver for the agency and exist in the perpetual dull gray world of a less than rewarding or enjoyable career.
A Worthy Life
For my Dad, being an advertising agency AE was much more than a job. It was a high calling. He felt that through his work the standard of living and quality of life for countless consumers was improved. And that his clients achieved economic benefits as a result. While his agency prospered.
And along the way he was well rewarded and had a whole lot of fun. His was a worthy life.
And the 21st Century AE can get the same kind of psychic and financial rewards. A life that contributes to the advancement of humankind, the success of clients and the agency all while being very enjoyable.
Not a bad way to go for the individual AEs and their agencies.