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The Account Executive of the Future
By Mike Carlton

Larger Than Life

The 1940’s movie The Hucksters is a classic. If you haven’t seen it, be sure to catch it next time it is on an old movie channel.

In it, Clark Gable plays an advertising agency account executive. He’s magnificent. The quintessential AE. He does the planning, writes the copy, directs the visuals, plans the media, manages the client relationship, and everything else, too. He does it all.

But, in those days, that was not unusual. Then, an AE could be larger than life. If the client was successful, he was the hero. If not, he was gone. And, he was almost always a “he.”

A Lot Has Changed

It is a lot different today. The once grand AE is now searching for a meaningful role.

How did we get to where we are now, and what are the opportunities for the future? To get perspective, let’s take a brief look back, and then consider what exciting opportunities are ahead.

Slow Erosion

The changing role of account service didn’t happen overnight. Responsibilities eroded bit-by-bit. Never so much at one time as to be overwhelming, but taken in total, a very dramatic change.

The AE of Clark Gable’s day most likely functioned as “copy-contact.” With the subsequent emergence of strong creative departments, creative duties migrated away from the AE. No big deal. He, and the few women who had started joining the ranks, could focus on their many other responsibilities.

Then, as TV grew in importance, media planning and buying became more complicated, and more sophisticated. Thus, the emergence of this strong separate function staffed by media specialists. Another AE role shifted away.

As we moved into the ‘70s and ‘80s planning as a separate discipline became the rage. The planning that the AE had previously done intuitively now became scientific, and separate teams of specialists popped up to take over this responsibility.

During the same period, AEs who had been responsible for sales promotion, public relations and direct marketing found those functions migrating to specialists either within separate departments of their own agencies, or to other outside providers.

Not to mention the explosive growth of the web in the ’90s and the introduction of web and e commerce specialists.

The AE At The Millennium

By the end of the century, the AE had become a diminished generalist in a growing field of specialists.

Unsure of how best to contribute, many AEs retreated into the tactical area of micro-managing client jobs as they moved through the agency. Or, focused more tightly on personalized client relationship building. But frequently, this relationship building was with junior client people who had little strategic influence within the client organization.

Others, old enough to remember, wistfully quested for the “good old days.” It almost seemed as if a lot of AEs were deliberately marginalizing themselves.

Not a pretty picture.

On top of this four major developments are underway today that will further complicate the AE’s role.

1. The Changing Consumer
The most important of these changes is the increasing control the consumer is taking over communications he receives from the marketer. For commercial messages to resonate with the consumer they must first be invited in and then be relevant to the consumer’s individual interests.

We have entered the age of one-to-one dialogic marketing communications. If the mass market is not yet dead, it is well on its way. In this environment, just sending the message is not enough. Assuring invitation and message relevance is an additional new challenge.

2. Non Traditional Media
Consumers (as well as b-to-b audiences) are increasingly receiving commercial messages in new and unorthodox ways. Media consumption patterns are changing rapidly. Traditional media is in decline.

While it is a major force in new media, the Internet is just part of the change. Technology and social media are driving a panoply of new ways to connect with consumers. So is just plain creative innovation.

Hardly a day goes by without the emergence of some new technique for engaging with consumers commercially.

3. Client Procurement Processes
The increasing involvement of client procurement people raises the economic stakes for agencies. Sophistication in business relationships that focus on value – not just cost – will place an additional challenge on the AE.

While negotiating the agency/client business agreement will most likely remain the province of senior agency and client management, making sure that agreement works for both the agency and the client will require continuing day-to-day effort.

4. Extranet Systems
Web based systems that permit instant collaboration between client, agency, media and suppliers are just beginning to probe their full potential. Ultimately, they can bring all the players working on client jobs closer together in a fast and incredibly efficient way.

Thus, as extranet systems become more developed, and more widely adopted, the ways in which information about the work the agency is doing for the client is shared and managed will change dramatically.

So, What Is An AE To Do?

First, get over the past. Acknowledge that there will never again be a Clark Gable type AE. That model may have been right for its time, but not for the 21st century. That doesn’t mean that the AE’s role should continue shrinking. Not by a long shot.

But, it does need some serious reinventing.

We believe that a rebirth of the AE role is underway. But, it is quite different. Here’s what we see the AE of the future looking like:

1. He will have 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 marketplace business outcomes 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 AE of the future will not only understand and internalize this business necessity, but he 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. She will be 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 becoming increasingly important. It will be done more scientifically and programmatically. Superficiality will not suffice.

The AE of the future will 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. He will be a Marketing Expert
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 encountering from “left field?”

Internalization of the client’s marketing needs can assure that the solutions the agency provides are more holistically on-target. Thus, the AE of the future needs much better knowledge in the discipline of marketing and to become more highly skilled in integrating that into the agency’s thinking.

4. She will be able to think like the Client’s Customers
Truly effective communications requires 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 the AE go out of her way to regularly “walk in the shoes” of the client’s customers. It requires great sensitivity to know them with an intimacy greater than 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. He will be a Skillful Salesperson
Salesmanship is not a dirty word. In fact, it is a high calling. 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. She will grasp the Opportunities of Non Traditional Media
Most 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 AE of the future must be able to work holistically in the client’s behalf. Thus, she 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 she needs to be a PR practitioner, gorilla promotion guru, product placement expert, social media junkie or a web tech-head. 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. He must be able to Think Like a Producer
Embracing this concept is perhaps the most important change.

In a theatrical sense, there is a big difference between being a “star” and a “producer.” Clark Gable was a star. But, before he could become a star, there had to be a producer to enable the show. In a sense, the AE of the future must see himself primarily as a producer rather than a star.

That’s an important change 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. He is 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 an important shift in psychological mindset. Its effectiveness and efficiency requires subtle and masterful use of the talent available. Not too much, and not too little. Like a master chef at work, the AE’s production must be just right.

The AE of the future will be very comfortable letting others be the stars. He will take pride in being known as a consistently masterful producer, without whom the stars would not shine.

What’s Missing?

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.

Looking Ahead

So, that’s our view of the AE of the future. It’s a reinvigorated, tightly focused role. It speaks leadership. It demands talent. It requires specialized knowledge and experience. It can contribute dramatically to the success of its agency. And, it can have improved financial and psychic rewards for its practitioners.

All in all, not a bad way to go into the future.


  The account executive has become a diminished generalist in a growing field of specialists  
The objective is client market success. Not just client satisfaction.
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