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The case against agency account managers

Account managers have become nothing more than client “butlers” waiting for the next request, the next SOW change, the next task order and watched their role become little more than saying, “Yeah, we can do that for you.”

5 min read

Brands & Campaigns

Frog in water


As an advertising agency executive with nearly 35 years of experience in account management, I’m declaring that it’s time for account managers to go away.  The industry has managed its way down from a meaningful seat at the head table where senior advisors, partners, consultants and confidants sit alongside the client’s CEO, CFO, CMO, CIO, and maybe even the board of directors, to a folding chair at the “kiddie table” where people who manage stuff are forced to sit. 

Maggs / Credit: Brunner

While the mission, vision, and brand strategy are debated and constructed at the head table, the statements of work, budgets, and status reports get passed over to the kiddie table.

Account managers have become nothing more than client “butlers” waiting for the next request, the next statement of work change, the next task order and watched their role become little more than saying, “Yeah, we can do that for you.”

What happened? How did we allow ourselves to be relegated to the kiddie table? It took me a while to admit it, but it’s on us.  We’ve done it to ourselves. Like the story of the boiling frog, we’ve slowly turned ourselves from leaders to managers every time we:

  • Over-service the account in the name of “investing in the relationship”
  • Discount our fees simply because the client asks
  • Agree to spec work
  • Delegate work to junior teammates to maintain our margins
  • Manage the workflow instead of challenging the “way we’ve always done it”
  • Rush projects to satisfy deadlines rather than creating game-changing work
  • Offer a marketing solution to a business problem

The bad thing about the kiddie table is once you’re there, it’s really difficult to make it back to the head table. Once the client sees you as an order-taker, rather than a strategic partner, your value sinks. Would you take strategic advice from the person who’s been bringing your coffee for the last year?

That’s why we have to kill the idea of account management. Clients don’t need more managers who create status reports, write creative briefs, and develop change orders for the SOWs they crafted so meticulously. Whether they admit it or not, clients need account leadership, not account management.

Now, this may seem like nothing more than semantics. Account Managers, Account Leaders, to-mato, to-mah-to, right?

Here’s the difference. Managers maintain the status quo.  Managers are caretakers.  They organize, direct and control to achieve goals.  Leaders, on the other hand, set goals and direction, challenge the norm, and seek inventive ways of surpassing aggressive goals.  They focus on finding ways to make things happen, even when it seems impossible, rather than focusing on why things don’t or can’t happen.

Account leaders create connections throughout client organizations rather than focusing solely on the marketing department’s next campaign.  They think beyond communications and advertising.  They are experts in the client’s category not merely in the marketing of that category.  They connect the dots and anticipate what’s next. Rather than ensuring the SOW gets executed, they’re the ones unafraid to tell the client they need to pivot their entire business strategy. Account leaders become unequivocal trusted partners in the business and a core extension of the client’s team.  They’re irreplaceable.

This isn’t a unique perspective. While agency account managers were busy becoming yes men, the big consultancies like Deloitte, Accenture and PwC went the other way. They realized great marketing is no longer just the result of a great creative brief and a big idea. More and more, great marketing is about the combined effect of innovative products, streamlined operations, exemplary customer service, corporate reputation, public relations, and advertising. That’s why the consultancies have been successful entering this space. They are trained to think beyond marketing, to tell the client when they’re wrong and to think of the big picture. All the while, account managers who only know marketing are being relegated to the kiddie table.

So I’m done hiring caretakers, brief-makers, and status report fillers. I want people who can guide our clients to where they should be, not simply where they’re told to go. I want people unafraid to tell their clients, “That’s a bad idea. Trust me on this.”

I want leaders who are just as frustrated with account managers as I am. I want leaders who want a seat at the head table again. Most of all, I want leaders who want to know our clients’ business, not just their marketing.

After all, these chairs at the “kiddie table” are way too small for us anyway.

As chief client officer, Jeff Maggs leads the account management practice at Brunner. He taps into his strong retail and consumer products background to encourage thinking that builds businesses for several category-leading brands like Dick’s Sporting Goods, Field & Stream, Mitsubishi Electric, and Huffy. Jeff’s experience also includes major home brands like Moen faucets and GE Lighting, and ranges from several years on the Lucite brand to playing a major part in the launch of Olympic Paint in Lowe’s.