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Meeting the Needs of Others: The Challenges, Contradictions and Competition Facing Account Services in 2023


With the help of insight from members of the Worldwide Partners network, LBB investigates the evolution of account services, and it's confusing crossover with project management

Meeting the Needs of Others: The Challenges, Contradictions and Competition Facing Account Services in 2023

Knowledge is power – particularly if it is brand knowledge and you work in account services. Advertising is increasingly reliant on great account work, which requires an uncommon level of knowledge about clients’ businesses. A rigorous understanding of a client’s customers, competition and category - to the point of “obsession” - qualifies account services as the ‘chief knowledge officers’ in the biz. No commercial brief will hit the right notes without insight from accounts, who tirelessly monitor the accuracy and fulfilment of a brand’s core goals. 

In spite of the critical importance of this function, the industry continues to confuse account services with project management. This is a problem agencies must address in the training and development of accounts people, so as to avoid team members wading through the murky waters of the production pipeline to decipher the interdependent qualities of these two roles. The power of account services isn’t in project or production management and in making this mistake, agencies and clients are forcing two separate disciplines to stray from their core duties. 

Keen to get a read on what this means for the future of the account services sector, LBB’s April Summers spoke to an assemblage of C-suite leaders from Worldwide Partners’ network of independent agencies: Lori Bartle, CMO of The Shipyard, Ann-Louise Rosen, co-CEO at Advance; Annabel Mackie, managing director at Five by Five Global, Erin Michalak, senior VP and director of account services at Godfrey; Ryan Perkins, MP of account services for Sound Healthcare Communications; Brittany Tangsrund, head of account services at Odysseus Arms. These experts share details about the evolving expectations of account services, advice on how to navigate the ‘agency machine’, and how to earn a client’s trust over time.

LBB> How has the role of account services evolved since you started out in the industry?

Erin Michalak> Account management has evolved from project managers into business advisors. We need to understand our clients' industry, markets, audiences and goals as well as or better than our clients. Our knowledge and expertise in these areas is invaluable as our clients continue to experience high turnover and are expected to do more with less. The better we understand their business, the more impactful we can be to the business by providing consultation and recommendations that help them increase their bottom-line.

Annabel Mackie> There is more challenge from clients on understanding the value of account services, and it's on agencies to prove this value. Coupled with the seismic change in the way people consume media and engage with brands, account services have had to become much more media literate and customer obsessed. Leaning into these two shifts, the best account people are those that continue to hone the craft skills of account management. From being obsessed with your client's business, building trust over time, to delivering accurate and timely status and contact reports, these are the tools we have to ensure the client knows we've been listening, understanding their needs and, importantly, are able to be their voice within the agency machine. This enables us to deliver true and trusted long term partnerships.

Lori Bartle> What we've uncovered through proprietary research is that the ability to contribute strategically, or to influence and cultivate creativity, is now the exception versus the norm. The account discipline is so caught up in the day-to-day 'doing' that it has become confused with project management. This is obviously unsustainable and speaks to the need for a serious reinvention. 

Ryan Perkins> When I started in the industry, account services personnel were expected to know their client’s brand inside and out – you had to be an expert in order to provide value. Unfortunately, in certain instances - not all - account services has transitioned into a project management type role for some agency/client relationships.

LBB> How have you translated a deeper understanding of a client's business into a recommendation that helped them win?

Annabel Mackie> I worked with Costa Coffee for a number of years, and from the get go I made it my business to ensure my team and I understood their business inside out. From which type of customers were the most valuable, to which was the best selling drink, to spending time in their stores. This ensured that when we were working to redefine and relaunch their loyalty scheme, we could design something with the customer at its heart, marrying customer wants and desires (more value, better perks) with the business need to ensure ROI from the loyalty scheme. We were customer obsessed and before the full launch we completed a rigorous beta trial with 24,000 customers, to ensure that the new loyalty proposition really did deliver on its promise to customers and the brand. This deeper understanding meant we pushed our client to be the most generous with the offer/value exchange, and meant the proposition in the market today is the most generous of all national coffee shops, something the business initially was nervous about. Since its launch, the scheme has delivered £1m incremental monthly sales to the business, and on top of that, it is delivering back to society with sustainability baked in, encouraging customers to make the switch to a keep cup. A real win win.

Brittany Tangsrund> It is important to not only know the business of our clients, but also understand their audience, competitors and category. This is a key aspect of having productive discussions about what to do next and how to best navigate, as we are able to bring those different perspectives to the table. These are also important details to be tracking for our internal teams. Making sure we are collectively informed on the details of the business of our clients is key to developing good work that achieves their goals. We do this a lot, specifically with Third3ye, where we spend time with their consumers. This leads us to key insights and solutions that often result in work that builds brand loyalty once it’s launched into the market.

LBB> What is the biggest challenge facing your clients today? How do you approach account leadership to solve it?

Annabel Mackie> This year our clients are having to navigate a downturn, specifically working through the challenge of the refocus to ROI delivering channels. Some will be looking to pivot spend into more direct channels such as loyalty, digital and CRM, to deliver the maximum gains for their business –  this will be a key pressure all marketers will face. We will continue to partner with all of our clients to creatively solve these challenges with them. Ensuring we have the deepest understanding of their business, category and audience to advise from a place of insight, we deliver creative solutions with maximum impact. Our background in ROI channels from a strategic, creative and production perspective enables us to be trusted advisors. 

Erin Michalak> Clients are up against being busier than ever, filling multiple roles, doing more with less, and having increased expectations to prove performance. We need to understand their business landscape and be a true partner by identifying the opportunities they should go after. It is our responsibility, as account services, to help clients succeed. In a world where we have less in-person time, building a solid relationship and establishing a lot of trust must now be done virtually.

Ann-Louise Rosen> In our experience, clients primarily struggle to find a balance between organisational expectations and the budgets, time and resources allocated to reach those goals.

Ryan Perkins> Our pharma/biotech clients are having a tough time engaging physicians due to physicians' lack of time and the fact that physicians are regularly bombarded with communication on a daily basis. To help solve this problem for our clients, we are teaching our account leadership teams to think critically about the physician engagement recommendations they put forward to their clients. Will the engagement tactic prompt physicians to want to learn more about our product?

LBB> How does this represent the future direction and importance of account services?

Annabel Mackie> I’m convinced that a rigorous obsession with your clients business is critical to any successful partnership. Knowing how sales are going, what the customers are currently thinking and feeling about the brand, what the competition is doing, and broader macro market movements, ensures that when your client calls to discuss a problem they need your help to solve, you’re already one step ahead, and who doesn’t like to get ahead?

Erin Michalak> The key to success of great account service is knowing how to effectively advise our clients – the better we do that, the more indispensable we are to our clients. With clients facing lots of turnover, agencies can bring our understanding of the clients' business and help bridge the gap. 

Brittany Tangsrund> My biggest challenge when it comes to account services is that the skillset often falls into the territory of project management where the focus is on timelines and checklists. While this is important, account services are the holders of the strategy for the business. It’s important that we know how to bring it all together between consumer strategy, creative and media. It’s important to understand the role as business partners rather than falling into the task motions of project managers.

Lori Bartle> Business and client leadership is how we can drive value for the agency and separate ourselves from project management. A reinspired and refocused account discipline that's deeply immersed in the client’s business could be the key the industry needs to unlock creativity.

LBB> Looking to the future, how can the industry better prepare junior account services team members for senior positions?

Ann-Louise Rosen> Encouraging them to be curious: get to know your client's business needs and collaborate your way to the right solutions.

Ryan Perkins> I think today's account service leaders need to make the time to mentor and train their direct reports, making a concerted effort every day to teach them how to be great.

Lori Bartle> We have to get serious about training and development, grounding our next generation of account leaders in the core craft disciplines of business, strategy and creativity. 

Annabel Mackie> By providing training and mentoring, coupled with the right exposure to a mix of clients and experiences. It's imperative that we provide the opportunity for people to learn and progress from a variety of experiences in the key facets of agency life. From training and experience on different clients, to ensuring they are exposed to a wide range of creative work, and how the agency makes money – it all provides experience that will pay off as they move up through the agency model.

Erin Michalak> It is the soft skills, the intangible skills, that are essential to success but are also so hard to teach. Good instincts and strong problem solving skills are critical. Having processes outlined and defined so there is no ambiguity about the 'easy' stuff, allowing you to focus on the softer skills.

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Worldwide Partners, Wed, 05 Apr 2023 14:18:22 GMT