Published March 24th, 2016
by Steven Clark

The is the second part in a brief series of posts I’ve been writing about history repeating itself in modern day digital agencies when compared to anecdotes told about mid 20th Century Madison Avenue ad agencies by Jerry Della Femina in his memoirs From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor.

Last time we went over how producing unpaid work for pitches is a bad idea. This time, let’s talk about Accounts people.

Account Managers

Femina spends a few pages of his book sympathising with Account Handlers. In his day, they were expected to work with drugged up and heady creatives to produce visuals and ad copy, develop campaigns and marketing plans and then sell this work to often quite difficult clients. He describes their position as “the crazy middle”.

Account Managers aren’t the same nowadays (except for the dealing with drugged up creatives part). They now largely act as client buffers and intermediaries during large ongoing projects that are already sold at a fixed scope and budget, usually defined and calculated by senior management and planning personnel. Their responsibilities may include helping with new business or determining the portion of the budget each department gets for their client but their role largely exists to give clients one consistent point of contact familiar with their business and the work produced by the agency during the relationship.

This difference in roles then and now gave new meaning to this excerpt for me:

“What account guys have to do to survive today is dance. By dancing, I mean they’ve got to be agile, with very, very good footwork so they don’t get shot down easily. You see, they’ve got nothing to sell. Your copywriter, no matter how young or how bad, has his book – his portfolio – to show. An art director also has a portfolio. Or they’ve got reels, short presentations containing all the commercials they’ve ever shot. But what does the account man have to show? Nothing…”

Frequently I end up discussing with peers the idea that Account Managers are “the voice of the client” within an agency. I’ve worked with a few places that took this notion and ran with it, including AMs in project kick offs, dev stand ups and internal design reviews. Leaving aside the problem that including an extra person means you’re another hour or so of budget down per meeting, I’ve never found that this makes anyone’s job any easier or clients any happier.

When you decide to adopt this philosophy, you’re essentially handing some control of the technical and creative decision-making process to someone who is largely technically and creatively inexperienced and introducing a new barrier to client sign off. Nobody can really speak on behalf of another person or organisation – it’s a farce.

I once ended up in a meeting with 3 directors of the company I worked for and the Account Manager of the client whose project I was working on. As part of the sale, we had promised to present 3 unique homepage concepts so they could select their preferred approach. Due to time constraints and the fact that we were building on a platform with a series of fixed templates to save on build time, this led to 3 somewhat similar visuals with 3 unique backgrounds and minor changes to the positioning and size of certain key elements.


The way this particular client promoted themselves and their products involved using images that needed to be a certain size to be legible. However, prior to this meeting, the client had expressed to the AM that they would like to keep everything on one screen. This is something designers hear a lot from people who don’t know any better and wasn’t a practical instruction based on other conflicting and arguably more important requirements. I couldn’t offer an alternative solution (without doubling build time) and was then loudly chewed out by the owner of the company for not doing my job properly.

In the end, I reworked one of the visuals and crammed together a few elements, reducing the page height by a fraction. When we presented the work, the client immediately chose the concept with the deepest promotional images.

While asking Account Managers to oversee and provide their client’s perspective on creative work and functional solutions is probably done with the best of intentions, in my experience, it rarely produces results. You end up in a scenario where work has to be sold internally before it can be sold to clients externally.

Account Managers today can be an integral part of retaining clients and managing client expectations. Femina’s quote is mostly about the difficulty Account Handlers must have had finding new jobs compared to their peers but it also highlights that, even back then, their work isn’t the thing you’re selling to your clients and that’s worth remembering.

Will finish off this series with Part 3 at some point next week.

Note: This post originally appeared on the Habanero Digital blog meaning certain parts are probably weirdly self referential or talk about ongoing feuds that probably exist almost exclusively in the mind of the author.

Advertising Clients Digital Agencies

by Steven Clark

Steven is a designer/developer and wannabe intellectual with an obsessive personality and too much spare time. Don’t follow him on Twitter.

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