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The Disservice of Client Services

Advertising Agency
Dublin 2, Ireland
The Public House's Catróna Campbell on the future of account handling

We get paid for brave, boundless thinking, for ideas that make our clients’ products and services meaningful. The calibre of our thinking absolutely correlates to the calibre of our people. And yet, day after day, we read another report about the talent shortage in the advertising industry, as we lose talent to the tech giants, to start-ups, to consultancies.

So it was an uncomfortable wake up call for me when even on a visit to a dedicated advertising course, a Masters in Advertising class of 40 people, not one person put up their hand when I asked (presumptively, it turned out) who wanted to pursue a career in account handling. Would-be creatives and would-be planners, but no would-be account handlers.

When I asked why, there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the role; a suggestion that the job isn’t really where you get to use your brain - whether that’s the left brain, or the right brain.  A simmering thought that the job isn’t that intelligent or as highly regarded as, say, being the creative or strategist on a piece of work.  

This scares the crap out of me.

Account handlers, not without exception of course, are the people who tend to run agencies. And we have never faced such a challenging time - fragmentation, inattention, transparency, mistrust, management consultancies, the shift from retainer fees to project fees, and the rise of the internal creative department. I could go on. To survive, and thrive, we’re going to require a new generation of entrepreneurial and fearless account handlers. The future leaders of our industry. And that means attracting the very best talent to the role.

To do that, we need to build the profile of the discipline. Ironically for people who work so much in building perception, we’re still projecting an image that is more familiar with the tropes of Mad Men. We’re not reflecting the richness and diversity of the job, and the problem is crystallised in that many account handling departments in some of the world’s biggest agencies are still ‘client services’ departments.  

Ahh. Client services. I’ve long had personal beef with this phrase. Some might call me out for getting caught up on semantics, but I’ve never ‘served’ clients. It’s a word that belongs in spas and restaurants. I’ve collaborated, challenged, and been critically objective of my client’s businesses and brands. The best account handlers I’ve ever worked with have inspired me with their ability to disagree with their clients without falling out. The art of telling clients what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. All in the name of creating the most effective creative work. And this is what leads to genuine client partnerships too - my clients know they can rely on unabashed honesty, to tell them an uncomfortable truth - but they know that I’m sitting around the table for the same reason they are - to grow their business.

In my perspective the idea of ‘client service’ belongs to that bygone era when the the role involved liquid lunches and the golf course. Client service jars because it feels so subservient and so passive. Brilliant account handlers have always had to bring energy, urgency and vision to the role.

Account handling is a tireless pursuit that is based on building ideas, not knocking them down. It’s about being all over the tiny details and the big picture. Problem solvers, business leaders, number crunchers, room readers, relationship builders, and embracers of raw, iterative work.  

Not surprisingly, a role this demanding requires tenacity, resilience, and genuine, relentless love of creativity (otherwise why would we do it?).  

It sounds like I’ve created a long list of attributes that don’t exist - but they do, they just come with the shorthand of ‘good account person’ and ‘bad account person’. (NB, I’m always hiring the former).

To attract and recruit talent, we need to redefine the role of account handling for this new, challenging era of advertising, and build a profile of the role that is exciting and motivating.

Every agency needs to assist in the development of intelligent and empowered account leaders. That starts with a change in the job description, but requires a lot, lot more. Genuinely setting people up for success through training and development plans, coaching and mentoring, and reward and recognition of the value they bring - to your clients, yes, but to your agency too.

The culture of client services and  ‘yes men’ has got to be left behind, because today, servitude serves no one.

Catróna Campbell is managing partner at The Public House

This article was first published in the October issue of Marketing magazine

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