On July 20, 1969, the world watched with pride as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Apollo 11 lunar module on the moon. Less than a year later, the world watched in horror as Apollo 13 lost oxygen and power before it could reach its destination. For four harrowing days, the lives of the crew hung in the balance. But, thanks to the persistence of the astronauts on board and creativity of the team at NASA, all three souls returned safely to Earth.
It wasn’t technical process that saved them, though. In fact, the systems put in place to ensure success failed them in their mission. Rather, creative thinking and heart saved three men from the brink of disaster and delivered them back to their families at home. The Apollo space program—its trials and triumphs—remind me a lot of the day-to-day work of account management.
“The successful account manager needs to identify with the client’s struggles.”
Many people say that successful account management is about process, detail, and discipline, and these are certainly key elements. Inevitably, however, procedure will fail you or be completely inapplicable to the mission at hand: serving clients well. In those instances, flexibility, perseverance, and the “art” of the job become mission-critical.
Here are some account management practices and skills I’ve honed over 10+ years of service to creative agency clients.
Critical Considerations for Every Account Manager
Our business partners face challenges in their organizations that we never fully understand and usually do not have to live through. Sometimes a client is “stuck up in space without a way home,” looking for us to help re-route the mission trajectory. To build working trust, the account manager needs to identify with the client’s struggles and acknowledge the uncertainty the client faces. Caring, listening, and addressing the elephant in the room will create a collaborative environment for developing solutions to each other’s problems.
“You may delay, but time will not.” —Benjamin Franklin
Time is our most-valuable, most-limited resource as creative professionals. We have to use it wisely, knowing the difference between what is urgent and what is important for our team, as well as for our partners. The loud and squeaky wheel doesn’t always need oiling first. Structure your day to always start with what is most important first, instead of what is most urgent. Putting important work first drives results that strengthen relationships and allow your agency and clients to grow.
Most of us instinctively want to make our partners happy; I know I do. Predictably, innovative solutions require making changes, which are not always popular with the client or with the creative team. Because change often creates tension, put the goal of project progress ahead of client happiness to complete the mission. I realize this might sound a bit forward, but here’s why: Our partners are experts in their industry, and we are experts in ours. As such, we will, at times, have to respectfully and honestly explain what works best for marketing their brand. This element of trust is critical in advancing a long-term client relationship. If we are just “yes men” or order-takers, the client will not receive the full value of our team or from their investment. The experienced account manager uses problem-solving questions to reframe contentious discussions around project priorities. By focusing on achieving the client’s goal, you will produce results that best meet the client’s needs.
“Sometimes, it’s necessary to keep the client’s goals ahead of the client’s happiness to complete the mission.”
From time to time, an agency’s first mission approach doesn’t work out. Here, flexibility is key. Understanding when the team needs to change course is good account management. It’s natural for goals to change in a way that completely alters the end result; that’s OK. At some point, the Apollo 13 crew had to give up their goal of walking in moon dust so that they could step foot on terra firma again. Allowing the ebb and flow of a project to happen (directing and guiding it, as necessary) is key to an account manager’s success with both the internal team and the client team.
…I’ve witnessed all kinds of different practice and process styles over my career working at creative agencies. But, it’s these concepts that I’ve found most critical over my career in account management. Applying them consistently to my work has allowed me to:
- Love my account management jobs
- Serve some of the greatest companies out there, and
- Help shape the culture and conversation of the agencies where I’ve worked.
When project challenges and unexpected scenarios roll around—and they always do—these principles can be the difference between a successful and unsuccessful mission for all parties involved.