2018 will be remembered as a year of business as usual as, all too often, blind attempts were made by brands and agencies to set budgets and plans preparing for Brexit. As we stare into 2019, what is quickly becoming clear is that this will be the year of business unusual – a year when economic instability is the norm and change becomes an everyday constant. It’s a year when, to paraphrase Jeremy Lee’s astute observations, without the confidence to have grown-up – if difficult – conversations with clients, the ad agency business model could eventually break as the product gets worse, the talent gets thinner and the clients get less happy.
Cost needs to be reduced on all sides, and the brightest and the best need to be freed up to get to work on solutions for brand and business alike to benefit the customer. However, with this need comes the increasingly persuasive line of thought that account handling is an area for easy cost-cutting, because the "most talented people in the business" reside solely in creative and strategy.
What has always been true is that creatives and strategists are the reason one agency differs from the next; they provide the lifeblood of insight and ideas that give clients something meaningful to buy and customers something powerful to respond to. The very best creatives and strategists are the most talented people in the business and I can’t think of a single time a client has ever uttered the words: "Look, the creative work is poor, the insight’s a bit flat, but the account team are magnificent. Let’s hire them."
However, without a good account person pulling the strings and calmly giving the client confidence to buy (and then stand by) the work as multiple stakeholders give their opinion, much of the creative we know and love today would never have become a reality.
Sure, many of the things that fill up an account handler’s day could be handed over to artificial intelligence and machine-driven outcomes; timelines, competitive reviews, contact reports, everything financial and legal, and identifying the optimum line-up for a chemistry meeting, to name just a few. But the foresight to always be one step ahead of the client, the empathy to know what they’re thinking before they think it and the confidence to deliver uncomfortable news (in words and actions) that mean brand and agency will live on for another day are skills built for a year when business will be everything other than usual.
So let’s not give up on account handling being a key part in agencies just yet. There’s still a group of professionals out there who are willing to have the grown-up – if difficult – conversations with clients to help make the product a little better and the client a little happier just when it’s needed most.
Richard Robinson is managing partner at Econsultancy