As marketing's transformation continues, the industry is looking for a new generation of account directors, writes CMW's CEO Liz Wilson.
Is there any part of agency life more intangible than client service? Talk to a modern marketer, a procurement professional, a stranger at a dinner party, or your mum at Christmas about what goes into delivering excellent client service and at best you’ll get four different answers – and at worst blank faces and the offer of another mince pie.
For non-practitioners excellent account direction can seem like a Harry Potter-esque dark art; it’s unclear quite how it happens but when done brilliantly, life is smooth and the work is better. By contrast when done badly process is frustrating, working life is stressful, trust evaporates and ultimately business moves on. For something we struggle to define tightly and consistently as an industry, the craft has very high value to both the agency and the client community. When you add a revolution in marketing communication then redefining the discipline for the next generation becomes a mammoth task.
The core skills of client services
Ultimately, client service is what creates value for everyone beyond the task we’re delivering, so the discipline continues to include a cocktail of familiar core craft skills – the ability to understand and diagnose situations and people; the skill to hear things that aren’t being said and see the real context we’re operating in; a tireless passion for the brand in question; soft influence over the creative process to inspire extraordinary work; a constant flow of enthusiasm and energy regardless of what’s going on around us; and genuine humanity and integrity to fuel real relationships with everyone on the team. And, of course, the skill to deliver David Maister’s trusted advisor role to our client partners, whilst knowing the difference between what a client wants and what a client needs.
But looking to the future and the ongoing transformation of the marketing world, client service operates in a new context – a world of constant, fast, unpredictable change. A world that’s concerned not with one knockout piece of content to deliver but an ‘always on’ conversation, and a world where we are frequently pushing into new technologies and uncharted waters. It’s a landscape of many unknowns coupled with huge variety and complexity.
Embracing project management
In addition, the industry has now embraced the relatively recent discipline of project management, which eases the burden on client service professionals and ensures that there’s a part of the team focused solely on brilliant delivery. But it’s easy to see how even this adds to a potential identity crisis and a fear for some newer account directors of being stranded and in need of new definition and direction.
So while the timeless skills of client service still hold true, the industry is now looking for a new generation of leaders with the confidence to be more of an expert navigator than an expert practitioner. Gone are command-and-control team management styles and in their place come single ‘open source team-working’ across client and agency partners, and fluid conversational ecosystems. Out goes knowing all of the answers and in comes understanding the right questions.
Adding value beyond delivery
Maybe the greatest value client service professionals deliver to their agencies is that they can offer a way to differentiate agency brands. Effectively, we account directors are here to ensure our clients enjoy the best possible service experience from our agency and one that reflects its unique culture and ethos. To borrow the language of digital business we’ve effectively become the advertising industry’s user experience designers and that’s how we can continue to add value beyond delivery.
It’s also why the industry is looking for a new generation of client service leaders with the confidence to create brilliant customer experiences for our clients and to navigate through choppy economic waters, complex communication requirements and multidisciplinary teams to deliver outstanding creative answers to the toughest of business problems.
Liz Wilson is co-chair of the IPA's Client Services course, a three-day residential course designed to prepare account directors and senior account managers progress for leadership roles.
Last updated 06/08/2013