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The enduring role of client service in the agency landscape

Call us what you want… we’re here to stay. A view from the IPA Client Relationship Group. Co-authored by Liz Barnsdale, Imogen Landy & Marina Banks

There have been a growing number of conversations in recent years debating the role and purpose of Client Service in the agency landscape.

It’s been widely acknowledged that the recession, combined with the rise of digital marketing, acted as the catalyst for major changes in how agencies viewed their Client Service teams. Suddenly the traditional model of account management was up for debate. The often multi-layered department represented the ‘fat’ that could be culled from the P&L when costs had to be cut, and there was also an overriding need and desire to get more project-focused specialist skill sets on board.

So agencies started blending roles, culling account teams, changing job titles. And whilst reviewing the validity of any role regularly is the right thing to do, unfortunately, for Client Service, it appears to have only aided adding layers of confusion to an already challenging role.

‘Being an account person is the hardest thing in advertising.’ Rob Reilly, Global Creative Chairman McCann, AdAge 2016.

And to be frank it’s been an increasingly tough gig for quite a few years now, working in an increasingly challenging environment where time is money and there’s precious little of either to spare.

Burning platform? Rumbling thunder? Or just the volume notched up to ‘meh’?

Whatever your view on the urgency of this topic the IPA felt it needed addressing. And they’re not alone. Tony Spong and Vicky Gillan from the AAR highlight the role as being a critical point of failure or success in the relationship between agencies and clients

And as one CMO pointed out to the IPA during research for the now infamous Mad Men to Sad Men. ‘They (Client Service) would benefit from some greater definition because nothing would happen without them.’

We believe the conversation warrants some serious attention. Moving on from just pointing out the issue we must now actually start doing something about it. A coming together of our industry to agree once and for all whether the role of Client Service has ongoing viability and sustainability in the current and future landscape of the marketing agency. And if it does, how?

How many account handlers does it take to change a lightbulb?

It was at the first official meeting of the new IPA Client Relationship Group (CRG) that we tackled this topic. Formed from over 25 senior Client Service leads across IPA membership, representing all types of discipline and agency size, the CRG aims to do exactly what it says on the tin: Address the main ways in which agencies form, grow and retain valuable client relationships.

Turkey’s voting for Christmas?

Well if a room full of Client Service Professionals, who have stuck with it and worked their way up the career ladder, can’t agree on what value we add to the industry then we figured we might as well all pack up straight away. Nuff said. Games up. We’re outta here.

We want to take responsibility for our future.

Just as we want and should take responsibility for our client’s future within our business.

Put it like that and already there’s a clue to why we exist. And, in our unapologetic opinion, should continue to.

So what is our role?

Over the course of two hours of lively debate, discussion and exercises, we arrived at the following.

The purpose of our role is to nurture the relationships and create the right environment to achieve great work and subsequently mutual (the agency and the client) sustainable growth.

Whether great work is a brilliant media strategy, a creative campaign, or a digital experience design our role doesn’t change with the discipline. We are, or will aim to be, the highly prised T-shaped people who direct, collaborate and nurture across our agency and with our clients. Ultimately keeping our eye on the end goal of business success – both that of our client’s and ours.

We are ultimately Client Business Partners

Client Service sounds servile. Account Management sounds administrative. Neither definition does us justice. But focusing on changing job titles is like dancing on the head of a pin as far as we’re concerned. So continue to call your departments whatever seems right – titles can naturally evolve over time.

Instead we need to align ourselves collectively around the Client Business Partner definition to create the right narrative, understanding and development of our discipline both now and for the future.

But what do we mean by Business Partnership? True partnership is about trust, mutual respect and a deep level of understanding. Translating what that means for our industry Ed Burgoyne writing in AdSubculture sums it up well:

‘Today’s account people need to have a real business mindset. They need to understand their client’s market and the factors that influence it… what they are (is) a thought leader who understands your client’s business and business objective. They can think like a client’s customer, and they have experience in understanding the existing range of a client’s marketing tactics.’

If we don’t fully understand our client’s business, it’s impossible to get to the real issue we’re trying to solve. If we don’t build the trust from our clients, why would they take our recommendation? If we don’t know our clients inside out, we won’t know how to make the work impossible to ignore. It’s our responsibility ultimately to lead. Across our respective agencies and for our clients.

And great leadership is what we, clients and agencies, all need during this huge tectonic shift in the marketing landscape that we’re currently experiencing.

We openly acknowledge where we’ve landed isn’t rocket science. Reflecting as it does many of the conversations we cited above.

The important thing is that we all landed in the same space. And all agreed that what’s needed is an ability to ensure we can live up to this.

It’s about us and our colleagues consistently investing time, money and attention to this role. Injecting a sense of care and pride back into a role that desperately needs it. Rather than giving it a series of successive titles and kicking it around the agency whenever anything goes wrong.

And it’s about us being honest with ourselves and everyone else when we’re not living up to it.

Read it if you will as our collective statement of intent.

What makes a Client Business Partner?

We went on to discuss what attributes we need to deliver on our purpose.  

The five key attributes that we believe make great Client Business Partners are:

1. High EQ/Empathy

We need to be natural communicators and facilitators. Subtle relationship builders who can read and empathise with people to bring disparate teams of them together and create the right environment for success. It’s the bedrock of collaboration but we usually just throw that word around willy-nilly without identifying this. And whilst confidence and drive are the default requirement of anyone in Client Service the trick is to dig deeper to ensure those attributes aren’t just self-serving. You need a team of people who are willing and able to interact with their colleagues and clients on a very human level. Often putting their own credibility at stake.

2. Curiosity and inquisitiveness

The quickest way to fully understand a client’s business is to embed a bunch of naturally curious, some might say nosy people, in their offices. People that don’t accept the first answer they’re given, instead always asking ‘why?’. Driven by an innate curiosity to get to the nub of any challenge, the true story that often isn’t told, and therefore find the kernel of opportunity.

3. Commercial nous

With ever increasing commercial pressures for both clients and agencies it’s even more important now, as much as it ever was, to ensure Client Service teams are equipped with strong commercial understanding and ability. It’s not enough to show an Account Manager how to raise an estimate. What’s needed is training and development to ensure the commercial levers of marketing and business are understood and can be applied for the future success of both agency and client endeavours.

4. Leadership

This shouldn’t need much explanation. From entry-level upwards you need to be able to spot and nurture the people who have a natural willingness to put their necks on the line to lead. Not list-tickers who just like to manage the known. You need the bravery of people who are willing to step into the unknown and have the trust of others who want to follow them there.

5. Lateral creative thinking and problem solving

Strategic thinkers’ is how we often describe this requirement. But ‘strategic’ is such a broad-church descriptor. Open to misinterpretation and misunderstanding in application. Instead we looked at the heart of what Client Partners are there to do. Unite all the marketing specialisms and guide them, contributing equally along the way, to solve a client problem. Lateral creative thinking isn’t just the job of the Creative or Planning teams. We’d argue it should be a key attribute of our problem-solving account teams. Because who else but the Client Partner has the opportunity to influence all areas of the client and agency marketing arsenal to create a truly non-linear solution?

So where can you find these magical T-Shaped polymaths that are Client Business Partners?

Let’s not lie to ourselves and think they’re easy to get hold of. Like a dodo-esque dying breed, the lack of investment in this role financially, holistically and some might argue spiritually (in that everyone, including client service people appear to have somewhat lost the faith) means the true practitioners of this are thin on the ground.

The only real answer is to adopt a ‘grow your own’ policy. Find the raw talent who display the attributes we listed and consistently invest in them as we mentioned above. Don’t view it as increased cost, view it as a savvy investment.

Because ultimately we believe a team of high performing Client Business Partners, operating at all levels within your agency, and working on behalf of your clients, will make a significant difference to the future sustainability and success of your business. And hold back the tide of competition from consultancies, in-house client agencies and media owners who all think they can do it better and are themselves investing accordingly.

We’re optimistic that you’ll agree.

Last updated 18/05/2017

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