As I write this irregular column for that incomparable genius loci of the marketing world, Charlie McKelvey, I am gazing out over the mist-shrouded, rain-pocked Waters Of Leith surrounded by my fiercely intelligent colleagues at the Tangible Edinburgh nerve centre (northernmost of the three mighty nerve-centres of the fiercely intelligent Tangible organisation) and pondering a conversation I had recently with the charming and, again, fiercely intelligent Vonnie Alexander, managing partner of Kitcatt Nohr over smoked mozzarella at Obika in Charlotte Street.
(Long sentences interlarded with confusing sub-clauses a personal favourite of mine when not writing advertising copy.)
That conversation (which obviously excluded our own vibrant, flourishing enterprises) was about ‘the decline of the suit’. Not the kind of suit provided by my own excellent tailors but the traditional backbone of our industry, the client services person.
Now, Vonnie and I last worked together when I was a dashing ‘young’ creative group head at WWAV Rapp Collins and she an immensely promising, genuinely young account manager.
Looking back, we vehemently agreed that one of the excellent things about the WWAV of the olden days was the comprehensive, detailed, meticulously-thought-through education that it offered to account people under the aegis, in those days, of the fragrant Lesley Mair.
You only have to glance at the CVs of dozens of MDs of responsive agencies around the world to verify this assertion. Is that kind of thorough education still available to young suits starting out in the business? Perhaps not. Why not? Well this is where Vonnie’s experience dovetailed with my own; but her articulation of it means that it should be known (to me at least, who knows, perhaps, henceforth to you) as ‘The Alexander Theory’.
The point Vonnie made was that client services people are being caught in a classic pincer movement worthy of the Axis Powers in the last great war.
On the one hand the rise and rise of planning has eroded the strategic territory that suits once used to inhabit. Campaign planners, strategic planners, brand planners abound. Much of the responsibility for writing all but the most mechanical of briefs has passed from client services to planning. If in doubt, young account people are told to talk to a planner. Surly creative types refuse to accept a brief until it has ‘been through planning’. If it isn’t a repeat of a previous execution in a tried and tested programme, a job will almost certainly require attention from the planning department. Though we both agreed that this was a very good thing, we also agreed that planning has subsumed a large portion of the intellectual content of an account person’s job. So there is erosion, if you like, at the ‘top end’.
On the other hand the triumph of scheduling driven by the traditions of digital working plus the growing adoption by clients of principles derived from the retail marketing environment, has seen the introduction throughout the industry of a new breed of project managers.
These people, excellent at helping agencies manage faster and faster client requirements, devils for process, masters (more frequently mistresses) of time and resource management have encroached into account management territory, engaging with creative, studio and client to ensure the intelligent and cost-efficient throughput of work. So there is erosion, if you like, at the ‘bottom end’.
So where does this leave the poor account person?
Well it’s not all gloom and despondency in the gyms and coffee-shops where I’m told that these account management people foregather. There is in fact real cause for optimism for those of you who work in client services. Why? Because when the planners have taken the high ground and the project managers the low-lying purlieus, what is left to client services people is one crucially important territory: the relationship.
Starting, developing and deepening relationships between client and agency must become the one abiding obsession of the good suit. No-one else should know the client so well, no-one else should be capable of accurately forecasting their every move, whether creative or fiscal. No-one else, quite simply should love them so much and secure so much goodwill from them.
And becoming master or mistress of the relationship shouldn’t just be a client-facing requirement. The clever account person will also own the relationships between finance and client, between creative and planning, between agency and supplier.
So if The Alexander Theory has given you cause for concern dear suit, fret not. You will never be redundant to agency requirements because relationships are the single most important aspects of agency life (after the creative work).
And as the advice columns repeatedly tell us ‘you have to work at relationships’.
Jonathan Spooner is executive creative director at Tangible