agency account manager

So You Want To Be an Agency Account Manager? A 17 Step Guide To An Accidental Profession.

by | Oct 15, 2019

So You Want To Be an Agency Account Manager? A 17 Step Guide To An Accidental Profession.

by | Oct 15, 2019


So you want to be an agency account manager? First off, no, you probably don’t. But let’s just say you do. There are 17 things you should know first.

You know who you are. You might have friends or family who work at a “super hip” agency. You’ve seen their Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram posts and you know they wear flip flops and hoodies to work. They have “pitch meetings” around their dual purpose ping-pong/conference table. Their co-workers have awesome titles like “graphic designer” and “creative director.” Their YouTube Channel chronicles the latest inter-office Nerf Gun battles and oh right, of course, they have a beer fridge.

Yes, these certainly are the cool kids.

But you didn’t go to art school, and you don’t have any web development chops, so you won’t be doing any production work. Maybe you have an English degree or business degree or something else “seemingly related” to marketing. And hey anyone can manage a project right? How hard can it be? The client gives you feedback and you tell it to the creative team, parrots have excelled at similar tasks. Sounds straightforward, so why not give it a shot?

First consider this; if you need to regularly be home for dinner with your family, have a quiet space to get work done, are offended by vulgar language, and can’t deal with entire projects (and your day) changing completely at a moment’s notice, then this is not the job for you. If you don’t see the phrases “looping in”, “let’s take this offline”, and “let’s whiteboard this out” being part of your daily vernacular, then you should go check out that other corporate job you were eyeing.

But if you’re still reading this, and you’re undeterred, then here’s some advice. Let’s start with those of you who think “it looks cool.”

#1. It Looks Like a Cool Place To Work

You bet it does. On Facebook. Yes, sometimes people drink beers at their desks. And sometimes we have Nerf gun battles. But guess what? Out of a 50 hour work week, we probably spend about 45 minutes on beer and Nerf… and that’s on a good week. The other 49.25 hours are spent sitting at our desks glued to our computer screens, or stuck meetings. To those people who mainly want to work at an agency because “it looks like a cool place,” please seek employment elsewhere, this is the wrong motivation for wanting to work at an agency. The majority of each day is spent working our asses off and while it may look like a frat house from the outside, it’s not. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Doug, he’ll tell you.

#2. Manager of Expectations

If you’re an account manager, this is your real job. To manage expectations. The account manager is the keeper of the project’s budget, schedule and scope. The client needs to know what will be happening when, and how much it will cost them. They also need to know the consequences of breaking the scope, extending the schedule or reducing the budget. And here’s the key, they need to know ahead of time. You can’t tell the client that the last round of edits you made will cost them extra, after you’ve made the edits, that won’t fly. But if you let them know ahead of time that the 8th round of edits will require additional budget, you my friend are starting to manage expectations. The old “under-promise and over-deliver” is a rule to live by here, on both the client side and the internal team side.

#3. Schedule. Scope. Cost. 

This is for your protection. Learn it. Say it with me: “Schedule, scope, and cost — you cannot change one without changing the other two.”

These three metrics are intricately intertwined, and cannot be separated. Let’s say the client wants to increase the size of the website you’re building them from 20 pages to 40 pages? No problem, but the schedule will have to be extended and the budget will have to increase. That’s just how it works. Seems obvious right? Maybe, but scope creep will happen every single day if you let it. Your clients aren’t malicious, it’s just not their job to manage the scope of their project. It’s yours.

Must Read: The Art of Client Service — 58 Things Every Marketing Professional Should Know.

#4. You Need To Know Your Shit.

You didn’t go to art school, but that would have been extremely helpful. Ever hear the term “off brand?” This is when you use a design element that does not align with the client’s brand guidelines and does not fit their overall “brand.” Who cares right? Maybe the designer was just being “creative” and went outside the box. Well, the last designer to use PMS 191 instead of PMS 192 was beaten to death by the client with a swatch book. The difference between a light sans serif font and medium sans serif font can get you fired.

#5. There’s Never Enough Time To Do It Right, But There’s Always Enough Time To Do It Over.

Time is not on your side. Yes, you should be managing expectations and deadlines, but odds are when you took on the project you were already behind the eight ball. This is because most marketers are inherently horrible planners. Your clients will be marketing managers and marketing directors and it will be their expectations you’re managing (keep in mind you’re a marketer as well). It’s likely that when the client signed the contract they were already behind on their own internal schedules and will push your agency to catch them up. Sometimes you’ll have to steamroll the first essential steps of the project and push it into production to “give the client something to look at.” Remember that speed is typically the enemy of good creative work. Try your best to do good work, not fast work.

#6. Work Expands to Fill The Time Allotted For It

There’s never enough time, it’s true. However, you need to become a master getting the most out of the time you have. Parkinson’s law is the old adage which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Think of the last project you completed. If you work in marketing, odds are you just barely made the deadline. And if you had an extra day, you still would have just barely made the deadline. If you decide you’re going to stay late and work until 9:00 PM tonight, odds are you’ll find enough work to fill that time. You will let the work stretch into the extra time you’ve given yourself.  Deadlines are both our enemy and our friend. They create pressure and cause stress, but they also force you to get things done, stop pushing deadlines and figure out how to simplify the project to complete it in the allotted time. Jason Friend (founder of 37Signals) famously looks for components to pull out of their software projects before they launch in order to simplify.

#7. Importance Is Relative 

While writing an out-of-office auto-responder email recently I found myself writing the line:

“If you have an emergency that needs to be addressed immediately, please email [email protected].”

Then I stopped and thought about my word choice here. In my defense, I have received emails from clients with the subject line being “Emergency” or “Urgent” or “Rush” (all with the “!!” importance clicked). But then I thought about re-writing it to instead read “If you have an emergency that needs to be addressed immediately, please look up the definition of emergency. We work in marketing, not a hospital.” That said, this is your job. You’ve chosen a career path where sell sheets, ad placement, color selection, and website copy are of huge importance. You need to take it seriously, or get a different job.

Must Read: The Art of Client Service — 58 Things Every Marketing Professional Should Know.

#8. Good, Fast, and Cheap

Ah, the project management triangle: “Good, Fast, and Cheap.” The client can pick any two. Although you can never say this directly to clients, this is an easy way to evaluate most project requests. “It’ll be good and fast, but it won’t be cheap” or “It’ll be fast and cheap, but it won’t be good.” Generally, we always strive for Good. Because that’s what people remember. In six months no one will remember how fast you completed a project, but they sure as hell will remember how good it was. And, possibly more important, think about your agency’s portfolio. Other people (besides your client) are going to see your “fast” or “cheap” work and critique your agency’s capabilities. And they will critique it without the narrative that it was “turned around really fast,” or “done for short money,” and that’s the reason it’s not super good. People remember good.

#9. How Many Hats Do You Got?

Congrats on getting the account manager job, but guess what? You’re also in sales. You’ll go to most sales meetings to be the friendly face, reassuring the prospective client that “Yes, our creative director has some wild and crazy ideas for you, but don’t worry, I got you, I’ll keep your project organized. I’ll keep you on track, and on budget. Feel free to call me after the meeting and I’ll translate all the marketing-talk that was thrown at you. I am your reassurance.” You’re there to back up the team, and if need be, talk about your agency’s process and organization. But wait, as an account manager don’t you have multiple accounts that need be managed and a production team to keep on track? What are doing spending hours in sales meetings? Exactly.

Guess what, you’re also a copywriter. Need a couple headlines for some random pages on a website? Well, the copywriters are backed up for three days and you need to get this project finished tonight, it looks like you’ll be writing some copy in order to get this project out.

But wait, you’re also HR. Do your designers hate your developers because they butcher the hell out of the designer’s original creative vision when they build the website? The developer claims the homepage looks funky because the designer’s PSD layers weren’t labeled correctly so they “made it work,” while the designers claim the developers did a shit job of converting the PSD to CSS. And who’s holding the bag for the final product? That’s you. The account manager who neither designed the PSD or developed the CSS. You are responsible for the final outcome of the project. You need to know how to get good work out of everyone regardless of department, and get them all to work together.

So in short, you’ll be doing much more than managing feedback cycles.

#10. Work/Life Balance 

“Balance” is not part of the vernacular in the agency halls. In fact you might even seem weak or less capable if you’re not willing to “put in the hours.” If you’re a project or account manager get used to an average 50+ hour week (you’ll be on your laptop at home too). Account/project managers are the first in the door to plan out the day, and can be the last people out at night sending out all the work that got done that day (though creative teams often stay even later). This can be a burn-out job. Many people make it three, maybe four years in before they make a move, telling themselves another agency will be different, will be less demanding, will have better clients. Or maybe they’ll try their luck company side. Either way, they’re moving on. This is a systemic problem at agencies because the value of an agency is the talent of their people; therefore they have a vested interest in keeping their people around (it’s extremely hard to find good talent). That said, you (yes you) control your day and your balance. You get to decide your level of involvement in your own burn out. If you love your job but the stress is killing you, you need to find a way to deal with it so you can stick around. Working at an agency is an awesome job. You will not find a work culture like it anywhere. You need to figure out how to do it sustainably.

#11. Who’s Team Am I On?

As an account manager you become the go-between. You coordinate between:

  1. The client and the creative team.
  2. The client and the agency directors.
  3. The creative team and the agency directors.
  4. The creative team and the development team.
  5. The development team and agency directors.
  6. The development team and the client.

That’s at least four parties you have to maneuver through on a regular basis. And that’s without factoring in copywriters, social media folks, inbound strategists, and let’s not even get started with vendors. And guess what? None of these people agree. You face a lot of internal thrashing of opinions before anything ever gets to the client. And here’s the key, you haven’t factored in your own opinion. The question becomes, do you have an opinion? Sometimes it’s just easier to carry messages back and forth and not confuse things further by throwing your hat in the ring too. But here’s the kicker, when things go wrong, guess who gets asked “why did you do that?” Yep, that’s you, the person who simply carried those messages back and forth between parties for months is now put on the spot for a design/creative/development decision. More seasoned agency folk have advised that it’s best to not be on anyone’s team.  To not get sucked in, represent yourself and what you know to be the best decision. Be consistent and be fair, with everyone.

Must Read: The Art of Client Service — 58 Things Every Marketing Professional Should Know.

#12. Brown M&Ms: Your Clients Are Van Halen

The 1980s rock superstars Van Halen toured all over the world. Each concert they played required a signed contract which demanded, via a clause embedded in their tour rider, that no brown-colored M&Ms be allowed backstage (dressing rooms etc,.) at their concerts. While this seems like a typical rockstar demand, it’s actually a quality assurance test for the concert promoter. If brown M&M’s were in the backstage candy bowl, Van Halen concluded that more important aspects of a performance–lighting, staging, security, ticketing–may have been botched by an inattentive promoter. This is a reminder to check your work. Simple spelling errors and typos can take a magnificent piece of creative work and call it into question because attention was not paid to the most obvious details. Each error adds another crack to the client’s perception of your agency and worse, forces you to have a discussion about typos when you should be focusing on high level creative. Check your work, relentlessly.

#13. Learn The Lingo

If you’re working with designers and developers you need to understand their language. This is for your own protection. If a developer tells you they need to include meta keywords in order to finish the project, or that they want to build the website in tables, you need to ask them if they’re building a website for the year 2003. How long should it take for a DNS to resolve once changed? What’s a creative brief? What’s CSS? Ever use a CRM? How about an ESP? What’s the difference between SEO, PPC, and SEM? Plan on doing any print management? Then it would behoove you to know the difference between PMS and CMYK, to know what crops and bleeds are, and to know the differences between digital and offset printing.

How can you successfully manage the moving parts of a project if you don’t understand how they work?

#14. Read

If you want to thrive in the marketing industry, it helps to know about its roots. Read the classics to get a foundation such as Ogilvy on Advertising, and Confessions of an Advertising Man, all the principles outlined here are still relevant today. And of course, read Good to Great, Made to Stick,  Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, and Purple Cow. Read the rags, AdWeek and AdAge (even if you work at a small agency, the latest happenings at huge shops like TBWA should be inspiring you). Yes, reading marketing blogs is good, and you should do it, but you should get a solid base (read books!) under you as well. If you work at a good agency, you’ll eventually be lucky enough to work with a client who appreciates a good Ogilvy or Godin reference and will in turn have more confidence in you.

Feeling like a go getter? Then flex your brain by reading Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, Blink,  and Outliers, and apply these ideas to your marketing strategy. Also checkout Switch by the Heath brothers, Contagious by Jonah Berger, ReWork by Jason Fried, and Brains on Fire by Geno Church & co.

#15. Am I Making This Better? Or Just Different?

This is a question that should be asked throughout any revision process. It’s easy to get caught in pointless revisions cycles (word-smithing copy, tweaking a half inch of logo placement, and other appeasement revisions). While many ad agencies are happy to let clients word-smith until they’re blue in the face (as long as they pay for each revision), this generally doesn’t end with a superior result. So ask yourself (and the client) during revisions, are we making this better? Or just different? Are we moving toward a highly superior end product, or are we just spinning our wheels?

16. Thrashing. Thrashing. Thrashing.

Thrashing is changing things on a project. It’s to beat on a design or concept via criticism and feedback. Regardless of whether it’s a software build, print ad, or website, this is a natural part of all projects. If you want to manage creative projects, you need to have great respect for thrashing because it is a powerful force. It is the enemy of every project manager, because it will push deadlines and jam extraneous shit into your projects at the very last minute. Seth Godin puts it best:

Here’s what happens on almost every software project. Someone comes up with a software idea to make. They hire programmers and they start building it. Then about three months before the project ships, other people start to get involved. Other people want to look at the UI. Other people start weighing in. About two months before it ships, thrashing occurs, people start pulling things out, and putting things in. And the closer you get to deadline, the more thrashing occurs. The more cycles get extended, the more work gets put into it. Until eventually you ship not on time and not on budget. What smart programming shops like Microsoft have adopted, is that they must thrash in the beginning, when it’s cheap and easy. They insist on thrashing early. Because they know their job is to ship. – Seth Godin

What’s important to take away here, is not to complain about thrashing and late-in-the-game revisions, this will happen. Even if you have a thrashing meeting to focus on avoiding thrashing, it will happen. What’s important is to focus on how to efficiently ship projects. To get them out the door, so you can do it again. And again. A project manager who can’t get a project shipped is doing a disservice to their clients and an even greater disservice to their agency.

#17. You Can’t Lose What You Don’t Put In The Middle

This is a line lifted from the movie Rounders. It’s a poker reference. But it works here like this: you won’t get feedback you don’t ask for. Ok, that’s not always true, in practice you’ll get tons of feedback you didn’t ask for. The point is, the easiest projects to move through your agency are the ones that have the least feedback attached to them, because of course there are less revisions and less rounds of revisions (less thrashing!). There will come a time when you want to ask a client “What do you think of what we did in this area of the design?” But first ask yourself, do you really want to know? Did you ask because you think the client’s feedback will ultimately improve upon the already awesome design from your creative team? Or were you just asking? Remember, your goal is to ship, to get the project completed. If you get bogged down in feedback it will keep you from accomplishing your goal of shipping.

Is This An Accidental Profession?

Project management is sometimes referred to as an accidental profession. Ask a graphic designer what their degree is in and you’ll learn it’s graphic design. This is what they went to school for. This is what they intended to do. But ask a project manager and you’ll get a more varied response. No one wants to be one when they grow up. But it happens. People fall into this profession after trying out other professions or other roles within an agency.

It doesn’t matter how you got here. You’re here. And you’re one of the lucky ones. While everyone else is stuck in the daily grind, you’re continually working on brand new projects with exciting companies. Even better, you get to work with some of the best and most creative people in the business. The business of an agency is the business of new ideas.  Very few people get the chance to work at an agency, an even fewer get the chance to actually thrive. The truth might be, that this job is as hard as you let it be (but you won’t realize that for years). It’s challenging, stressful, and extremely demanding, but it’s the job you’ll remember, if you’re lucky enough to get it.

Still hungry for more agency learnings? Check out this post: 12 Things Learned in My First Years at an Agency

Want to up your account management game? Read The Art of Client Service — 58 Things Every Marketing Professional Should Know. 


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