In another era, account executives were much more than process and delivery experts, says Éric Blais. They were like management consultants helping to drive the creative business.
In the ever-changing world of advertising, the rise of account planning has been one of its most transformative forces.
Initially championed by Stanley Pollitt and Stephen King at J. Walter Thompson’s London office in the late 1960s, planning was later exported to the U.S. by advertising legend Jay Chiat in the early 80s. Speaking from personal experience, Brian Harrod and Ian Mirlin appointed me their director of strategic planning in 1991. I was quite young, but I had been trained in the discipline of packaged goods, and had been approached by two market research firm to join their ranks because I was a “suit” with strong strategic skills.
But it was in the ’90s where we really saw account planning reshape how advertising agencies craft campaigns, a new role that brought with it an unintended consequence: the potential devaluation of the role of account people.
With the introduction of account planning, account executives who were traditionally the strategic thinkers, witnessed a shift in their responsibilities, a realignment that may have inadvertently cast a shadow over the strategic contributions once made by account executives. Increasingly, they found their roles confined to client servicing, project management, administrative tasks, and budget control—the caretakers of operational aspects while planners took on the primary responsibility for strategic thinking.
In the daily churn of an ad agency of today, it’s easy to perceive a distinct divide: account executives tirelessly tackling operational tasks, while account planners wear the cloak of strategy, engaged in research and delivering deep insights—usually with a British accent. Such a divide risks painting a skewed picture of account executives as mere backroom functionaries, overshadowed by the account planners in the strategic spotlight.
In the heyday of traditional advertising, the “suits”—a term sometimes used derogatively but indicative of their focus on the business side of the creative industry—played a central and indispensable role. These seasoned professionals were much more than just process and delivery experts; they were akin to management consultants within the creative business.
Their accountability was multi-faceted, as they had to answer to their clients for delivering successful campaigns, and also to the agency, ensuring that client requirements were effectively communicated to the creative and media teams. Their role demanded a unique blend of business acumen and creative understanding, making them the suits who navigated the creative business landscape with finesse.
They did not outsource creative briefs from account planners. They researched, wrote and defended them.
They weren’t conveyor belts for clients’ asks. Understanding the client’s needs, goals, and preferences was their forte. Their knack for articulating the client’s requirements, preferences, and guidelines ensured that everyone involved was on the same page.
When challenges arose during the campaign, the suits were quick to jump into action, resolving issues and smoothing out any bumps in the road. Many were known for their exceptional presentation skills. They confidently and persuasively conveyed campaign proposals, creative concepts, and campaign results to clients, leaving a lasting impression.
In addition to their account management duties, suits often played a key role in business development. They actively sought new clients, pitched the agency’s services, and contributed to the agency’s growth and expansion.
Over the years, I’ve seen many suits who exhibited these qualities become account planners. I’m one of them. But this transition and the specialization of roles may inadvertently overshadow the strategic contributions of account people and diminished the critical role they should play in the advertising development process.
It’s time to return to a service model with account executives as jacks-of-all-trades, making them the most well-rounded advertising professionals in the business.
Jay Chiat once declared that account planning was “the best new business tool ever created.” True, but carefully managing its role in agencies’ service model, along with ensuring strong account service, is the best way to keep the business.
Éric Blais is president of Headspace Marketing, a consultancy that helps marketers build brands in Quebec. He can be reached at feedback@headspacemarketing.