Ten golden rules of account management

By Simon Derungs, 3 August 2022 | 6 mins read

The account management (aka client service) role has always been a strange one, misunderstood and maligned by some, appreciated by a few, but always bang in the centre of the action. In short, account management is absolutely vital in bringing together client wishes and agency creativity to generate commercial benefits for all.

I vividly recall my first day as an account management trainee at Dorland Advertising (RIP). I was one of eight successful grads (back then, the big agencies attracted thousands of applications for the few coveted places) and we were all slightly nervous of what lay in store.

Thankfully we had fabulous teachers, foremost of whom was the wonderful Mary Hargreaves. She ran the grad recruitment and training programme and took us all under her wing as we sat in the meeting room that would be our base camp for the next few weeks and listened attentively as the lessons began.

Lesson one, as I recall, was Mary’s ten golden rules for successful account management. To be honest, I only remember rules 1 and 10, which I dutifully share here, but as I now have the benefit of 30+ years doing the job, I’ve had a crack at also filling in rules 2 – 9.

Here we go:

1. Trust no one (from Mary)

Sounds cynical but I promise you that every time you forget this rule you are risking a catastrophe. New edit just back and the client’s screaming for it? Do not send it until you check it! Colleague says they’ll have it done by Tuesday lunchtime? Ask them which Tuesday…and assume they won’t, not because they’re lying, but because they’ll have a thousand other seemingly urgent demands on their time before then.

2. Ask why

One of the core values of The Maverick Group, this can sometimes be difficult when everyone seems to be nodding and keen to move onto the next agenda item. I was always taught to ask the stupid questions early, as that’s always better than returning with a stupid answer.

3. The tech will let you down

It will, I promise. Just when you need it most. Late for a client meeting? That’s when the printer will fail. Big pitch presentation? Guess what’ll happen when you press ‘play’ (spoiler alert – nothing). The moral of this being, always check, check again, and have a plan B. I always go to a client presentation with hard copy in my bag.

4. Write it down

Write notes in meetings, write contact reports (even if just as an email), write lists of what needs to be done, then prioritise and share with colleagues and clients. Write an agenda for every meeting and call. And write slides – the world is full of people with a point of view, happy to talk about their ideas until the cows come home, but this is of absolutely no value unless you know how to commit this to a page, slide or deck in a structured and compelling manner. I often find myself saying to colleagues, “yes, that’s great, but what does the slide say?”

5. Think big

Always try to take a step back and see the wood for the trees, plan forward, and keep things in context. How many times have people told me that “we’re not saving lives” as I feel the sky is falling in?

6. Think small

The headline of one of the greatest print ads ever written, and also an essential life skill for every successful agency suit. If you don’t get the small things right, all your hard work can count for naught. During that very first day at Dorland, we were taught how to set up a meeting. “This is a pencil” said our trainer, holding up said pencil, “it’s sharp at one end and has an erasure at the other. You are responsible for both ends”. Of course, messy meeting rooms, sloppy project management, typos of any sort (please tell me you know the difference between its and it’s), all create an impression of amateurism that certainly counts against you when you’re having the big conversations.

7. It’s good to talk, better to meet

Nothing beats face-to-face, just take a look at this classic 1990 ad for United Airlines. Talk on Zoom etc. or on the phone if you must, but when it’s important please don’t email. It’s a cowardly way to deal with problems, and a terrible way of discussing creative work. No one really likes confrontation but if you have bad news, take a breath and go see them, or at least call them.

8. Squeak loudly

You know that old saying that the squeaky wheel gets the oil? It’s true, as every successful account handler knows. It’s your responsibility to ensure that your project is given priority – by your clients, creatives and colleagues. You simply can’t wait politely for things to show up, you must make it happen through the strength of the relationships you build and the diplomatic prioritising of your accounts.

9. Be persistent

Never give up, even when the going gets tough, and all seems lost. Us account handlers must be eternal optimists, our glass is half full, even as the campaign bombs, the director bails, and the client goes AWOL. We keep our eye on the end game. I remember presenting a big creative campaign to a client. After an extended silence, his opening remark was “Well, this doesn’t work for me on any level at all”. We actually just laughed, pushed the work away and had a conversation about why we’d so badly missed the target. A week later, we hit bullseye. If in any doubt, think of Jan Koum, who applied for a job at Facebook in 2009 but was rejected. So instead he decided to build an App. He called it WhatsApp, and 5 years later Mark Zuckerberg bought it for $19 billion.

10. Stay hungry (also Mary)

Ambition is important, whether you’re hungry for creative awards, a promotion, or a new house. Whatever it is, stay focused, because this will help you through the rocky road that is the world of account management. In short, it’s not for the 9 to 5ers, or the faint hearted. Most clients would make terrible agency suits, and vice versa. You have to be in it 100%.

So there you have it, my recreation of Mary’s ten golden rules for successful account management. I’m sure I could write another twenty, but if you focus on just these ten, you’ll be doing OK.

And then you’ll have fun, I promise.