The Diminished Ad Agency AE

Today’s Ad Agency AE

hey-it-s-not-so-easy-being-an-account-executive-men-s-premium-t-shirtA friend of mine, a long term Executive Creative Director and advertising professor, is writing a book on advertising based on his multi-decade major league career. He is asking a range of experienced colleagues and friends to add to his book’s subject matter (by the way, a great way to get smart content to bulk up your book). He asked me about my thoughts on today’s Account Executives – yes, the AE.

Here is a part of my contribution. As you’ll see, I think the role of the AE has been diminished. I view this as being a result of lower gross margins – we no longer can afford to train our AE’s and, in many cases, we don’t pay them enough to attract the best and brightest. Parsimonious clients are reaping what they’ve sowed.

As an aside, I once ran the Northwest Airlines account. Northwest left Saatchi & Saatchi because they got a new CMO. An insecure bloke who decided he’d give the account to his friends at Ogilvy. I ran into one of the client’s mid-level execs one day and she asked me why Ogilvy did not provide the same level of account management care as Saatchi. I reminded her that she was now paying an 8% media commission vs. the 15% she had paid Saatchi. Yup, you get what you pay for: Parsimonious clients are reaping what they’ve sowed.

My Take: The Diminished AE

Like much of advertising, the role of the account executive has morphed over the past 25 years. In the olden days, the AE was an agency’s highly valuable point person. The AE had daily conversations with the client, acted as the go between the client and agency services, tracked programs and, in the best of all worlds, was a strategic thinker and brand resource. Today, given the reduction in agency gross margins, we are not training our account people to be the best representative for the agency. As a result of this plus the fact that many clients want to talk directly with the “doers” i.e. the creatives or digital planners, the AE role has been severely diminished.

That said, the best AE’s do have a holistic understanding of today’s complex marketing options and know how to build a client relationship. The key difference is that we have fewer of this type of AE. Agencies simply do not pay enough to attract the best AE candidates (thanks in part to reduced client compensation) to be competitive with other career options.

My Experience

I started my first AE job at New York’s giant (over 1,000 people in the Crysler Building) Dancer Fitzgerald Sample in the 1980’s. We were eventually bought by Saatchi & Saatchi and I even got some lunch money. My first job was working on the large General Mills account. I quickly became the agency’s lead on  Total and Kix cereals and began traveling to Minneapolis. I felt highly valuable to my client and agency… it was fun.

Every week the agency had a two-hour training program that included client management, presentation skills, and strategy development. After 6 months I was promoted and had my own office with a desk and window — take that today’s large AE field of desks.

Over the years, I got to use my early management training to help train the employees of my own companies and agency.

….. I’ll let you know when the new advertising book comes out.

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