Second Wind has conducted account service training for ad agencies since we launched Second Wind Training in 1989. We have worked with many ad agencies directly, consulting to help them with workflow systems and operations. And we have observed first-hand how agency operations have evolved in recent years, especially in the trend toward leaner staffs and systems.
While lean workflow has offered many benefits, it has also caused a loss of traditional task assignments, and certain job positions have moved toward extinction. Specifically, we have seen traffic and production management virtually disappear at smaller ad agencies and marketing firms. But while the positions are moving closer to extinction, someone still has to perform at least some of the tasks those functions once included. Not all of those tasks are covered by workflow management systems automation.
At many agencies, the people charged with picking up workflow and production tasks are, too often, the account executives and coordinators. As more than one agency principal has told us, “They already work directly with the client, so who better to do project management?” Or, “AEs gather all of the specifics of the job direct from the client, so they are the ideal people to create project estimates and set deadlines.”
While we would love to celebrate this re-apportioning of tasks to existing employees, we also hear from account executives and coordinators at our training events that they are a) swamped with work that has little or nothing to do with account service; b) increasingly challenged with fitting all of these additional requirements into their workweeks; and, c) unable to make their bosses see that they cannot go on indefinitely carrying the seemingly endless list of tasks their employers seem to think they should be easily able to bear… and still ensure client satisfaction, growth and retention.
Estimating, scheduling and project management must be done on top of AEs already absorbing at least some research, account planning and new business tasks.
This is, in a word, unsustainable.
What Happens When AEs Are also TMs and PMs
Just off the tops of our collective heads, here are just some of the potential issues resulting from the expecting AEs to carry traffic and production functions in lean agency operations.
AEs are asked to be details-focused, but the best personality types for account service may not be strong enough at details to really do justice to their project management and estimating tasks.
If AEs are doing project management and estimating, they aren’t out of office servicing accounts and strengthening client relationships.
AEs may fail to account for all aspects of a job when estimating due to lack of production experience/background, resulting in too-low estimates and reduced revenues.
AEs in charge of projects may start scheduling to ensure their projects receive the “firstest and mostest,” jeopardizing overall agency efficiency and delivery. The result is a bunch of AE-run fiefdoms, where creative staff are bullied by whichever AE yells the loudest, and AEs act like they’re running their own separate agencies.
Because no single AE can see the entire agency schedule, they may be unaware (or not care) if other projects are jeopardized by their own scheduling—and the burden to meet unreasonable schedules from multiple AEs defaults to creative, who can quickly burn out from work overload.
AEs may skimp on paperwork, especially POs for outside services, because they are carrying the load of multiple job functions. Without POs, accounting cannot accurately invoice clients for completed or in-progress work. This results in budget overruns and late vendor invoices that cannot be billed after agency invoices have been submitted and approved by clients. More important AE paperwork may not be completed either, like client contact reports and job input forms.
If you are seeing problems in your daily operations, and your agency has reached a certain point in growth (15-20 employees is the historical tipping point), you may need to re-examine your workflow and operations systems to decide if you actually need to reassign tasks now undertaken by AEs back to a dedicated production/traffic manager; or, hire one or two project managers. Having a workflow management system is important and can help with keeping critical agency people informed of all aspects of a project, but having someone oversee that system may help alleviate traffic jams, inefficiencies and estimating/billing issues.
Never Assume AEs Are OK
Agency owners: do not assume that because your AEs have not been openly protesting the demands you place on them, they are happy with their lots. One key indicator is high turnover in account service staff. Another would be a decline in internal efficiencies, including missed deadlines due to haphazard rescheduling and missed outside charges on invoices already sent to clients.
Take a hard look at your current AEs and workflow assignments, and ask whether it is time to pull some of their production and workflow tasks back into a single function, or reconsider having AEs also act as project managers.
It is possible to become too lean. Gather your account service people together to brainstorm what is and is not working for them. Also, make an annual client satisfaction survey part of your account service practices. Any indications that your account service structure is not maintaining client relationships could signal a need to refocus AEs on their primary duty—maintaining and growing client accounts.