Monday, May 10, 2010

Account Management - Just Like Coaching T-Ball

So, I'm coaching my sons' t-ball team the other day, and I'm getting the sense that something feels eerily familiar. Then it dawns on me... that coaching 4, 5, and 6-year-olds in a sport they haven't played before is very similar to Account Management at an advertising agency.

I've worked at three agencies in the Seattle area, and when explaining to others what Account Management is, I tend to end with, "It's a bit like herding cats." Which, if you've ever seen a t-ball game, you get the analogy. Add a mouse [the ball] to chase, and it's managing victory out of chaos.

First, in the new age of raising children, there are no losers - just games in which everyone gets to have fun by participating. In managing a client account, an agency is also looking for a win/win situation: a campaign that not only drives business for the client, but one in which the creative team can be proud to add to their portfolio.

Coaching t-ball is about keeping players focused and making sure everyone knows what's going on. "Hey Johnny, you paying attention?" "Great hit, Paul! Do you know which base you go to next? Right, 2nd." "Liam, if the ball comes toward you, field it (with your glove), and throw it to William at 1st."

As an account manager, it's not much different. Constant communication. You're the primary liaison between the client and all moving parts of the agency. (See below.) You're working with Media to help put together a media plan and get it approved by the client. You're briefing art directors and copy writers, so they can develop creative concepts that will communicate the company's product or service - to generate awareness, initiate trial, or to reiterate the client's brand. You're keeping track of schedules and working with Project Management and Production to ensure campaigns are being executed on time and under budget. All the while, putting on your 'client hat,' knowing what makes them (and their customers) tick (and not tick), and pushing to get the best creative that you can out of your team. And very often, it's a lot of: "Hey, Rob... you and Steve are going to be ready for the internal check-in meeting at 3 today, right?"

Sometimes, because of the sheer number of folks involved at each point, you're also orchestrating more people than are truly needed. At an agency, you can't have everyone who is working on a campaign there to present to the client (not that they'd all want to) - so some folks are left back at the office. With t-ball, however, I look around, and we've got 13 players on the field. The whole team. One playing each position in the infield, and seven in the outfield. Nothing's gonna get by us. Oh, wait, see my point about learning "the basics" a couple paragraphs down.

As a coach or a supervisor, it's about managing expectations. In t-ball, that means talking to the other coaches and determining that a kid is still going to be able to run the bases, despite the fact that he was out at 2nd by a mile. Or that a kid can take an extra base (and just one) if she hits the ball into the outfield. This isn't that hard in t-ball, but it's one of the most challenging notions of the role of Account Manager. Again, it comes down to communication - keeping the client apprised of all moving parts. What's the status? Where are we with things, and if anything is behind, what are we doing to mitigate risk?

Everybody has an opinion. Thankfully, at this age, parents of t-ball players don't get involved in coaching from the sidelines. [I don't expect that to continue as we get to a level where we count runs and some teams actually lose.] If they did, we'd gladly hand them a team shirt, and they could have at it. At an agency, however, Account Managers are constantly working with two often-differing opinions: those of the client and those of the creatives. It's a true skill to be able to balance these while achieving both goals for a campaign as mentioned above.

From a pure management sense, a large challenge in each area is that of teaching basic skills. In t-ball, that means instructing the kids on the basics of throwing and hitting (the ball). For some kids, this comes naturally. For others, it's a bit of a challenge at first. At an ad agency, it's also the duty of a seasoned Account Manager to instill a sense of client service with newly recruited Ad Execs. Anticipation, accountability, managing budgets and people, etc. - all those things which make the account team an integral part of the agency.

More often than not, however, you find yourself in a situation where you can't train the newbies as well as you'd like, and you're forced to put them in 'live' situations. Initial instruction and some general guidance, and this is where the real coaching begins. In both cases, if you're lucky, you collect a team of players who pick things up quickly, can adapt, and even lead by example.

Our #1 rule in t-ball: "Have fun." Working at an agency can be a lot of fun, too. At meetings, we don't usually put our hands in and, on 3, scream, "HAVE FUN!!!" at the top of our lungs - but the ping pong table, the occasional free lunch, and general lightheartedness at an agency make it an implied rule nonetheless.

Rule #2? "Don't swing the bat, unless an adult says It's OK." I'm glad that's something we've never had to instill at an agency.

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