Account management: how do-ers become managers

March 13, 2016

Moving from a do-er to a manager is probably the most difficult step in an Account Manager's career pathway.

In New Zealand and Australia the pathway looks like this: Account Executive --> Account Manager --> Senior Account Manager --> Account Director --> Senior Account Director --> Group Account Director --> Client Services Director. It's the step from Senior Account Manager to Account Director which can prove the stumbling block for many. Why is that?

AEs, AMs and SAMs are all "do-ers". They are the ones who action day-to-day tasks to ensure projects and campaigns are completed on time and on budget. They may or may not (1) be client facing; (2) the lead on client accounts; or (3) have direct reports. Their function and responsibilities will largely be dictated by the type of agency they are in and the structure of their client service team.

When a person reaches Account Director (AD) level the playing field will often radically change. There is an expectation that the AD will be leading key accounts, running a team of direct reports, have P&L responsibility, and be strategic. The burning question is how can a person make the jump from SAM to AD when it's highly likely that they have never worked in such a capacity before and cannot prove they will be competent at the job?

Promotion from within

This is the easiest way that you can make the move from SAM to AD. You can remain working with familiar clients and colleagues, and your agency does not need to look elsewhere to recruit. Win-win. If you are ever offered an internal promotion like this, then you should jump at the chance to easily gain AD experience for your CV.

Who you know

This is the second-easiest way to make the move. If you have been a savvy Account Manager who has done the hard-yards of networking over the past few years, then you are in a better position than most to find an AD role. If there is no opportunity for an internal promotion at your agency then it's time to tap your resources! It will be more likely that someone you know will take a chance on your unproven skills than a complete stranger.

Change jobs to move up

This is the most common way to become an AD, but by far the most difficult. Agencies will usually want to see evidence that you can function well at this level, and without this practical experience your road to AD could be difficult.


How do you get the experience required?

That's a great catch-22 question! Let's look at the two core skills that you'll need to demonstrate at AD level: being strategic and running a team.

Being "strategic"

An important point to note: being "strategic" is vastly different to being a "Strategist" (in the agency sense of the word). "Strategist" is a job title for someone who's primary function is to gather, define, and clarify the insights that drive creative solutions for a client.

You'll know you are operating at a strategic level when you start to:

  • Display a solid understanding of your client's business needs. 
  • Give intelligent advice based on the outcome you need to achieve for both your client and your agency.
  • Plan and execute campaigns by thinking through various marketing and advertising scenarios and picking the best one for your client based on solid rationale.
  • Produce strategic account plans for each of your clients.
  • Conduct robust discussions with your client that demonstrate your knowledge of the industry, marketing requirements, customer habits, etc.
  • Become someone your client will turn to for advice.
  • Be the client service professional who your client develops a brief with, rather than merely gives a brief to.

As an AE, AM or SAM you may be running so fast on the hamster-wheel of agency-life that you feel there is no time to be strategic with your clients. However, if you wish to be an Account Director, you will need to start flexing your strategic muscles as soon as you possibly can (even at AE level). Three important reasons to start early are:

  1. Practise makes perfect.
  2. Your clients will love you for it.
  3. Your employer will (hopefully) notice your strategic ability and one day reward you with a promotion.

Experience running a team

This one is a toughie. You are pretty much at the mercy of your agency's client service team structure as to whether or not you will get your own direct report.

Team management is fairly standard for all positions AD and above. If you do not currently have the opportunity to manage a junior staff member, you could try the following:

  • Ask if it would be possible to have a direct report (it never hurts to ask!). Explain your goals for your career and how much you wish to start on the journey to senior client management.
  • Make a sideways move to an agency where you can manage a direct report, and have that as one of the main criteria when assessing job opportunities.
  • Volunteer at an organisation where you will be responsible (now or in the future) for running a team. This can also work for managing a team for a one off project or event (civic, community, cultural, sporting, church, youth, etc.).


Your recruiter is your advocate

What do you do when you know you're ready to step up from SAM to AD, but your CV does not show the core skills required? It's time to talk with your recruiter.

Tell them why they should take a punt on you at AD level. Give them all the information they need to be able to "sell" you in to an agency. Think of your recruiter as the person who gives a voice to your CV and who will go in to bat for you. If you are able to convince your recruiter that you can do it, they can then help encourage an agency to give you a chance.


Don't give up!

Making the jump is challenging, and may take time to find the right role and agency, but don't give up.

Once you are at AD level the pathway is relatively simple. From there on in your promotion will be based on your years of experience, quality of work, leadership ability, and the types of clients and channels you have worked on.

Get ready. Take a deep breath. Leap! 



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