August 31, 2015


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Account management: getting your foot in the door

Getting a "foot in the door" is never easy, and breaking into the advertising or design world is certainly no exception.

You may be a university graduate seeking an entry level role or an experienced professional wanting to "cross over" to agency account management from a related industry. Let's look at both the possibilities and the realities of securing a client service role in an advertising or design agency when you have no "previous agency experience".



Let's be honest - tertiary institutes are businesses. They exist to (1) educate students; and (2) make money. Year after year they allow hoardes of students to graduate, knowing that there is only a teeny-tiny pool of graduate jobs available in the marketplace. It's appalling - we all know it - and only the tough will survive and go on to have illustrious agency careers.

How, then, do graduates get agency client service jobs? In New Zealand the most common way is for an agency "scout" to pluck the best and brightest student directly out of their course and straight into either a full time (paid) graduate role or internship (work-for-free) programme. 

If a graduate misses the draft (or didn't attend a university course at all), the best strategy is good ol' fashioned gumption and sending out their CV direct to their favourite agencies. Sometimes it's a case of hang in there, grow a thick skin and never give up - even if it means you need to pump a lot of gas before you get into an agency.


Junior roles

A junior client service role will almost always require the candidate to have had "previous agency experience". That could mean 6 months or 1 to 2 years working in a recognised advertising or design agency.

By asking for "previous agency experience" agencies are not being unreasonable (though you may think so at the time). The reality is that most busy client service teams simply do not have the time to train a complete novice. This is not so good news for the graduate, but it does open the door for someone who may have worked in a related industry (such as TV production, content marketing, experiential, social media, digital production, PR or marketing) who is looking to cross over into agency at a junior level and work their way up. Agencies looking to fill a junior role are often willing to consider someone who has had this type of related experience.


Crossing over

It's not impossible for a person who has worked for years in a related industry to cross over into Agencyland, but it's very, very difficult for most people, and here's why.

Big agencies usually have a very definitive pathway for their client service teams. In New Zealand you start life as an Account Executive (AE), then move to Account Manager (AM), Senior Account Manager (SAM), Account Director (AD), Senior Account Director (SAD) then crown your career as a Group Account Director (GAD) or Client Service Director (CSD).   

A large agency will expect their teams to have followed this recognised pathway. If you haven't served your time in the lower ranks, then you probably won't be able to leap straight into an intermediate or senior client service role.

If an agency was open to someone crossing over, then the chances are high that that person would need to start in a junior position and work their way up - most likely with a drop in salary, which many people are unable - or unwilling - to do.

Smaller advertising and design agencies tend to be more open to hiring staff with a "non-traditional" career pathway. This can be the ideal entry point for someone to cross over into agency from a related industry.


Why is crossing over so difficult to do?

For the most part the reasons are extremely practical. To work successfully in agency client services, at an intermediate or senior level, you need to be able to do all of the following:

  • Have proven technical knowledge and skills to execute campaigns across a wide variety of channels. Depending on the type of agency, these channels could include: web, digital, social, print, TV, radio, OOH, media, DM and/or PR. You need to understand both the technical jargon and how to make magic happen within a fast-paced, stress-filled, unforgiving agency environment.
  • Understand how an agency ticks. A typical, large agency is the veritable beast with 10 horns. There's a valuable skill, which only comes from experience, in figuring how the creatives, developers, copywriters, strategists and management all play together in the sandpit and how the client service team stops them from throwing their toys at each other.
  • Handle agency life. It's one thing to tell someone how intensely stressful and manic agency life can be, but it's another ball game to actually experience it. It's much easier for a junior to learn this from the ground up than for an older person to have it hit them between the eyes.

If you are not sure if you can do all three of these things, then I urge you to re-consider if agency life is right for you. It's painful to watch people "cross over" and then slowly implode from the pressure. It's usually the lack of skills and knowledge which hits first, followed by overwhelming stress, a breakdown in health and then they leave.


Growing a tough skin

To survive as an agency account manager you need to be tough, resourceful and let anything that is vaguely brown in colour roll off your back as though you were walking in a field of lavender. 

Getting into "agency" will require all those same qualities. If you can use your wit, resources, abilities and nous to get a job in the first place, it's a good sign that you will be able to stay the course and have a long, successful career.

Think about ways you can stand out from the packed crowd:

  • Create a sharp-looking CV.
  • Produce a YouTube video introducing yourself.
  • Do some research into the types of agencies that you'd like to work for, then tailor each pitch to suit.
  • Milk your connections ( "it's who you know" usually works a charm).
  • Network, network, network...

...and good luck!




Sarah Ritchie
Sarah Ritchie


Sarah Ritchie is the founder of AM-Insider - a website bursting with tips, tricks and resources to create account management superstars in the advertising, design, PR, experiential and print industries. Sarah has been involved in account management for 25 years and has a passion for encouraging, mentoring and helping others succeed.

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