I hugged a client yesterday.
With eight-plus years as an account strategy guy, I broke down and hugged a client. I wasn’t expecting to do it; it just happened. And frankly, it surprised the SWOT out of me. It’s not that I’m not an affectionate person, but it conflicted with the 21st century role to which account service types have evolved. Strategy. Professionalism. Leadership. Believe me, as an account service type, I wish I didn’t have this new responsibility.
Unfortunately, the old stereotype of account executives was not favorable from a strategic standpoint. The role was often defined by over-solicitous individuals who presented a few ideas, cut out early and, once in a pink moon, invited the client out for drinks and darts. Tens of thousands of AEs rode the wave of endless expense accounts and big budget nights-on-the-town contributing little to the client’s business.
I guess it would have been OK to hug a client in those days.
Obviously, times have changed for the account service department. Our role, as account executives, is to lend expertise and insight as we hack the path for our clients through a post 9-11 marketing jungle. Clients are anxious. They are uncertain. They are looking to us for leadership and guidance. This is a serious task with serious consequences.
Our clients are facing a marketplace wrought with competition and communication mediums that need constant monitoring. Our clients don’t want to see mediocre creative that may or may not have results. The new role of the account service / client service / account executive (or whatever the heck you want to call us) is to unite a talent team and offer strategic thinking with measured results that goes beyond what the client can produce alone. Any account representative worth his branding salt who hasn’t shifted his focus to this responsibility will perish in this industry.
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Which brings me back to the problem: I wasn’t hired to hug. I was hired to move the meter.
Once out of the touchy-feely moment and upon returning to my office, I started my hug meltdown. In that two-second moment, had my leadership persona wavered, casting doubt in my client’s mind as to the firm grip I had on the company’s advertising helm? Had I ruined the aura I had so diligently crafted, positioning myself and my agency as professional communications wizards blazing a steady path through dangerous market bogs and sinkholes? Did I deflate the opportunity to expand the account and pick up possible PR services, as my client would regrettably sever our relationship in an effort to avoid…a second hug?
Paranoia raced through my mind. I couldn’t let my fears go unanswered, for it was I, after all, who was responsible for this account. If we lost it because of my moment of weakness, my head would roll. My head. Not our creative director’s. He was brainstorming up in his cozy loft, miles away from the event. Not our PR director. She was oblivious to the horror I had unleashed on our unsuspecting client. And certainly not our agency president. Had he seen the hug himself, I dare say I would have been punished by being made to read another one of his Ries and Trout books.
I was in this alone. I was responsible to right the wrong. So with visage scrunched and brow sweating, I penned a feverish email to my hug victim. It read,
I’m extremely happy with the board’s warm reception to our presentation. I am excited to move forward with the implementation phase of the brand roll-out.
But it was in the post-script that I prepared for the moment of truth:
P.S. I apologize for the hug. I was a bit exuberant after the success of your internal brand introduction.
I hit “send.” And waited. No turning back now. After nibbling on my lunch, at my desk, while my colleagues praised Ogilvy it hadn’t happened to them, I heard the banshee of Outlook wail its welcome to an incoming message. It was she. The V.P. of marketing, my client, had responded.
Her message read:
Please do NOT apologize for the hug. I am so happy and grateful to know that you are as excited and passionate about our endeavor as we are! See you on Tuesday.
And that’s when I knew times were changing … again.
Yes, our clients are looking for professionalism. Yes, our clients are looking for guidance in a market place wrought with competition. But more than anything, our clients are looking for account service that is well rounded enough to be both professional and passionate, because the true act of building your clients’ business is caring about it as much as they do.
Will I plan to start hugging every client? No. But you can be damned sure they’ll know I am as passionate about their business as they are, for that’s what marks the difference between the currently frigid, post 9-11 account service model and the passionate professional that true agency talent must embrace (no pun intended).