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Will the real Account Managers please stand up?

By Luke Achterstraat, Commtract CEO.

It’s a problem well known in PR circles across Australia; business is good, there’s new work coming down the pipeline, but who exactly is going to take it on? The talent shortage in Australian agencies is inconvenient at best and crippling at worst.

As hiring the right talent for the job has become harder and harder for PR firms, many are starting to question the job they are even hiring for – what does a modern account manager look like?

The outcome is that in many cases the agency model itself is being reimagined, and a new breed of streamlined and more focussed agencies is emerging.

One recruiter I spoke to recounted an anecdote of taking a prospective role to 50 account managers. Only one was willing to even consider moving jobs. Following the removal of all public relations managers from the government’s ‘Skilled Occupations List’ last year, finding the right talent has only become harder.

Whether the skills shortage is down to a fundamental lack of talent being produced or a lack of fluidity in the job market, the fact is that finding account managers ready and able to switch jobs on short notice is like finding hens’ teeth.

As a result of this hiring challenge, we are seeing the more enterprising agencies beginning to rethink their entire operational models and organisational structures.

The agency model has been unchanged for decades. But with the engine room of junior to mid-level staff depleted or removed entirely, the traditionally hierarchical account executive; account manager; account director (AE-AM-AD) structure has become difficult to stick to. Instead we’re seeing a shift of agencies adapting to a system that allows them to substitute in freelancers and specialists as their pipeline demands.

As often happens when existing methods are disrupted, we are seeing the new agency models solving problems many firms didn’t even know they had.

To balance the shortage of account managers, specialists are emerging within agencies to work on different parts of client accounts, many on short-term projects. So clients get exposure to a broader range of thinking, and agencies are providing a new type of service.

These flexible arrangements have led to agencies engaging more freelance specialists, as a more complex industry means they need to adapt to the changing need of their clients, while providing ever more tailored services. Other staff are helping to pick up the responsibilities of the undermanned account manager level, with duties spread across both senior and junior colleagues.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach in today’s world of ultra-personalisation, and the ability to adjust account teams and even agency personnel to deliver a tailored offering to clients is an undeniable advantage in communications.

In the face of an unavoidable staffing shortage, the ‘jack-of-all-trades’ approach that is characterised by the AE-AM-AD model is becoming rarer. Account teams are being created and assigned according to speciality rather than seniority, with freelancers filling the gaps.

The result is a new breed of streamlined agency, running leaner and plugging in specialists as and when they are required in order to offer an increased level of expertise to clients. As agency offerings improve with specialisation, a new question is beginning to crop up: what does an account manager role really look like?