Account Management Today

Full-service marketing agency Bigeye’s podcast features account management guru Sarah Ritchie offering sage advice for nurturing client-agency relationships.

IN CLEAR FOCUS this week: Full-service marketing agency Bigeye’s podcast features Sarah Ritchie, an internationally-renowned author and account management expert. Sarah shares what she learned from interviewing over 1,000 agency professionals around the world and identifies the skills that all account managers need to cultivate. Based on her experience, Sarah offers practical advice for developing long-lasting relationships and how to avoid the most common causes of client-agency breakups.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising, produced weekly by Bigeye. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, VP of Insights at Bigeye. An audience-focused creative-driven, full-service advertising agency, we’re based in Orlando, Florida, but serve clients across the United States and beyond. Thank you for joining us. Listen to the following job description and guess which agency role it’s for. “The successful candidate will be experienced in data digital, social search media, creative, public relations, events, shopper marketing, programmatic, mobile, print, and outdoor. The ability to simultaneously and efficiently handle up to dozens of stakeholders often with competing interests is a must. The successful candidate is skilled at managing up, managing down, and balancing a profit and loss.” If you guessed Account Manager, well done! That was a fictitious job description that reflects how complex agency business can be. Since the days depicted in AMC’s Mad Men, when advertising agency account management was solely about client relationships and making sure the creative work was good, the role has really evolved. In our digitally-connected world, agency clients seek guidance across multiple disciplines that may go beyond what’s typically been classified as advertising. Today, account management remains a prerequisite for successful agency-client partnerships. It’s also where you’ll find people with the ability to lead clients’ work as well as direct the agency’s own business. To talk about account management and agency life, our guest this week is Sarah Ritchie, an international speaker trainer and author, who has spent over 25 years in the advertising and design industry. Sarah’s mission is to encourage, equip, and enthuse creative communications professionals and to help them forge strong client-agency relationships. During her career, Sarah has owned a successful design business, taught design to higher education students, and has been a business mentor. Sarah has also had a long tenure in agency account management and is the author of two industry books. The first was the award-winning, “How to Wrestle an Octopus, An Agency Account Manager’s Guide to Pretty Much Everything,” published in 2018. Sarah followed up that success with, “How to Tango with a Tiger, A Marketer’s Guide to Working with Creative Communications Agencies,” published in 2019. Sarah lives in Auckland, New Zealand with her husband, a cat, 4.8 million other Kiwis, and 30 million sheep. Sarah is joining us today from her home, which Google reports is located over 8,000 miles from Bigeye’s offices in Orlando, which makes you the most far-flung guest we’ve ever had, I think – welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS, Sarah!

Sarah Ritchie: Well, thank you very much, Adrian. And yes, I feel very far away right now when you put it like that – 8,000 miles! My goodness.

Adrian Tennant: Now Sarah, you’re in Auckland’s on New Zealand’s North Island, which is a beautiful part of the world and provided many of the locations used during the filming of The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. Could you give us an overview of the advertising industry in New Zealand?

Sarah Ritchie: Yeah, absolutely. The advertising landscape here, we’ve got a very strong selection of agencies and it’s really interesting. I wouldn’t be surprised if we actually had the most number of agencies per capita in the world when you look at what we have, and I’ve been tracking agencies in New Zealand for about 10 years, and we’re sitting at around about 1,000 creative comms businesses here, and those companies are spread right across the industry. So that’s advertising, design, experiential, PR, media, and then all the sub-agencies underneath that, and of those 1,000 companies, only about 12 of those are networked holding companies. So as you can see, we’re very much a company of independent agencies, very much an entrepreneurial spirit here and New Zealand agencies typically punch above their weight. You know, we’re very well awarded and recognized for their creativity.

Adrian Tennant: What’s your definition of account management?

Sarah Ritchie: I think before I answer what my definition is, it’s really interesting to look at what other people’s definition of account manager. And I think that’s very much displayed by the role title that that person gets within an agency. And you’ll see, in some agencies, the account managers are referred to as the sales team. And so they have, you know, job titles like Sales Manager, Business Partner, and it reflects a very much a sales mindset that they’re encouraged to have. And then you’ll get other job titles, which are like Client Partners or Relationship Managers. And that looks at the relationship side of an account management role. And I like to look at account managers as being more like the connective tissue that holds that client and agency partnership together. And I love the word “partnership.” So to me, a Client Partner is a great title or an Account Manager to me is a more generalistic term. And a client partner is a really lovely role title. And I see them as being the client’s representative within the agency and the agency’s representative to the client. And so that Account Manager actually has a lot of power. And I don’t think often that account managers are given the kudos that they deserve or are trained to have that level of power because really, they have the power to influence a client’s business decisions to a certain degree. And they’ve also got the power to hold the client’s budget, you know, so that’s a lot of responsibility and, you know, they need to use that very wisely.

Adrian Tennant: Sarah, I mentioned Mad Men‘s depiction of account management in the introduction. In that period, they were mostly account men, also referred to as “suits.” Yet both in the UK and here in the US I’ve observed a lot more women than men working in account management. Now, is that just me or is it the case around the world?

Sarah Ritchie: Yeah. Yes. I agree with you for the most part. It certainly is in my experience too. I think we have to be very culturally-minded when we answer that question. I certainly have seen in Western countries, such as you’ve mentioned in the UK, the US, Australasia, South Africa, there seem to be more women than men. But if we look in some countries such as around the Middle East and in certain Asian countries, you will see more men than women. That’s a reflection of the culture in which the agency operates. But when you look at the role of an account manager, and if you consider that as being the relationship holder with your clients, then that intrinsically involves a very warm type of words, like nurturing and caring and empathizing which lends itself very nicely to the innate feminine qualities. And I feel that that’s why we often see more women than men in those types of account management roles.

Adrian Tennant: What do you think are some personal characteristics that make for a great account manager?

Sarah Ritchie: Well, my number one characteristic and it’s a characteristic I love, love, love, and I hold very fast to, is curiosity. And I think if you are a naturally curious person, then you will naturally ask great questions. You will naturally want to know all about your clients, all about their business, all about their pain points. And you will naturally want to find out all of the technical aspects that go along with your jobs. So great account managers, in my opinion, ask great questions, which is curiosity, but then alongside all of those, all of that other, just the really essential qualities that all account managers should have, and that’s things like attention to detail, exceptional communication, great listening skills, and then, of course, the ability to juggle the mini projects and deadlines and stay really calm under all of that pressure. I used to say to young ones, I said, “You don’t get into nursing unless you’re prepared to work night shift the same as you do not get into account management unless you can handle stress.” Yeah.

Adrian Tennant: Based on your own 25-plus years of experience in 2018, you published your first book, “How to Wrestle an Octopus, An Agency Account Manager’s Guide to Pretty Much Everything.” Now, although it’s an encyclopedic volume of over 600 pages it’s also very accessible. And I think a really great reference for anyone working in an agency at any level. But I’m curious about the title. How did you arrive at the idea of wrestling an octopus?

Sarah Ritchie: That title was kindly donated to me during the research phase of writing the book. And I will read you a quote. This was from a good agency friend of mine in Australia. And he said, “I always explained to agency account managers that controlling clients and other agency people, especially creative, is a bit like wrestling an octopus. You manage to get five tentacles under control, and then the other three start whacking you around the head.” And so when I heard that, I thought, “Bingo, you’re absolutely right. Can I use that as a title?” And he said, “yes.”

Adrian Tennant: So what originally inspired you to write the book?

Sarah Ritchie: Given that I had been doing account management in some form or another, most of my career. All along that career, I was very frustrated at the lack of resources that were available for account managers worldwide. And that, as that became especially noticeable once the internet took off and you could, you know, you could Google for information and there was very little out there. So in 2014, I set up a website called And that’s still going today. It’s been rolled into my own website now, but I wanted the site to contain both templates that account managers could use as well as articles that could just support them in their day-to-day working life. And then in 2016, I was out walking my dog one morning, very early in the morning, and I had what I can only describe as an epiphany. And I said, “I am going to write a book.” What I did is I took all of the articles that I had written for the am inside a website, and I rolled them up into one group. I added in more information for account managers and it ended up being a very, very big book and one that’s very unique in the world. , there are other very good books out there for account managers, but none of them went into the depth and breadth that I wanted to capture in “Octopus.” And what I also wanted to do was I wanted to create a book that was very relevant for agencies all around the world. And the interesting thing Adrian is that I’ve spoken over the last few years. I’ve spoken with, well over gosh, it would be now probably over 1,300 agency folk, mostly account managers from around 30 different countries. So I’m getting a really interesting international perspective there. And I discovered that we are all very, very much the same, which can be quite surprising, but what I dug a little bit deeper and I found that all modern agencies, no matter where they are in the world, and this is in countries as diverse as Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas, you know, Australasia where all, all modern agencies are based on that original, mid-20th century American agency model. The structures are the same, the approach to the way that the agencies work is very, very similar both internally and with their clients. And it doesn’t matter which country you go to. You can kind of slot into working in these agencies all around the world. What is different is the culture that that agency is surrounded by – the culture of the teams, the culture of the clients, the society, and the market place in which they’re working. But what that means is that it makes “Octopus” very relatable all over the world.

Adrian Tennant: Hmm. Now, were you surprised by the level of interest from international readers?

Sarah Ritchie: Yeah, I’ll look, I was happy. I was happy about it, but I wasn’t surprised. I guess that comes back to the fact that I wrote the book with the international audience in mind. So I always hoped that it would be very well received around the world. And, you know, I’m always chuffed when I hear of “Octopus” turning up somewhere new, you know, for example, I’ve recently heard it’s now in Lebanon and Nigeria, which you know, which is fantastic. Yeah.

Adrian Tennant: Of course, we’ll provide a link to the book, which for listeners here in the US is available on in both print and Kindle editions. So Sarah, do you have any plans for an audio edition of “Octopus”?

Sarah Ritchie: Yeah. Look, Adrian. Believe me. I thought about it many, many times, but I shudder to think how long it would take somebody to actually listen to it. If, if you think that “Octopus” is 672 pages long, it is massive. Now picture that a Harry Potter book takes roughly 12 hours to listen to as an audiobook. Can you imagine the length of time it would take to listen to “Octopus”? So put it this way. I’m not saying no, but in my mind, I haven’t wrapped my tentacles around that just yet.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message.

Karen Hidalgo: I’m Karen Hidalgo, Associate Account Manager at Bigeye. Every week, IN CLEAR FOCUS addresses topics that impact our work as advertising account professionals. At Bigeye, we put audiences first. For every engagement, we develop a deep understanding of our client’s prospects and customers. By conducting our own research, we’re able to capture consumers’ attitudes, behaviors, and motivations. This data is distilled into actionable insights that inspire creative brand-building and persuasive activation campaigns – and guide strategic, cost-efficient media placements that really connect with your audience. If you’d like to know more about how to put Bigeye’s audience-focused insights to work for your brand, please contact us. Email Bigeye. Reaching the Right People, in the Right Place, at the Right Time.

Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. We’re talking to Sarah Richie about account management and agency life. Sarah, your follow up to “How to Wrestle an Octopus” is, “How to Tango with a Tiger: A Marketer’s Guide to Working with Creative Communications Agencies,” published last year. What prompted you to shift focus from the agency over to the client-side?

Sarah Ritchie: I was actually asked to write “How to Tango with a Tiger.” My book was given to the CEO of the double-ANA, which is the Australian Association of National Advertisers, which is very much like a marketing association. They loved “Octopus” and asked if I could write a similar book for marketers and for their members. And so we agreed that I would take “Octopus,” flip it 180 degrees. I would take out the bits that didn’t apply to marketers and put new sections in. And so what we effectively ended up with two sides to the same coin. We had “Octopus” for agencies and we had “Tiger” for marketers. And so really that that’s how it, how it came about. , but the whole crux of “Tiger” can be wrapped up in this statement that, “Strong agency-client relationships equals strong agency output equals engaged consumers, which equals growth and growth is what clients ultimately want out of their agencies.” So that became the whole focus of “Tiger” is working with your agency to the point where you’re going to see that growth.

Adrian Tennant: What are some of the key differences, if any, between the client’s perspective and that of the advertising or marketing agency when it comes to developing and maintaining a productive working relationship?

Sarah Ritchie: I think there is a world of difference when you look at any agency, project, or campaign, or you’re looking at a problem that you’re trying to address from the marketers and the agencies side, each party has a very, very different perspective. And then they’re going to bring their own set of experiences and knowledge and opinions. I think the fundamental issue that we’re looking at with any agency work is that creativity is not an exact science. It’s not like law or accounting and, you know, one plus one very, very rarely equals two in agency land. And if you think about, if a marketer was to give out the same brief to 10 different agencies, they’re likely to get 10 different creative solutions given back to them. And if an agency is any good at their job, each of those agencies will be able to convince that client that their solution is the right one for them. And so we’re very much in a business of selling an opinion. And so when you’ve got this very fluid kind of environment with no black or white, it can lead to some very tense discussions with clients. And of course, when you add into that, you’ve got deadlines involved. You’ve often got very, very large sums of money and you’ve got a client that’s going to want a return on investment for that money. And so the best advice I can give is to maintain excellent communication with your client. There is no such thing as too much communication and over-communication is better than not enough. So there should be zero surprises for the client and any agency project. And it’s usually the surprises that cause the greatest arguments.

Adrian Tennant: Hmm.

Sarah Ritchie: Yeah.

Adrian Tennant: Well, my next question is going to be, what are some of the most common reasons that clients and agencies discontinue their relationships with each other?

Sarah Ritchie: In “How to Tango with a Tiger,” I actually list out the top 20 frustrations that I see that clients have in working with their agencies. And there are many, many reasons, but the obvious ones are things, the big ones, like the quality of the work, the accuracy of the work, whether the creative met the brief, sometimes it’s whether they see creative ideas getting regurgitated over time, you know, it starts to get stale. But then there are more insidious frustrations that go on and these are the ones that can build up over time and are usually the ones that lead to clients, discontinuing the relationship. And these are things like where the client feels like they’re not being listened to or where they’re perceiving a lack of value in the agency service or whether they’re constantly being overcharged or there’s incorrect invoicing. And it’s often something specific that happens time and time again, but it’s never fixed. The onus is on every member of the agency. We’re all in it as a team to get it right. But the account managers specifically, because most of the time, they’re the ones that are having that direct interaction with the client. And it’s their responsibility to make sure there are zero surprises, zero frustrations. And that the client is as happy as they can be and giving you repeat business.

Adrian Tennant: Right. What are some of the most important ways that agency account managers can nurture existing client relationships?

Sarah Ritchie: Yeah, I’ll look at that as being communication, communication, communication. And if you think about it in terms of like your own personal relationships that you have, your partner, your friends, your family, if you neglect that relationship, say, if you didn’t speak to a friend for a few weeks or a few months, they’re going to start to think that you don’t care about them anymore. Right? So, you know, the onus is then on you to keep in touch, call them, you know, with your clients, keep in contact regularly, see how they’re going. Remember their birthday, you know, be proactive. If you see some interesting articles that relate to their business, send them the web link, show that you genuinely care and that you’re not just there to take their money because that’s certainly one of the frustrations of many marketers as they feel that you’re just there to gain their business and that you don’t really care about them. So if we think about that old adage that “people do business with people that they like,” then, what are you doing to make your clients like you and your agency, and keep giving you more work?

Adrian Tennant: Sarah, you’re also a Certified Lego Serious Play facilitator. Could you tell us more about using Lego in business settings?

Sarah Ritchie: Yeah, absolutely. So Lego Serious Play – and I’m going to call it “LSP” for short because it is quite a mouthful – has actually been around for about 20 years. It started back with the Lego company in Denmark, working with a couple of professors, and they used it as a way to incorporate their product in strategy and company development. And then it just grew from there. Even though it’s been going for 20 years, it’s slowly making its way around the world and it’s certainly in America. And I’m sure that there are quite a few facilitators based across your country there. So LSP is essentially a workshop methodology, which utilizes Lego bricks and many figures and animals, and it explores the inner world rather than the outer world. And the easiest way to describe that is saying when you normally play with Lego, you’re trying to replicate tangible things like boats and castles and cars, but LSP gives you the opportunity to create a three-dimensional rendering, if you like, of the inner things like thoughts and ideas and emotions. And so it actually becomes really exciting to participate in an LSP session. It’s really good for ideating, strategizing, problem-solving. And by utilizing that hand-mind connection and all of the science that goes in behind that, you can often get to a deeper level of results quicker than you can with other types of workshop methodologies. So, you know, from an agency’s point of view, it’s actually a great option for teams to be able to use a Lego Serious Play in their strategy sessions with their clients even. And I’m sure, when as soon as you say LEGO and business, you know, there’s a lot of skepticism kind of going on, but even the skeptics amongst us end up really loving Lego Serious Play.

Adrian Tennant: Hmm. Now, do you think it’s something that connects to the child in all of us, and perhaps those of us who are nervous about drawing don’t feel as nervous playing with bricks because we’ve always been playing with bricks.

Sarah Ritchie: Yeah…

Adrian Tennant: Or some of us have, anyway.

Sarah Ritchie: Yeah, no, the truth comes out there, Adrian, eh? The truth comes out. No, the way that Lego Serious Play activities are structured is they’re really quick. You know, you might have a little Lego build that you do in a workshop that literally takes three minutes or five minutes to do. So there’s no time to build a masterpiece if you like. So anybody that approaches that saying, “Oh, I’m not creative. I can’t build with Lego.” It actually doesn’t matter because that’s not the point. The bricks become metaphors for your ideas. And so you might just pick up one single brick and say, you know, “This means something specific,” so you don’t have to be a great creative to do it at all in any way. But you’re absolutely right in terms of play, there have been many, many international scientific studies done around that concept of play and the way that play can connect in with the business world. And you’re right. You know, there is that sense of sitting down in front of these Lego bricks and just that inner expression of play comes out. And I think that’s one of the reasons why people find it so much fun.

Adrian Tennant: Well, if you were here, you would see our conference room B, which has Lego to play with.

Sarah Ritchie: Yay! Very good!

Adrian Tennant: Sarah, looking to the future, how do you want to see the thought leadership you’ve communicated with your first two books develop over the next two to three years?

Sarah Ritchie: You know, my mission is to see agencies strengthened, and to see the agency-client relationship strengthened. And, you know, that’s the type of thought leadership that I would love to come out, to be applied as a result of the first two books. I think if we can do that, if we can see that strengthening, then agencies will organically become more profitable. If account managers would take “Octopus” and they would follow the suggestions in that book and be given the mandate from their employers to action the suggestions in their book, but I could guarantee you that the profit of your agency will rise. So ideally I would love people to read the books, action the suggestions, and then build some amazing agencies that clients just love to work with. 

Adrian Tennant: Finally, Sarah, if listeners would like to learn more about you and the training services and materials you provide, where can they find you?

Sarah Ritchie: Well, the best place to start is my website. So that’s For people that are, might be listening to this podcast who are based in New Zealand or Australia, the easiest place to buy my books is actually off my website, but if you’re based anywhere else in the world, then just for cost and expediency, then the best place to go is to Amazon and that’s Amazon and the various stores that they have internationally. But while you’re on my website, you could also check out the Microsoft Word and Excel templates, which are very practical and helpful for agencies. And then I also run training sessions and I can do those in-person or via video link and for teams that are based anywhere in the world.

Adrian Tennant: Of course, we’ll provide links to those on our website too. Sarah, thank you very much for being our guest on IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Sarah Ritchie: Thank you very much for having me, Adrian. It’s an absolute pleasure.

Adrian Tennant: My thanks to our guest this week, Sarah Ritchie, account management expert, author, and trainer. You can find a transcript of our conversation along with links and resources on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at under “Insights.” Just click on the button marked, “Podcast.” To ensure you don’t miss an episode, please consider subscribing to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or your favorite podcast player. And if you have an Amazon Echo device, you can use the IN CLEAR FOCUS skill to add the podcast to your Flash Briefing. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next time. Goodbye.

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