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Strategy and Transformation

What It Takes To Become a Successful Account Director (Hint: Got Goggles?)

Enlighten was acquired by Perficient Digital in December 2015
Since joining Enlighten (now Perficient Digital) nearly a year ago, one of the things that has struck me is the different perceptions of account directors in a traditional agency compared to a digital agency. Account directors, or account executives as they were once called, were literally one of the first positions created inside a traditional agency. But they’re one of the more recent additions to a digital agency. So, I spend a great deal of time thinking about the role of account directors, what we do, and how we can make a difference for our clients, and for our own company.
A while back, I shared some thoughts on how an account director’s job is largely to know and to figure. And there’s a consultant by the name of Mike Carlton who has written a number of interesting pieces on the topic. This time around, I’m going to draw an analogy between account directors and endurance athletes – triathletes, to be specific.
Now, you may be questioning the comparison. Well, indulge me for a moment. I got interested in the sport of triathlon about six years ago, for a number of reasons. But I’ve learned there are some qualities that are essential to success in either endeavor. A friend of mine once described a triathlon as “the most complex thing” he’s ever done for fun. I’d say that’s accurate – there’s even a triathlete’s “training bible.” Maybe this will be the first installment of the account director’s training bible (I call it!).

Photo Credit: John Baird/Flickr/Getty Images

So, here are some of the things I’ve learned about being a “tri-account-ath-director-lete.”

  • Assessment: Among triathletes, assessment is the starting point. It’s how athletes understand their current capabilities, their limitations, and their opportunities. And it’s an ongoing process. Triathletes are constantly assessing themselves against their own performance, and against that of their peers.

Account directors go through the same process. Conducting a “situation assessment” of their client’s business is the first step to understanding many critical factors – the client’s business model, their competitive framework, the client’s current in-market performance, and their target audience, to name a few. This assessment helps determine the opportunities and threats (in the good old fashioned SWOT analysis) and gives the account director a picture of where the business stands at this moment, and where it could possibly go. Which leads us to…

  • Goal setting: All triathletes set goals for themselves. Some small (increase swim duration to 60 minutes over six weeks), and some huge (complete an Ironman in under 12 hours). It’s essential. Without goals, there is no place to begin. All training, planning, and racing is driven by the goals.

It’s the same with account directors. Coming out of an assessment, specific goals provide the direction that will be pursued by the team. Goals set the foundation for all thinking to be done, all analysis to be conducted, all plans to be written, and all work to be created. As my mentor John Sloan once told me “Goal clarity is a beautiful thing.” When the goals are clearly articulated, everything else gets easier.

  • Planning: Triathletes are obsessive about their training plans. Daily workouts are mapped out with exacting detail (example Swim 300M & 6×50 on 10” rest; swim 8×100 on 20” rest). And importantly, the plan is long-term in nature, mapping out the steps over a 20-week period. Lastly, the plan is designed specifically to meet the goals that the athlete has identified.
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The ability to develop well-structured, goal-oriented plans is one of the most important qualities of an account director. It can be a real challenge as we don’t live in a structured environment where we can control every variable. Priorities change, market conditions fluctuate, there are multiple daily tasks competing for our attention. All of which makes the plan so critically important. Without it, we risk meandering from one tactic to the next.

  • Testing: The only way an athlete, or anyone for that matter, knows if they’re making progress is through testing. Triathletes will schedule specific workouts for the sole purpose of measuring their performance to see if they are improving and, if not, to figure out what adjustments they need to make.I thinking testing is one of the more overlooked practices in marketing. It’s a great opportunity for us to examine the effects of a particular marketing strategy or tactic in limited fashion before committing fully to it. It’s also a great way to learn about an initiative or program so that it can be refined and improved. And it provides important feedback about how the marketing initiative is actually performing. Which leads to…
  • Outcome-Oriented: Holy crap, are triathletes outcome-oriented. Ask any triathlete about a race, and they can recite in excruciating detail, what their swim time, bike splits, and run splits were. And they can tell you exactly what happened throughout that race that drove those outcomes.

While it’s similar to goal-setting, the important distinction here is that the focus is on the race result – or, for us account directors, on the in-market success. We need to be focused on our outcomes – whether it’s market share, sales growth, customer acquisition, lead generation, or in-market awareness. These performance outcomes are, after all, literally our race.

  • Analytical mindset: This should probably be obvious by now. But triathletes will break down their training and race performance in Excel spreadsheets. They count the number of footstrikes when they run, the cadence of their cycling, and the number of strokes in the pool. They monitor and record everything they eat, the amount of sleep they get, their resting and active heart rates, and more. They love data. As a result, there are entire websites devoted to fueling this obsession.

Analyzing business performance, market conditions, testing results and research are some of the many ways that account directors seek to gain a deeper understanding of their business, and how to help improve its performance. At a high level, well-developed analytic capabilities enable us to gain insight into our brands’ position in the market, our consumers’ lifestyle needs and wants, and our competitors’ next likely move. And at a more granular level, it’s an essential skill for breaking down the performance of an individual marketing tactic.

  • Endurance and Perseverance: Obvious right? Well, in the sport of triathlon, it’s about more than being able to go long distances. It’s about being able to cover those distances efficiently, and being able to overcome the obstacles that will undoubtedly arise. It’s as much an attitude as it is a skill.

This is where, in my opinion, most account directors really excel. They are, by nature, committers – they stick with the assignment and are willing to put forth the effort necessary to work through challenges as they arise. It’s a great quality, particularly when you’re facing a tough deadline or an important deliverable.

  • Passion: Well, by now you might be thinking a more accurate choice of words might be delusion, obsession, or madness. I’d be hard pressed to argue with you. Triathletes are a little nutty. But above all, they love the sport, they love competing, and they love sharing their sport with others.

Ditto for account directors. We have passion for our clients and their business. Passion for new and exciting ideas. Passion for in-market performance. Passion for the work of our coworkers and colleagues. We love what we do and it shows.

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