Agencies lamented the lack of available, talented PR professionals capable of handling the key roles of the job: managing a team, being an exceptional writer and liaising with clients. The recession was identified as a major factor in this lack of supply, with agencies axing junior posts and freezing graduate recruitment.
But nearly three years on and Katie Bailey, head of agency operations at Launch Group, says the situation is arguably worse. Recruitment freezes continue and training budgets have been dramatically cut by many employers.
This is preventing talented account executives in some agencies making the step up to account manager, suggests Bailey: 'It is such a pivotal role in an agency and there are just fewer good ones out there with the range of skills needed.
'We carry out a lot of interviews and the message we are getting back from candidates is that some agencies are just not investing in training to get to the level that is needed to be an account manager.'
On the following pages we explore some of the key factors behind this continuing shortage, the skills needed to be a successful account manager and some of the solutions the PR industry should be considering.
Why the ongoing shortage?
For Jane Fordham, associate director, talent and business development at GolinHarris, the effect of the economic downturn on agencies since 2008 cannot be underestimated.
She agrees with Bailey that with the bulk of account managers groomed from within agencies' own ranks, cuts to training and graduate recruitment have inevitably reduced the talent pool.
'Around two-thirds of our account managers are recruited from within so when the recession started we made sure we didn't cut back on graduate recruitment. I can see why those that did will have problems when it comes to appointing account managers,' she says.
The shortage is also more prevalent in certain sectors. Kelly Luchford, founder of Luchford APM, says the luxury consumer sector has taken a big hit and seen the number of good account manager candidates slashed in the past three years.
Luchford has an account manager vacancy in its international property division and has been interviewing for four months.
She believes many good account managers have moved in-house. 'For some individuals this feels like a more secure career path post-recession,' she says.
Another factor is the historic difficulties of recruiting account managers, says Susanna Simpson, managing director of b2b specialists Limelight PR.
'My business is ten years old. I set up in a downturn, and I've experienced the good times and the more difficult times. It has always been hard to recruit account managers from other agencies because the role comes at a stage in people's careers where loyalty becomes more important and they look for a career path in their agency. Loyalty is rewarded in agencies the higher up you get and that can stop many account managers trying something different.'
However, recession does exacerbate this problem, says Bailey, with fears over job security another factor in account managers not moving. 'If an account manager has a job they often want to stay put and hang on to it,' she says.
ACCOUNT MANAGER KEY SKILLS
Managing a team
The account manager is central to the agency's handling of an account and needs to be able to manage an often young team of account executives, and oversee their career development. The account manager also has to manage upwards, ensuring the account is being supported at agency director level in terms of planning and strategy. Good people management skills are essential.
Most clients expect to liaise directly with the account manager, who is the face of the agency for the account. The account manager will need to be calm and walk a tightrope between managing clients' concerns and the interests of the agency. An awareness of the commercial pressures facing clients is important to give them greater confidence in the way the agency supports them.
Strong media skills
Account managers are expected to be hands-on as well as managing and delegating work. This means having excellent writing and editing skills and the ability to spot a good angle for the client. Increasingly account managers will be expected to target a wider audience using social media, while digital skills such as video making and website development are also useful.
FOUR SOLUTIONS TO THE ACCOUNT MANAGER SHORTAGE
1. Nurture your junior talent
Bailey suggests that in tough economic times, staff training should be the last, rather than the first, area that businesses cut. 'We commit £20,000 worth of training annually for each member of staff. What the training is depends on their reviews - sometimes we buy it in, but often we use our existing staff. This commitment to training helps staff feel valued and develop those skills needed to be an account manager,' she says.
This policy helped Launch to receive a bronze award in this year's PRWeek Best Places To Work survey.
Training also needs to focus on emerging skills. Launch ensures its account managers are proficient at using video and social media technology. Limelight's Simpson adds: 'It is the responsibility of agencies to keep on top of trends and the changing nature of the job.'
2. Be flexible when hiring from outside your agency
Colette Brown, MD of recruitment firm Prospect,says: 'While the PR industry likes to think of itself as progressive, it is in fact very inflexible, especially when it comes to hiring account managers.'
She says too many agencies ignore 'good quality' candidates because they do not have the same sector experience. 'But by being so rigid they are missing out. Agencies should look at the skills they have and see how they can be transferred to their sector,' she says.
She argues the same flexible approach should be taken when hiring from outside of PR, particularly among the ranks of journalists. Luchford is among many PR agencies to see an increase in job enquiries from journalists looking to move into PR. But Luchford says that too often journalists 'struggle with the account management component of the role.' Brown concedes the transition can be difficult for many from outside PR agencies, but argues: 'Agencies should more willing to look at the skills the candidate already has and how they can be transferred to a PR agency setting. If they do then they could be taking on a very talented person. The problem is so many agencies do not take that chance so they will never know.'
3. Encourage experienced account managers who have left agencies to return
Brown says: 'The PR industry is too quick to let people leave and then fails to offer them opportunities to get back in. Those female account managers who have taken a career break to start a family are finding it particularly hard to return.'
Among the alternative working arrangements agencies ought to consider are job sharing, opportunities to work from home and part-time work. 'Agencies are stuck thinking that clients only want an account manager who is available five days a week instead of looking at the quality of the account manager. There are a lot of good people out there who want to return but cannot,' adds Brown.
4. Aspiring account managers need to do more to impress agencies
Agencies can do far more regarding training, but aspiring account managers should also take more responsibility to ensure they have the right skills and character for account management. Simpson says that of the five account managers she has recruited from outside of her own agency, only one was a success.
She says: 'The one who worked had good agency experience, but she was successful because she was a people person. The first thing she did was make sure she got on with the team and they responded well to that.
'It is tough coming into a middle management role in a new agency. I think too many aspiring account managers underestimate that.'
One who clearly did underestimate the importance of people management was a recent unsuccessful candidate for an account management role at GolinHarris. Fordham explains the agency invites those candidates who are close to being recruited to meet the team. 'When the person met our team things just didn't click. We don't want androids,' she says.
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