The buzz term for global business this year is "client relationship leaders," as the large multinational agencies clamor to formalize this crucial role in their organizations and prove to their standout employees that this is a job worth having.(Some call them managers, liaisons, etc., depending on the firm. For PRWeek's purposes, we'll use CRL going forward as a generic term.) It's rather strange that this job description has not been an established part of the fabric of agency hierarchy, in many cases, until the past year. Historically, there have been two ways for the rising stars of PR to ascend to the top of the heap in agencies: They either become the head of a practice area or they run an office or region. This is not to say that many agencies did not have some form of relationship leaders in the past, only that often the job was not considered an ambition on par with the practice and management roles. Burson-Marsteller, which introduced its Key Client Relationship approach in 1996 and has had specific client leaders since 1999, may take some credit for recognizing early on what other firms now grasp: that the best way to win more business is to grow and maintain existing relationships, and the best way to do that is to make those critical clients happy. Chris Komisarjevsky, Burson's CEO, has long said that if a client leader disagrees with the GM of an office over an issue related to a client, the CRL will win the day. Heidi Sinclair, CRL for the agency's crucial SAP account, affirms that is the case. "The important thing is that you have teeth in this role," she says. "When I'm wearing my SAP client leader hat, I look and [determine] who are the best people to put on this project. I will look for the best people around the world. You do tend to have the authority." Sinclair is proof that the role can overlap with other agency positions as well, as she also leads the global technology practice. She says that CRLs at Burson have a separate bonus structure that is tied to growth of the relationship and client satisfaction. Some agencies are struggling to convince top talent that this is a great career path (even when coupled with other hats). Empowerment has to be the selling point for the job. When it works, it can mean that star client-service performers won't necessarily be punished for their success by being taken away from what they do best in the name of career progression. Fleishman-Hillard formalized the role of client relationship manager this year and appointed Jack Modzelewski, senior partner and president for client relations, to manage the cultural shift within the agency. "We had a meeting with the client relationship managers for our largest clients," he said. "We told them that some of you may do other things in this firm, but you must know that what you're doing is a very important job and we'll support you in any way possible." It is perhaps telling that both Burson and Fleishman, in describing their three biggest accounts for the PRWeek Global Report, identified the client leaders by name. That signals the kind of authority - and accountability - the role really has in those agencies.
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