Client leadership is a choice.
And in this episode, Lori Bartle shares why…
Lori is the founder and CEO of Cultivagency, a company that partners with agencies to further develop the mindset, skillset, and operational alignment to advance client leadership.
With a focus on growth-oriented strategic planning, brand development, and brand innovation, Lori has a track record of long-term, highly successful client partnerships among national and international brands.
- How account management has changed over the years
- The importance of coaching
- The impact of remote work
- Creating a successful client leader
- And more
Mentioned in this episode:
Voiceover: This is Performance Delivered, Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success with Steffen Horst and Dave Antil.
Steffen Horst: Welcome to the Performance Delivered Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success podcast, where we talk with marketing and agency executives and learn how they build successful businesses and their personal brand. I’m your host, Steffen Horst. In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about client leadership. Here to speak with me is Lori Bartle, who is the founder and CEO of Cultivagency, a company that partners with agencies to further develop the mindset, skill set, and operational alignment to advance client leadership.
With a focus on growth oriented strategic planning, brand development, and brand innovation, Lori has a track record of long term highly successful client partnerships among national and international brands. Her focus has been on the travel, entertainment, education and the wine industry. Lori, welcome to the show.
Lori Bartle: Thank you so much. I’m so happy to be here. Thank you.
Steffen: Well, Lori, before we start talking about client leadership, tell our listeners a little bit more about yourself. How did you get started in your career and what led you to founding Cultivagency?
Lori: Well, gosh, I started as a sales rep. And it’s interesting, because selling, the idea of selling in our business is kind of controversial. I posted about it on LinkedIn not too long ago. Should account managers sell work? And three out of four people said no. They don’t like that word of selling, which I think is fascinating. And I’m going to probably come back to that and think more about that.
But I think what’s interesting about that start, and the reason I’m bringing it up is when you’re a rep and you’re dealing directly with clients, you sell yourself as a business consultant. You’re literally talking to these people as if you’re their business consultant. And I feel like that’s a little bit of what we need to succeed.
In this world of account management, we need to think of ourselves as business consultants, and we’ll talk more about it. But that’s where we’ve kind of lost a little, you know, we’ve lost our way a little bit. Sorry, go ahead.
Steffen: No, I just wanted to add to that. It’s because you’re building a relationship with your client, right? When you build a relationship, you build trust. And with trust comes all the other things that we want. I mean, for myself, for example, what I want my accountant managers to do.
Lori: Correct. And so back to your original question. So I’ve had kind of a circuitous route to where I am today. From media sales, I became a media buyer, and then a media planner. And along the way, I worked on the client side for a while and eventually found my way into account management. But all of those things really built my sort of bigger view.
I had empathy for clients, I have empathy for sales reps. It’s wonderful to be able to, you know, when you’re thinking about sitting across the table from your client to be able to understand what they’re going through as a client. And anyway, it’s served me well, that sort of well rounded background.
Steffen: Okay. Interesting. Now, client leadership. That’s what we’re gonna talk about today. And I know I kind of just interjected while you were talking about your, from where you started and where you are now. But you left your position at the Shipyard half a year ago, I think it was?
Lori: They’re a client now. Yeah.
Steffen: To start Cultivagency. So what inspired you to do that? I mean, did you wake up one morning and say, you know what, I’m done with the agency world and I want to go out there on my own? Or was there a specific thing that triggered that decision?
Lori: I saw a need, Steffen. I mean, literally, I mean, that’s the business. That’s the beauty of a business opportunity. Right? I was searching for what I was going to really focus on in the future in the rest of my career. I’m in my 50s, and kind of wanting to understand what am I going to do for the next foreseeable future.
And one of the things that was offered to me was to try to help guide the account management group, which was showing signs of inconsistent skill sets. I mean, there were a number of factors that exist within the group. But basically, they said, what if you were to help us with our account management groups, and that really is what got me started thinking about it.
You do have in agencies today, really inconsistent set of skills within the groups. And so you know, the more I thought about it, and I started talking to others about it, and they shared those same pain points. And so it kind of became something that once I got onto the idea, Steffen, I couldn’t get it out of my mind, and I had to go for it. That’s how it works.
Steffen: Now, you talked about inconsistent skill sets. What was that in particular? And why do you think there’s an inconsistent skill set?
Lori: Okay, so I do think it comes back to the difference between the original meaning of account management versus project management. Account management is supposed to be a strategic discipline, grounded and steeped in knowledge of your client’s business. Shareable information that makes everybody on the team better at what they do. That’s what it’s supposed to be.
And project management, and I’m gonna simplify it here. It’s operational. It’s budgets, and timelines, and resources, and all of those very important things. But to me, the difference between the two is very clear. But nowadays, for a number of reasons, and we’ll talk about that, you’ve got account managers, and project managers. And basically, there’s a redundancy there. They’ve become confused with each other.
Steffen: Yeah, it kind of got muddled, right?
Steffen: The word kind of says it. It’s a project manager that kind of facilitates the moving along of the project that a company/agency work on while account managers, in my perspective, go beyond that level. It’s, as you said, it’s kind of relationship building, right? It’s making sure that you understand when your client is unhappy, before that even surfaces.
Or if you catch that, what are you going to do to change the situation? Client’s company has a problem. You know about it, and you practically potentially have a solution how you, and now we’re talking more from an advertising perspective, right? How you, as an advertising agency, can help them overcome that issue.
Lori: Yes. I think that what’s happened is the account management’s confidence, and their business acumen is not what it used to be. And this goes back 10 to 15 years. This has been sort of in the making if you will. It started with the Great Recession, when the depth charts were cut. We lost a lot of people, we got thin, and everybody was forced to get into the mode of doing versus thinking.
And it’s not really ever changed. We’re over indexing on doing. And we don’t have the bandwidth. And now we don’t have the training to do the higher value thinking that’s needed to really guide and lead. Were responding, were reactive. And we need to be able to, we need to prioritize this discipline and put them in the position to be proactive. I mean that’s really what’s got to happen.
Steffen: Yeah, I mean, you and I have been, are in negotiation with clients when it’s about scope and fee to be paid for the scope. And I remember a conversation that I had before I left the big agency world, where I was negotiating with a senior executive of a Korean car manufacturer, about the search scope for my team.
And my predecessor didn’t add certain needs into the scope the year before, which I now needed because the client just asked for more and more and more. And verbatim the client says, well if you would have asked me last year, I would have given it to you. This year, I’m not going to give it to you. And I was thinking, okay, you want us to do the work, plus what you now put additional on to the scope.
But you don’t want to pay us for that. Is the problem, and this is my question now to this, is the problem made by clients. And we as agencies are responding by, first of all, we put less expensive people, so more junior people on the accounts. Which also means we look at who can we take off the roster on a client? And are the account people then the ones that are falling off the end?
Because technically they’re not, on the first few, they don’t add necessarily so much value if you forget about the fact that actually building relationship and all of that kind of stuff will actually, in the end, generate revenue. Is that a problem that the clients created? Or is it part of it and there are other factors, too?
Lori: Yeah, I think we helped. I think we’ve helped create it, but I do think that we’re sort of in a hole now. And in order to dig ourselves out of the hole, we might have to invest. If you want to be seen as something more than an order taker, you might have to invest some time and money in their business in order to get ahead of it. Otherwise you don’t have the foundation of knowledge with which to push back, or to say, is this really the problem?
Because I’m not convinced. This could be a symptom of a deeper problem that’s three layers down. And so I do think that we might be in a position where to get out from underneath this situation, we’ve got to kind of, I don’t know, CFOs will hate me, but scope be damned.
Steffen: I mean, education costs money, right? So you got to have a department or you have to allow for people that manage people to save some time to proactively train people. Right? And that’s kind of the investment part, right? So it’s not like putting 100% of work on someone’s plate. Maybe it’s just 80 to 85% to leave a little bit of room for learning, but also for teaching at the end of the day?
Lori: Yes. Because I do think that I think we know, experts will tell us in the learning and education world, it’s not an event, it’s a process. It takes time for real learning, and development to occur. So I do think that thinking about it in bite sized chunks on the regular basis, and having somebody that’s dedicated to in the moment coaching, because that’s when people have the aha moments.
You can throw a bunch of information at them. And I mean, I’m pro training. All training is good. But when you take somebody out of the office for a day or two, and you throw a lot at them, it is a lot, and it’s hard to digest all of it. And the real learning happens when you can take that information and apply it in the real world.
And if we don’t do that within a couple of weeks, I think, you know, there’s a learning curve, or some sort of a curve that if you don’t apply it within days or weeks, you lose it. And so I think it is much better to identify who’s going to be responsible for it. And they’ve got to be there and available to these people in the moment when they need you, in order to make that connection.
Steffen: Do you think the situation that we have now that the workforce is almost kind of divided. Some people have been asked to come back into the office. You have hybrid roles, and then you have people like ourselves that work remote. Is that creating an even more complicated situation? Because when you are remote, it might be harder to teach them?
Lori: Yeah, well, there are platforms that help us to learn together, even though we’re apart. Miro, for example, is a wonderful, wonderful tool. And so I think we have to get over that, Steffen. I think it’s part of where we are. And I don’t think that we should let that get in the way. I think we just figure it out. But we can learn together, while we’re also alone. So I think we can get through that.
Steffen: Lori, when you talk to agencies about this. About client leadership, the importance of client leadership, and what the value is in training people and giving them the right information to be successful in that role, how do you convince them to make the investment? Because it is an investment at the end of the day, as you said a few minutes ago, right?
Lori: It’s definitely an investment. You know, I think it’s about growth. I mean, these are, it’s so funny, because our industry is frantically looking under every nook and cranny at where we can find opportunities to create growth. And we don’t really look at the account group as engines of growth. And I think we should.
We need to train them, obviously, to understand, just to dig in, and it’s a completely it starts with a mindset shift. But I do think that if we get them working the way they should be working, they become engines of growth. They become leaders of engagement. Influencers of creativity.
All the good things, that in some ways, agencies are saying we need these things, and these people are sitting there, and a lot of them feel as if they can do more, but the expectations for them to do more don’t exist. And that’s wrong. That’s just, that’s ridiculous.
Steffen: Yeah, yeah. Now, when you worked in your previous positions, how or what were you looking for in a person that was supposed to do an account manager, account lead role?
Lori: Well, I look for proactivity. You definitely need somebody that has the sort of belief in themselves to take action and not wait for somebody to tell them what to do. So I think having that baked into who they are is really important. You want somebody that’s curious. You need somebody that’s not afraid to, again, consider themselves a business person.
That’s what the clients want. They want somebody that can speak the language of their business. And so those are some of the things that I think I used to look for. I’m trying to think if there’s anything that I left out. Adaptability.
You’ve got to be a critical thinker. Just because somebody, if your client gives you some information or some project brief, you have to have the wherewithal to say, this doesn’t make any sense. And same with your teammates internally. It’s not, we’re not, a good account person is critically thinking through what’s thrown at them, and has the wherewithal to say, okay, wait a minute timeout.
That doesn’t make sense, those dots aren’t connecting for me. So I think oftentimes, and these are not my words, these came out of the study that I did. But there’s a perception nowadays of account management as paper pushers. And that’s what we want to, that’s what we need to eliminate.
Steffen: Change the mindset there.
Lori: Exactly. Yep.
Steffen: That makes a lot of sense. Now, again, talking about agency environment, Shipyard, a full service agency that you used to work for. How important is that an account person understands, for example, digital solution. If that’s kind of what that person is looking after. Looking after clients for which your agency provides digital solutions. How much knowledge do they need to have of those digital solutions to be successful? In depth or is it top level is fine to start off with?
Lori: I mean, I think that we absolutely, digital fitness is absolutely part of what will, what should define a client leader. No doubt about it. You better be conversant in it. And again, this comes back to confidence. Being able to look at the report and form your own opinion about what those numbers tell you. I mean, we have all this data at our fingertips.
And that’s one of the things that I often ask account teams, do you look at the dashboards on a regular basis? Are you engaging in that information, because you should be. And you should have your own opinion about whether or not things are tracking the way we want them to. And I’m inclined to think your teams would be thrilled, if you were the one to say, hey, timeout.
Like, this isn’t what we thought was going to happen, we might need to pivot. So I do think that they need to absolutely be a partner with the specialists, but not be afraid to look at the information and be able to obviously make a decision on whether or not things are going in the right direction, or you need to make an adjustment.
Steffen: Now, we talked about how training is missing to advance people and to give them the skill set they need to be successful. To be able to grow a piece of business. I mean, at the end of the day, we talked about adding additional value is taking the scope that you have and identifying areas where you might be able to help your client in addition.
Or growing the budget or whatever it is that your agency works on for your client. Now, what areas from your perspective are most important in that training part to to create a successful client leader or a client leader, account lead?
Lori: Well, they need to understand the category. They need to definitely have a really strong handle on the competitive set. And the competitive analysis has been a staple of the account management discipline for years, but I have seen it get sort of dished to the strategy team. And I think that’s wrong. This is a very high value deliverable within the work that we do for our clients. And I think it’s terrible to give that up if you’re the account group. So own it.
Own what’s going on in the category. Be the expert that when you’re looking at work, you know, whether it’s creative work or media solutions to be able to say, you guys should know this competitor is doing this, and that might inform our steps forward. That’s core to the job. And sometimes, it’s very fundamental, Steffen.
We’re not good on the fundamentals right now. And so in a lot of ways, it’s a little bit of back to the basics. Understand the category, understand the client’s business, not just the marketing, but the whole thing, right? What are the, I mean, I hate to say it, what’s the business model? Does everybody really understand how they make money? Who are the stakeholders? What does the C suite think of our program? What keeps them up at night?
Oftentimes, it’s very different than what the marketing team is working on. And so having that sort of true, holistic understanding of what the heck is going on with this business is just so invaluable. You just don’t know how or when that knowledge will manifest as an opportunity.
Steffen: It’s like you’re an extension of your client’s team. You’re an outside person that knows almost the same amount of information, as the people that work within your client’s organization.
Lori: That’s the goal. Absolutely.
Steffen: That’s exactly the goal. Yeah.
Lori: Yep. And sometimes, sometimes, you know more, because you know what, clients have a tendency to turn over. And if the agency relationship is strong, oftentimes the person, the agency will have more institutional knowledge than clients, because they’re new within the organization. Or they’ve come, they’ve been promoted. So there’s lots of fluidity, right, on the client side, that allows for an agency to really be an anchor of knowledge and an expertise about the business.
Steffen: And that protects you also from situations. A new CMO or a new marketing lead comes in, and might have an idea of replacing you. Your agency, right. The more you are ingrained in the day to day with your client, and the more you understand them, the more you’re actually an asset to that new person, the harder it will be to get replaced.
Lori: Correct. Yeah. And I think, you know, you talked about the remote situation. It’s gotten us all out of the habit, a little bit of really living and breathing our clients’ brands and services. So I think now that things are kind of back to normal, I guess, I think it would be great if account teams could look at their extended teams and say, okay, we’re going to go and do drink, eat, visit whatever it is, whatever that business looks like, and get back out there and get in it.
Because we’ve all been on Zoom calls for forever, but nothing replaces real world experience. The brief cannot replace that. And so I think it would be great if our account groups, account leaders could really engage all of our teams in getting literally immersed again in the real world experiences that exist with our clients. I think that would be amazing.
Steffen: Yeah. Now, one thing we said earlier, is that because there is less revenue for agencies, certain functions within agencies have kind of fallen off like we’re talking about. Client leadership. How do you talk to agencies in first of all, convincing them that’s the wrong way of thinking. You should invest in client leadership. And how do you ensure that they measure what the impact is of that move from kind of more project thinking to a more client account lead focus?
Lori: Well, for starters, the clients have noticed that account management is not living up to their opportunity. And so I believe there’s a competitive advantage for the agencies that can buy into the vision of what this discipline used to be.
I mean, it literally, you know, if you’ve been in the business for more than a decade, then you can relate to an account group that actually is driving growth, and doing all the things. They’re involved in the creative, and they’re fighting for more money, and more time. Those were the things that made our discipline great.
And we were partners with our creative and media teams as much as we were our client’s partner. We weren’t choosing one or the other. You know, it went both ways. And so I do think that when you start with the fundamental knowledge that clients have noticed this slide backwards, that’s some pretty good motivation to take another look at it.
Steffen: Now, when you work with agencies, how do you help them? How do you help them kind of, reinvigorate their account management team? How do you help them to get an understanding of this is a skill set they need to have, and how do you get the skill set in place that is required to be more successful account people?
Lori: Yeah, so I’ve gotten a program that I call the bespoke playbook, which is about best practices. And I said this already, we’ve got to get good at the fundamentals again. And so I’ve got three levels of fundamentals, essentials and advanced practices, and we can take a look at where the team is, and decide as the starting point, what do we really need to focus on with your group. Because every group is unique. And I’m working on a program right now, I’m going to beta test it this fall that is inspired by my MBA program.
It’s a six week MBA inspired sprint, if you will, that is called building business acumen. Because again, I kind of can’t say it enough. Helping the teams to feel confident in honing their ability to speak the language of business, really, just will, will take us far if we can make people feel confident that they can speak up and have a voice on the business level. It just does wonders for your team.
Steffen: Interesting. Well, Lori, thank you so much for joining me on the Performance Delivered podcast and sharing your thoughts on client leadership. I really enjoyed the conversation, because I agree. I think that skill set, that art is kind of falling off, it’s kind of not there as it used to be. When I started my career back in the early 2000s, it definitely was different as it relates to account management. If people want to find out more about you, how exactly your program works, and maybe even hire you, how can they get in touch?
Lori: Well, the website is cultivagency.com. And by the way, that’s short for cultivating agency and human agency. Again, going back to the proactivity that I talked about earlier. So yeah, cultivagency.com is how you can reach me and I would love to talk with people that are open to taking another look at the account group. We’ve got big problems to solve in our business. And in a lot of ways there are people scratching their heads.
And I just feel like you’ve got a group of people sitting there that are wanting to do more, needing to drive more value. And I think if we look at them and think about arming them with the right training and development, there’s a real opportunity there to turn a light switch on. So I’m excited about it. But thank you, Steffen. Thank you so much for having me.
Steffen: Of course. Well, as always, we’ll leave that information in the show notes. Thanks everyone for listening. If you like the Performance Delivered podcast, please subscribe to us and leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast application. If you want to find out more about Symphonic Digital, you can visit us at symphonicdigital.com or follow us on Twitter at Symphonic HQ. Thanks again and see you next time.
Voiceover: Performance Delivered is sponsored by Symphonic Digital. Discover audience-focused and data-driven digital marketing solutions for small and medium businesses at symphonicdigital.com.