The dominant paradigm in agency career growth is that you will begin by working on accounts under a manager, and move up in the company by becoming an account manager. Traditionally, stepping stones along this path are created by improving your subject-matter expertise and providing clients better service. Hurdles will be overcome and opportunities will be created.

Along the way, you’ll become a highly experienced practitioner with a multitude of skills which benefit your clients and drive value to your agency. You might know schema markup like the back of your hand or perhaps you could set up an AdWords account in your sleep.

You do your homework, your clients do great work, and your projects come in under budget. Great job! Now it’s time for a promotion (we’re still speaking in the traditional paradigm here). Your new role is ‘account manager.’

In this new role, it’s great that you have the subject matter knowledge under your belt. You’ll still be overseeing AdWords set-ups and reviewing schema markup before it gets delivered to the client’s developer for implementation. You simply wouldn’t succeed in this role if you didn’t have that foundation and you’ll use that knowledge every day.

Your clients are happy, and the account teams that you manage love to work with you. Great job! It’s time for another promotion. Now here’s where it gets hairy.

At this stage, you’ll head to the next tier of management. The easiest way to think about this might be managing the managers, or “middle management.” In a small agency, lets say less than 50 people, you’ll be pretty close to the highest tier of leadership now.

Your new role involves checking productivity numbers of the teams you manage and making sure that each client has the resources they need and are getting value from the work. Speaking of “resources,” you’ll probably be talking a lot more about budgets now. And invoices. And payment terms. And accounts receivable.

Guess what you won’t be talking about now: Schema markup. AdWords setups. You know, all that subject matter stuff you put your nose to the grindstone to learn to justify getting where you are today.

If this sounds like a personal nightmare, you might not be alone. You might never log in to a client’s ad account or facebook page at all. Instead you might find yourself mediating a conflict between your team members who are working through an honest misunderstanding with each manager’s clients’ genuine best interests in mind.

The Subject Matter Rung

Counter to this model is one where subject matter experts remain rooted in the subject matter. This seems like a natural solution, considering the tale of woe I cleverly wove above, but what about career growth? With the old paradigm still the status quo in the industry, how will you demonstrate your growth to peers outside the company?

Whereas the subject matter got us into this mess in the first place, previously being leveraged so far as to promote yourself out of the subject matter itself, perhaps these areas of study can get us out of this mess.

When a great account manager gets promoted out of account management, naturally someone needs to take their place. This person will have a learning curve, and clients typically have an aversion to change when their current account structure is working for them.

Wouldn’t it be great if instead of subject matter growth ultimately removing a resource from accounts, it made the services deeper and each client’s account more stable and successful? That’s the alternative I am advocating for here.

Wouldn’t it be great if instead of subject matter growth ultimately removing a resource from accounts, it made the services deeper and each client’s account more stable and successful?

In this new paradigm, subject matter experts should be given opportunities to explore new areas and experiment with new tactics. Rather than needing to learn about how to motivate teams or mediate conflicts in their new role, the subject-matter practitioners could become amazing at a new type of AdWords feature or facebook ad targetting.

Our industry is one in which sharing is rampant. If we go back to an employee’s need to share their career success with the world, this sharing is one of the most gratifying ways to do this. If you are genuinely contributing to the community, using your researched subject matter as a foundation for growing the collective knowledge of the field, then this value will be easy to recognize by industry peers.

What about job titles? There are a few ways to approach this. One way is to reward growth with seniority qualifiers like “senior,” or “lead.” These communicate value and seniority, while still maintaining the subject matter noun that completes the second half of the title.

The second approach is to forget about this completely. Understand that titles are mostly for people outside the company and do two things: let clients know they are talking to the right person to help industry professionals understand what roles a job candidate had in the past to match them with the right senior role if they choose to switch to a new team. The latter item is going to be a concern to an employee who would have seen middle management as a path to career growth in the old paradigm. As idealistic as it might sounds, forgetting about titles might not be the wisest option.

Both approaches to titles are supported by investing company resources into helping that employee share their subject matter knowledge with the industry. By proving a opportunity to communicate this to the world, you satisfy the need to communicate that clients are talking to the right person and that rival agencies are indeed looking at an expert in the field. As they say, “develop your employees so that they can get a job anywhere, but treat them so well that they don’t.”

OK, there’s one final hurdle here that some of you reading this might be wondering about. What does this mean for peoples’ pay? By smashing the old paradigm, you must also abandon the notion that salary increases should be attained by crossing these old thresholds. People need to be paid their worth and it must be done in such a way that their ability to be snatched up at any moment by a competitor is kept in mind. If you run your company well, employees won’t want to leave, so you would be wise to reward people who are investing in the very things that make your services, and your clients, stronger. Never tell your most talented practitioners that they can’t have a raise because they still practice.

As I write this, I’m reflecting on the fact that I myself have never been a subject matter expert. My expertise lies in communicating our team’s value, listening to clients, and making sure that I am getting out of the way of our team so they can do great work. I was hired without a foundation in advertising and have developed my skill as a listener and relationship builder. Our subject matter experts are loads more important to our clients than I am, and I do everything I can to get out of their way so they can push the limits on their accounts.

As DragonSearch undergoes many changes in 2015, two aspects of our company stand out as the most important; our clients and our people. The new paradigm is a way that we can invest in both, all while becoming a stronger and more resilient organization.

This entry was posted on Friday, March 13, 2015 and is filed under Organizational Innovation.

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