Designers and account managers: a love/hate relationship

3 years ago by

Written by Sarah Ritchie, AM-Insider

Ask any agency person what the dynamic is like between their designers and their account managers and you’ll probably get a similar response: dog/cat, love/hate, us/them.

The agency-irony is that the relationship between designers and account managers is symbiotic — one cannot function effectively without the other. Given this crucial need to work as a finely-oiled team, why is this internal relationship often more like two bulls going head-to-head?

There is a lot of pressure flying around an agency. Pressure to meet deadlines; pressure to produce amazing work; pressure to keep clients happy; pressure to not make mistakes. It is the designer’s responsibility to come up with great ideas, and it is the account manager’s responsibility to get it out the door on time and on budget. Designers want more time than what they are given and account managers (AMs) want the work done yesterday. How, then, can tension be eased so that both parties can work together in harmony?

Develop mutual respect

The point of greatest productivity is when both parties are confident that each other knows what they are talking about, and can respect each other for being professionals in their own right.

Speak the language

When a person moves to a new country, the easiest way to assimilate is to learn the local language. It’s exactly the same in an agency. When working with designers it is essential for AMs to understand and confidently speak the creative lingo, and understand technical terms relating to design, print, digital and production. Designers need to appreciate and become familiar with the language of business, marketing, and profitability.

Start with a solid brief

All great design projects start with a great brief. Designers need to have enough information in order to do their job well, without extraneous detail (which designers may find boring, confusing or just plain unnecessary). If a designer doesn’t receive an adequate brief, then they shouldn’t start work on a project until one is presented.

Set clear expectations

A design brief outlines background information and output requirements for a project or campaign. What it won’t define is an AM’s set of assumed, and generally unspoken, expectations:

  • Ask if you have any questions or if the brief is unclear.
  • Ask questions before making assumptions.
  • Just because you’ve done something one way in the past, doesn’t mean it will automatically be the same this time.
  • If you think something in the brief looks wrong, tell your AM before making any alterations.
  • If anything is going awry, your AM needs to be the first to know.
  • If it looks like the project is going to get bumped by another (more ‘urgent’) project, let your AM know.
  • If you don’t think you can finish the work in the time allotted, let your AM know far enough in advance so they can let the client know and make contingency plans.
  • If you know that there is no wiggle room of time in a project, you’ll have to find some way to make it work (or talk to your AM about the situation).
  • If you cannot personally do the work, let your AM know before handing the project off to another designer.


Converse politely

Designers and AMs are equals. One is no more important than the other, and both deserve to be spoken to politely and respectfully. Think about a time when someone came to you and ordered you to do something. Now contrast that with a time when someone came to you and asked you (politely) to do something. How did you react in each situation? How did each approach make you feel? The next time you are feeling pressured or frustrated, remember those feelings!

Talk about the “why”

Taking time to explain why something needs to be done a certain way shows respect. Using creative, technical or client-related reasoning will help to bring clarity; paint a more complete picture; and encourage two-way dialogue.

Know when to stand your ground

Being nice is great, but being too nice can be a problem. AMs who are known to never make a fuss may easily get their worked bumped down the priority queue by someone more vocal and demanding. Designers who never make a fuss have a tendency to get bullied or over-loaded. There is no harm in standing your ground when you need to.

Negotiate a workable solution

AMs know what their client’s budget is, and designers knows how long a job is likely to take. Arriving at a solution that you can both work with will take gentle negotiation. The first step is to listen carefully to what each other is saying; then empathise with their situation; present your requirements or position; and figure out a way to achieve your client’s objectives without blowing the budget or creating team stress.

Be organised

Much of the angst in an agency studio comes from AMs who throw in last minute requests and ‘urgent’, unexpected work. There will always be times when you will get this type of request from a client — it happens and you have to all learn to best deal with the situation.

There will also be times when an AM knows the work that is coming up, and can book this work into the studio to give the team advanced warning. Being organised and being a good communicator are essential for smooth studio workflow, accurate resourcing, building team relationships, and keeping everyone happy.

Avoid “crying wolf”

AMs should avoid “crying wolf” (a.k.a. crying ‘urgent’) too often. It’s best to make sure that the word ‘urgent’ is only used when something is truly urgent, or else designers will stop believing those wolf-y deadlines. Designers should challenge the word ‘urgent’ whenever it is used. What does the AM mean by ‘urgent’? What is the actual deadline, and is it fixed or movable?

Collaborate on timelines

Knowing how long it takes to complete different types of design projects is a skill that both designers and AMs build up over time. Asking questions such as, “How long do you think this will take?” or, “When will you be able to have this back to me by?” are collaborative and harmonious questions; as opposed to setting unrealistic timelines and deadlines which will be poorly received.

Deadlines, schmedlines

It’s up to both AMs AND designers to ensure that milestones and deadlines are met. AMs should be fastidious about monitoring deadlines, but will sometimes let them slip. Designers are (typically) not as invested in hitting milestones as AMs, therefore it’s important to work as a team to get work out on time and within the budgeted time allowance.

Critique artwork objectively

If there is one thing that can make a designer’s hackles rise it is when an AM gives creative feedback. You can just sense the internal monologue that is going on in the creative’s head:

Jenny is not a designer, how dare she tell me what does and doesn’t look good.
She wouldn’t know a widow from white space if it bit her.
If I move that image “just” a little bit, it’s going to completely destroy my perfect layout.

It is universally understood that AMs are not employed to be designers, however they do have to be the eyes of their client within the agency and assess creative work on their behalf. To that end there is going to be an element of critique involved, so AMs and designers need to be able to work together to achieve the best result possible. That involves AMs being empathetic with their words and approach, and designers being open to having their ideas and creativity challenged.

AMs don’t have to have a graphic design background, but they should at least understand basic design principles and be able to present educated opinions on why a design works or doesn’t. AMs should be given the scope to assess studio work based on what they know to be an acceptable level of creative output, and what their client requires. They should never let work go out of the agency (proofs or final artwork) if it is below standard, includes errors, is off-brand, or hasn’t hit the brief.

Show your appreciation

Saying “thank you” and “good job” are huge confidence-boosters. “You’re awesome” doesn’t hurt either!

Sarah Ritchie has been in the design and agency world for 25 years. Originally a graphic designer, Sarah has also worked as a design teacher, agency account manager, and now enjoys a wonderful life in recruitment for agencies. Sarah is also the Founder of AM-Insider — a website full of tips, tricks and resources to build account management superstars!

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