The Cohen-Miller Report: The Project/Account Manager Elucidation

by Emily Cohen   Cohen-Miller Consulting

Project vs. Account Managers

Many in-house creative teams have very important operational roles with traditional, industry standard titles such as Project Manager and Account Manager. While both roles perform critical functions in the management process, their specific responsibilities in that process, from project initiation through close out, are quite different and require unique skills sets and responsibilities. In order to understand how these roles are different, I’ve developed the following tables that compare the account vs. project manager’s overarching responsibilities at various levels: (click on charts for larger view)

Traditionally, within an agency environment, an account manager is also responsible for new business development. In an in-house environment, this translates to building client relationships and generating awareness of the in-house team throughout the organization. I often find that account managers within an agency-environment rarely transition well when hired within an in-house environment, because they don’t have experience navigating all levels of an organization.

At the highest level, the account manager provides strategic, big-picture insight and is relationship-driven while the project manager performs an equally important but different, more daily, tactical and project-level management role. Both roles are important and without them a team can greatly suffer.

The challenge many in-house teams have is how to differentiate these roles without blurring the lines. Because these two positions require different skill sets and experiences, it is often hard to combine them into one position. Yet, unfortunately, that is often what occurs. In this case, the project and account manager are one and the same position because the account manager position is considered “non-billable” or overhead which, in turn, impacts the team’s utilization rate – an important metric that drives the team’s financial model and organizational structure. Thus, the Catch 22. A team may need dedicated account mangers, yet they can’t “afford” them. Still other teams may have project managers but lack dedicated account managers.

Those teams without dedicated account managers often struggle to demonstrate their value and have difficulty allocating enough time and resources to building productive, consultative relationships with their clients. In such cases, the creative team is purely reactive and tactical. This impacts the team’s capability to provide value-added strategic advise to clients – and this is a service most in-house teams need to provide in order to compete with external agencies and provide the necessary insight most clients value above all else.

Similarly, other teams don’t have enough resources to hire dedicated project or account managers and often rely on designers to manage clients and projects alike. While this dual role does have some benefits, most designers don’t have the necessary skill sets required and their time really is best suited to creative areas, where their experience and passion can be best utilized.

The best teams are constructed around the needs of the organization and clients and include dedicated, trained and skilled account and/or project managers to truly fulfill those needs.