How to become a: studio account manager

As part of our series looking at jobs in design studios, we speak to Jorijn Harms, group account director at Jones Knowles Ritchie (JKR), about how she went from product design to account management, why she loves being the go-to studio organiser and how to stay positive when angry clients are on the other end of the phone.

Design Week: What’s your educational background?

Jorijn Harms: I’m from the Netherlands, so studied an industrial design degree there at the Delft University of Technology. It’s quite normal to also do a master’s degree in the Netherlands, so I did one in strategic product design. As a result, I ended up going into the strategy side of things, focusing on the thinking behind design rather than the execution. I felt this was better for me — I’m not a bad designer but some people are so naturally gifted, and I felt I was better at the analysis.

DW: What’s your career journey been so far?

JH: I did an internship as part of my course in the marketing team of ice-cream brand Ben and Jerry’s. It was super fun and started my interest in branding. But as an in-house team, it seemed to outsource a lot of the creative work, so I realised a better place for me would be in a design studio.

After this, as part of my thesis on my course, I worked at a design studio in the Netherlands called Cartils, particularly looking at perfume packaging design. I really enjoyed the research process, which involved trying to understand people’s associations of scent through packaging design. The studio asked if I wanted to stay on in account management — I didn’t even know what the job was at the time! I took it as I thought I could always change direction if it didn’t feel right for me.

The account management department was very connected to the creative process, which is why I ended up really enjoying it; it felt like there was a lot of diversity within the job. Although I wasn’t doing the design work myself, I loved working in a creative environment.

After four years, Cartils asked if I wanted to move to the London office. I was really happy to do this as I’ve always thought London is a great space for graphic design and design education. I spent four more years there, working my way up to a client brand manager role.

Although I really enjoyed it, it was quite a niche studio, doing a lot of beer and spirits packaging. I wanted to branch out, so I applied for an account director job at Jones Knowles Ritchie (JKR). I’ve been there for three-and-a-half years and am now group account director.

Jorijn Harms worked on account management for the rebrand of the Social Mobility Foundation last year

DW: What first got you interested in account management?

JH: It was really at university, when studying product design strategy. During the design process, I’ve always naturally gravitated towards the abstract parts — the understanding of trends, how the cultural and political landscape shapes people’s perspectives, and how products play a role in people’s lives.

Through experience, I also learnt I really like the practical side to the job — remembering that you’re a business, and it’s not simply an art-form, but about managing processes to get the best results in a set amount of time.

DW: What does a typical working day look like for you?

JH: My contracted hours are 9.30am-6pm, with an hour’s lunch break but it’s quite flexible if people want to come in earlier or later. I’m one of five group account directors at JKR.

On a Monday, I’ll do some urgent admin when I get in and go through emails, then just before lunch, my team will do a big run-through presentation of the upcoming week, going over everyone’s work schedules, whether they’re in the office or travelling, etc.

This lasts up to an hour, then for the rest of the day, I’ll be doing all sorts. This often includes internal progress reviews with the creative team and delivering presentations to clients alongside the creative and strategy teams, either face-to-face or remotely.

As an account manager, the part I’m in charge of is the overall project introduction, explaining what we’re doing and why, and showing them where we’re at in the process. The strategy team then takes the client through the rationale and the design team take them through the creative work.

I have several internal meetings with different teams to help manage their workflow. This includes setting deadlines and timelines, checking if everyone has enough resource or whether we need to hire freelancers, and managing periods of time when people are on holiday.

I also organise internal training and deliver a financial performance presentation every week to the company, looking at how we’re performing against our plans, such as whether we’re overstretched or not too busy so can pull more projects in.

DW: What are your main day-to-day tasks?

JH: Internal and external communications, organisation through making time-plans and emailing people, writing creative briefs and presentations, making keynote presentations that explain clearly to our teams what they should be doing, meeting with various departments, building presentations on the bigger future vision for JKR, as well as on specific projects.

Then there’s the financial and admin side, such as tracking finances and people’s tasks and hours, and whether we are sticking to the budgets we’ve assigned.

DW: How creatively challenging is the job?

JR: It’s quite creative, in a different way from visual creative work. I have to think creatively to flex the way the company works, to help us do better work and deliver good results to clients, and make sure teams are engaged and coming up with good ideas. If I can help create a good team atmosphere, this will inevitably make design work better.

There’s also a lot of space at JKR for people to do other things and express their ideas and interests. JKR recently created a foundation just for non-profit work, and I was really interested in that, so I’ve been involved in setting it up and making it work.

DW: How closely do account managers and graphic designers work?

JH: We work really closely; I work with multiple design teams every day. I’ll be in meetings with creatives across the business for briefings and presentations.

What’s nice and beneficial is the time spent outside those meetings – when I’m travelling to an external client briefing with a design director and brand strategist by train or plane, and we just chat and brainstorm ideas. There’s a constant dialogue between different departments, and being in a different, relaxed environment, maybe with a beer, really helps.

DW: What strengths do you need to be an account manager?

JH: You need to be able to enjoy having a diverse day filled with lots of different activities. You should enjoy switching between different modes. You need to be scrupulous and rigorous – it falls on me to make sure briefs are of the highest quality and there are no mistakes in the creative work or on presentations. But also, you need to be able to see the bigger picture — and have great time management and organisation.

DW: What are the best parts of your job?

JH: I really enjoy working with creative people and clients then seeing something come to life in the real world — it’s an exciting thing and I never get bored of it.

I also love how branding has taken on a new role in society, where people don’t just buy into something that looks great but also represents them in some way. I really enjoy working on brands that represent sustainable values or equality, for instance, such as start-ups like Hippies and Ugly Drinks that have a wider social purpose and ethics.

I’m also a bit of a generalist so really enjoy working on lots of different things — I never get bored, as I’ll be doing 12 different things every day.

DW: What are the worst parts of your job?

JH: Sometimes, even with structure, things don’t go to plan and we don’t reach a solution straight away. It can be stressful as when clients get frustrated and annoyed that things are not on time, I’ll be the first one on the phone, having to tell them we’re not delivering. I receive that frustration first!

It requires training to learn how to deal with it and understand that it’s not personal. It can also be difficult in situations like this to stay positive for all the other teams you’re managing. You need to learn to keep your cool and be comfortable with bumps in the road.

DW: If you were interviewing for a junior account manager, what would you look for?

JH: I’d want someone who can think fast and articulately express conceptual design ideas, as well as someone who understands the bigger world of branding.

They need to have a positive attitude and an amiable personality — working with so many people internally and client-side means it’s important you’re an engaging, sociable person who genuinely enjoys working with different people.

You need to have a positive spirit and a willingness to deal with challenges in a positive way. On the hard skills side, you need to have an analytical mind to understand complex processes, and of course great organisation and management skills as you will be dealing with a lot of timelines and numbers. Some experience of dealing with any kind of creative process, graphic design or not, is also good.

DW: What advice can you offer people considering a job in account management?

JH: Try to talk to different people across the creative landscape to work out whether you enjoy the actual execution of creativity, so making and designing stuff, the project organisation side, or the strategy side.

There are lots of different aspects to a creative studio, so don’t jump to the conclusion straight away of “I studied design, therefore I must become a designer.” There are lots of people working in account management who have studied creative subjects, from graphic design to furniture design to literature. They come from all sorts of backgrounds. Diversity makes for better teams.

Also, consider — is a design studio for me? There are so many roles out there elsewhere, such as in research agencies or digital innovation studios. Look into different paths and don’t let your degree or qualifications determine what job you think you should have.

Salary expectations based on Design Week Jobs: 

Account manager: £25,000-£35,000
Senior account manager: £35,000-£45,000
Account director: £50,000-£70,000
Account managers do not tend to work freelance.

To browse account management roles, head to Design Week Jobs.

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