Not sure how to structure your agency? Your team structure will drive your management practices, production processes, and even your overall growth.
To structure your agency to meet your goals, you’ll need to understand the key differences between the three client-billable categories—account management (AM), project management (PM), and subject matter experts (SME).
Team structure evolves as your agency grows. Here, we’ll focus on what applies regardless of headcount.
Your client-billable agency team roles
There are three key client-billable roles in an agency. An account manager (who handles clients), a project manager (who oversees production), and subject matter experts (who create deliverables).
Although these roles are intertwined—especially at smaller agencies—you should understand who owns what, including defining “swim lanes.” A project manager and account manager have different mindsets and priorities, which means combining them is a bad idea.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the three primary roles—AM, PM, and SME. (You’ll also have Support employees, handling sales, accounting, and other administrative roles. Owners eventually move into this category themselves.)
AM (Account Management)
An account manager is your client-facing role. Their job is to keep clients happy… and sell them more work. S/he must ensure high-quality deliverables, so that they can upsell clients and (often) land new accounts. The AM frequently handles client strategy, although that’s technically an SME activity.
Main concern: Delivering great work that your clients are pleased with.
Why this role is important: Clients need someone who’s constantly focused on their satisfaction—because when that slips, you risk getting fired.
PM (Project Management)
A project manager is all about efficiency and getting things done. S/he manages the Iron Triangle—balancing delivering the work on time, and on budget, while still making a profit.
Main concern: Managing projects and budgets effectively and efficiently.
Why this role is important: A project manager makes sure your agency runs smoothly. S/he aligns the efforts between account management, SMEs, and the agency as a business.
SME (Subject Matter Experts)
Your subject matter experts are responsible for actually getting the job done. They are designers, developers, copywriters, strategists, videographers, etc. Subject matter experts are the makers and technicians of your agency.
Main concern: Performing their trade (or “craft”) well.
Why this role is important: They create the deliverables, including Think, Teach, Do work.
Your support team helps the billable employees do more billable work. They include salespeople, accountants, office managers, executive assistants, and others. Over time, agency owners tend to migrate into a Support role.
Main concern: Help billable employees bill smoothly.
Why this role is important: They help the billable team focus on being billable—instead of ordering printer toner, chasing down unpaid invoices, closing new clients, and creating the agency’s long-term strategy.
How to balance your agency team structure
Whether or not you have someone with an AM title, you need the role from the beginning—they handle client service. When you started the agency, you (or a business partner) were probably doing all of this. AMs lead your accounts, take care of upselling, and get enough revenue to sustain the business.
You will also need people who can execute on deliverables right from the beginning. SMEs are the backbone of what your agency promises—they need to be good at what they do, and they need to understand your clients’ industries.
I recommend hiring a dedicated project manager when your agency hits 8-12 employees, and sooner if you do highly technical work (since you’ve got more moving parts). If you have a smaller agency, someone will need to do PM on top of their SME role (e.g., PM + writing, PM + design).
An account manager and client strategist work with a project manager to ensure clients get what they need without being unprofitably over-serviced. If you can’t afford to separate your project management and client strategy roles just yet, make the best of it by avoiding in-person promises about scope changes, timelines, or new requests.
Your team structure will also change as you grow—by the time you hit 25+ people, you likely will have some people who do only account management, some people who do only project management, and some people who do only SME duties.
Question: How do you structure your team now?