They Said What?

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By Ryan Johnson.

Clients are like kids. No, not because they soil themselves at inopportune times. Clients are like kids because they say the darndest things.

Several years ago, I sat through a client meeting in which my creative director presented a radio script that referenced the Latin phrase “E Pluribus Unum” found on the back of the almighty penny. After listening to all of the concepts, one of the clients in the room (it was a committee – go figure) bravely stepped forward to voice his support.

“I like the one with the Latin in it,” he said. “I think that would really speak to the Latino community.” After an uncomfortable and awkward silence, my creative director offered the only reasonable response.

“That’s a great point.”

Hey, when a client actually likes something, who are we to point out his inanity?

I’ve sat through many meetings and watched as clients blasted the work, railroaded subordinates and put forth their own off-kilter agendas. We all have. It’s a hoot. I have learned to accept it and not let it get to me. Instead, I listen for the gems. The little nuggets of “wisdom” that serve as great sound bites to store in the mental hard drive for future tavern sessions of “You think that’s fucked up? Listen to this…”

Shortly after 9/11, I attended a meeting with the marketing board for Vail. It was, to say the least, an emotional and uncertain time for all of us. The travel and tourism industry was obviously facing a significant downturn. More than that, we couldn’t help but feel guilty thinking that advertising meant a damn in the grand scheme of existence. One of the board members, a real “when life gives you lemons”-type, spoke up.

“We should promote Vail as a safe place to visit. I mean the terrorists aren’t going to come here.”

It was, and will always be, the ONLY time in my life when I have wished for a suicide bomber to walk through the door, greet everyone with a Dr. Nick Riviera-like “hi everybody!!” and detonate himself. The other board members all nodded in agreement with this person’s assertion. “Yes, yes.” “Good idea.”

Last spring I was on a conference call presenting a rough cut to a group of clients. The spot featured a simple, fast-paced dialog between family members in different locations. The conversation was made possible by the clients’ product – various types of communication devices. All of the clients on the phone seemed to like the cut. Except one. The big cheese. It wasn’t that she didn’t like the cut. She didn’t get it.

“When is this taking place? What’s the timeframe here?” We explained that it could be real time or it could be over the course of a few hours. It didn’t matter. Through the “magic” of editing, we put the conversation into a tidy 30-second package. One of the other clients came to our defense and said it was kind of a fantasy world. Actually, there was no fantasy, but we needed all the help we could get. The big cheese, feeling cornered, lashed out.

“Well, then I want you to explain the reality of the fantasy world to me.”

And there it was. The bad client manifesto – captured in a single sentence.

I have since rewritten it on a small piece of poster board and hung it in my office. “I want you to explain the reality of the fantasy world to me.”

It’s not a reminder of that particular call or project. It’s bigger than that. It embodies the mindset of bad clients everywhere. Good clients, and there are plenty of good clients, have the vision and the courage to follow you around corners, to let go of the analytical and embrace the emotional for a time.

Bad clients, and there are plenty of bad clients, want you to take them to see “Superman” and then point out the suspension wires used to make our hero fly. They don’t believe in magic and they would probably cancel Christmas given the chance.

But if you’re lucky, they’ll tell you as much in a memorable way.


I hate to see a cublicle covered in Dilbert cartoons, or a work fridge with Cathy clips… but when i read this i immediately printed it out and hung it up… it turns out things really are funny when they are true.

Here the background, I was an intern at a inhouse studio for a packaging and pop display company.

The client:
50 something obese man with a greasy, matted and dandruffed combover in an ill fitting suit from 1983.

His “concept” for his ad:
A comic panel type image of a woman in a skirt and apron working happily/obediently in the kitchen until her husband comes home. She then eagerly serves him dinner and makes him comfortable using the clients product.

I pointed out that it probably wasn’t a good idea to which he responded in spittle launching halitosis cloud “I know what women want, dammit!”

David Ogilvy once said “The customer isn’t stupid. She’s your wife.” The year was 1705, I believe.

If anyone else has any client wisdom, please share. It helps the hurting go away. Really.

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