How To Sell Creative Work To Clients, Part 1 of 2

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The original title of this post was missing the word creative. Then, as I started to write more, I realized that any dipshit can sell crappy work to a client. That’s easy. And it happens every single hour of every day, which is one of the reasons why so many bad ads are soiling our environment right now. (I said “one of the reasons,” trust me, I know great work can become a shadow of its former self by the time it gets out. That’s a topic for another rant.)

No, it’s not hard to sell any old work to a client, other than getting over the fear of standing up in a room and talking. And if you’re in the ad game, you’ll have to do that sooner or later. Probably sooner. As the mighty Luke Sullivan said in Hey Whipple, Squeeze This, "you can’t be a pilot who’s afraid of heights."

Of course, there are some amazingly creative people who would rather die than present work. Public speaking rates higher on the fear scale than death! Like Seinfeld quipped, and I’m paraphrasing, “if you were at a funeral, most people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.” I certainly don’t have the skills to get you over that fear in one or two pithy bullet-points. See a shrink, take pills, use hypnosis, just get to a point where you can stand up without throwing up.

There is one addendum to this though; if you’re completely, utterly, disastrously bad in front of clients, stuttering and sweating and forgetting everything, you need to hand over the selling of the work to someone else so that you don’t sink the campaign. But that’s a temporary measure until you get more comfortable. No one knows your work better than you do, so make it a point to practice whenever you can.

Now, saying that, I should add that I’m no Luke Sullivan when it comes to presenting. I’ll just never be that charismatic. I do fine, I get laughs when I need them, and I get awkward silences, too. I have sweaty palms on occasion. But there are some people who are just born to stand up and shine in front of a client. Rory Sutherland comes to mind. So too do David Abbott, Trevor Beattie, Bill Bernbach, Donny Deutsch, Alex Bogusky, Leo Burnett, Rosser Reeves, Lee Clow, Hal Riney, John Hegarty, Dan Weiden, and too many more to mention. I bow down to them all.

However, just because you don’t have the chops of the greats, that doesn’t mean you can’t sell work. It just takes a few fundamentals. Here is some advice I have collected over the years from those giants, as well as great account people and creatives I have worked with. May it serve you well. And if you have more advice, please add it to the list. If you disagree with any of it, tell me why.

1: The work MUST be on brief
There’s no getting around this one. If you have a genius idea that is way off brief, the client has every right to shoot it down. You would, and so would I. So make sure everything is buttoned up long before you ever get into that board room. Remember, the client has already signed off on the creative brief weeks (or even months) ago, so you can’t change that fact. However, when the work is on brief you have a fantastic weapon in your arsenal. This is the solution to the problem the client gave you. This is what the client asked for. Sure, judging any creative is subjective, but you can at least definitively say that the creative you’re presenting meets the objectives of the brief. And that is half the battle right there.

2: Practice your presentation
I know some creatives who can walk into a room completely unprepared and sell absolutely anything. They are rare beasts and should not be considered the norm. Most of us need to practice this stuff, at the very least with the account team working on the job. Practicing helps you work through any possible stumbling blocks, and it brings up questions you may not have thought of. It also helps you streamline the presentation. Be concise, you may love hearing the sound of your own voice but most people don’t.

3: Know the work inside-out
One of the most important reasons for creatives to present their own work is that they are the most familiar with it. They came up with the idea. They fashioned it. They made it what it is. But if you’re a creative about to step up and talk about your work in front of a room full of people deciding the fate of your wonderful idea, you better be damned sure you know that work back-to-front. If someone asks you why you chose a specific word or phrase for a headline, know why. If someone asks you how you arrived at the concept, know how. You did this work for a reason, hopefully. If you pulled that shit out of thin air or copied it from a One Show annual, you’re on shaky ground.

4: Pick the work apart first
Now, by saying this I am not giving every account team, owner, planner or production director the green light to shit on the work from a height. There is a time and a place to play devil’s advocate. But once everyone is on board with the ideas, and you have a killer concept, it’s ok to ask questions that the client may ask. Bring up those doubts, without being a buzz kill, so that you can fully prepare a response that’s watertight. The last thing you want is the client throwing a curveball at you and having no way to counter it. A stuttering, sweating, dumbfounded creative gives the client no confidence in the work at all. Congratulations, you’ve just helped the client shoot your killer idea down.

5: Be ready to fight for your ideas
Great ideas should be able to stand alone, but that doesn’t mean they can stand up for themselves. If the client is taking potshots at your hard work, defend it. Often, the client is asking questions that they genuinely want answers to. But remember to defend your work without getting too defensive. The kind of arrogance I’ve seen some creatives display when clients dared to question their work, well it only hurts the cause. Fight for the work, keep your cool, give considered responses and remind the client that you have their best interests at heart. Because if you’re a good creative, you do.

6: Have genuine enthusiasm for the work
Have you ever been to a presentation where the guy at the front read monotonously from a script or autocue? Have you ever been to a restaurant where the waiter seemed more interested in the ceiling than the menu? It makes a difference. You pick up on the enthusiasm (or lack of it) from that person and it actually affects the decisions you make. If you ask how the steak is and the reply is a lackluster “it’s nice” you probably won’t order it. But if the waiter replies with gusto, and tells you they never order anything else because it’s so damned delicious, then you’ll probably be ordering steak. The same goes for your work. Be excited to show it. Let the whole room feel that positive energy. Because if you aren’t thrilled about this work, why on earth would the client care about it?

7: Believe in what you have done
If you have doubts about the validity of the idea, you can bet your ass the client will. You may have questions or concerns about the creative, even as you present it, but you cannot let the client see anything other than complete confidence in the work you are selling. I have seen some people start a presentation with this gem: “So, we’ve got some work to show you today, it’s a bit out there and is probably too risky for you but we wanted to show you it anyway.” How do you think the client’s feeling after hearing that? I’ve also heard phrases like “well this is a bit off brand” or “this one is way over budget and you probably can’t afford it, but we love it.” All of those phrases only make your job even harder. Don’t sow any seeds of doubt. The work is as good as it can be. So you have to get behind your ideas with all the conviction you can possibly muster.

8: Take a few tips from HSN and QVC
I’m not saying you need to get your teeth whitened and have a personality transplant. But these guys are good at what they do. They convince millions of people every day to buy an awful lot of complete crap. And they do it by employing a lot of the tips in this article. They’re enthusiastic; they know the product completely; they believe in the product; they work well with the production team; in short, it’s a very tight ship. They may come across as saccharin and overbearing to you, but you’re not really the target. To those people who sit watching this garbage every afternoon, they’re spot on. And while we’re on the subject of overbearing salesmanship, infomercial pitchmen (and women) also have a few tricks up their sleeves. I bought a set of knives once from one of these guys doing a demo in the store. Me, the cynic, actually got sucked in. As it turns out, we still have those knives some nine years later, and they still work, but I wouldn’t have given them a second look if they were on the shelf in a box. This guy was magnetic, I believed in what he was saying and I believed in the product. You may laugh at the work of the late Billy Mays, but that man could sell bread to a guy with a gluten allergy.

9: Get to know your clients before you present
As a junior writer, I feared many of the clients I worked on. It was something that was fostered by the account teams. “Oh, you’re presenting to Don? Man, he hates us, he shits on everything.” As it turns out, Don isn’t such a bad guy at all, once you get to know him. And that’s the problem. As a junior, I had the most impossible time getting to know him because the account team was very protective of him. They didn’t think the creatives needed to have any kind of relationship with him; that was their job. Not so. If you get the chance to meet with your clients, whenever they are in the agency or whenever the account team is meeting them, tag along. If there are lunches, get yourself invited. If there are after-hours shindigs, be there. The more often you’re exposed to the client, the less of a mystery they are, and the less fearsome they will appear. When you next go to present your ideas, you will have a rapport. And that rapport will help you sell in an idea that could have be rejected by a cold room.

10: Bring the client into the creative process prior to the presentation
“It’s hard to kill something if you helped birth it.” I’m not sure who said that, but damn it, it’s true. I recently watched a fantastic documentary called “Tales From The Script” which is a fascinating insight into the lives of Hollywood scriptwriters. Steven E. de Souza (48 Hours, Die Hard) talked about leaving gaps in his script for the producers of the movie to fill with their own ideas. Of course, these gaps were either not important to the movie at all, or needed something blatantly obvious that he was happy for the producer to take credit for. If you can, in some way, bring the client into a few tissue sessions, you will have them on your side when it’s time to present the work. If it’s a potential client, say in a pitch situation, it’s still possible to involve the client. Ask questions, get feedback, use nuggets from them as part of the creative work. When the client is involved, even in the smallest way, they are more likely to give your creative work the green light. And that’s because it’s their creative work as well.

11: Work closely with the account team to prepare
A good presentation of the creative work needs a good foundation. The account team can give you this, setting up the meeting in a way that makes your work the answer to all of the client’s problems. The account team can go through the creative brief, hitting on all of the points that your creative addresses. The account team can tell you what to expect from the people who will be in the room, and what approach to take that will have the best reception. Good account people are worth their weight in gold, and if you work closely with them you are far more likely to turn those ideas on paper into ideas that get printed or aired.

Wrap your brain around these points. I'll be back in a few days with the remainder of the list (which happens to now be live).

Felix Unger is a site contributor, ranter and curmudgeon for The Denver Egotist. He's been in the ad game a long time, but he's still young enough to know he doesn't know everything. He'll give his opinion, you can take it or leave it. If he uses the f-bomb from time-to-time, forgive him. Sometimes, when you're ranting, no other word will do. In his spare time, he does not torture small animals. He has been known, on occasion, to drink alcohol by the gallon. Do as he says, not as he does.


Great post Felix. Very refreshing.

This is awesome! Thank you.

Maybe the next rant can be a step by step on how to write a good creative brief. Pairs well with cold pizza, flat beer and the Tuesday Rant: All I want is a descent creative brief.

Great post.

Best thing I ever did for presentation skills?


Let the ribbing commence!

Hey Felix: Have you ever seen good work be unsold by a creative team member? Me and my partner were in a meeting where the client loved what we presented, a tidy little animated tv spot. It was solid, strong work, on brief, as you said. It was for a client with a history for never loving anything in the first creative meeting. Well, they did. But before the meeting was finished, the cd proceeded to unsell the work that was just presented. My partner and I bit our tongues to not argue with our cd about what he was doing. In the end, the client was talked into not liking the spot they loved, and we ended up reconcepting, and presenting the cd's lame concept. Your thoughts?

More please!

Max Von Sydow see number five. Don't be afraid to fight CD's. Their more then likely skinny-fat and once you knuckle-up they say "Dog! I was just testing you! Drinks on me partner!"


Felix: nice post and true. Unfortunately, a hack could sell crap by following the same steps.I've seen it! The plethora of bad shit out there doesn't come from a selling process at all. A lot of it can be attributed to the old 20/80 principle: only 20 percent of the people in the ad business actually get it on both the agency ad client side. And only 20 percent of the ideas that bubble up are worth it. You need almost a perfect storm in having the right creative idea and client, as well as the process you describe to make something great.

Well done Felix.

Point #9 is particularly important: the key to selling anything -- detergent, beer, creative work, whatever -- is to understand your target.

A good account person should isolate you from the client's bullshit -- not from the client herself.

Well said. Thanks for sharing.

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