The Rant: How To Be A Great Client – Part One (Of Three)

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Volume 28 In a Series By Felix

Creative Directors came under the gun from me recently (Part One and Part Two), and then I was given the idea to switch my focus to the other side of the coin; namely, the client.

Now if your experience in this game is anything like mine, you’ll have worked with both good clients and bad clients; but mostly, bad clients. There are many reasons for that, which will be touched upon later, but usually it’s down to a basic lack of understanding, communication and trust between agency and client.

As a creative, you will have goals that you want to accomplish, and they’re often skewed towards being a touch more inventive than effective. The client has goals, too. But they’re usually about as compatible with your goals as oil and water. In most cases, the client wants to make money. Lots of money. Occasionally they’ll want media attention, but the reason for that attention is ultimately financially driven anyway.

Ironically, at the end of the day, we’re all in this for the same end result – success. We want the advertising to be successful because it validates our role and guarantees more business (if it can be award-winning, all the better). The client wants successful advertising because it sells more of his or her product or service.

With both parties wanting the same outcome, you’d think life would be a lot easier. But there’s obviously more to it, because “easy” is not a word anyone would use when describing a client/agency relationship. Between inflated egos, trust issues, poor education and sheer pigheadedness, it’s often tough to accomplish anything without having a fight (mostly verbal, sometimes physical…I’ve seen it). And at the end of the day, the client holds the trump card; the client is paying the bills. Money talks.

So, if you are a client and are either working with an agency or plan to in the near future, commit some of the following tips to memory. I guarantee, you’ll benefit from them. When the agency has a great client, that client gets good service and great results.

1. You should be an expert on you

By this, I clearly don’t care that your favorite color is blue and you like gummy bears on your cocoa puffs. Here, I’m talking about your company and/or product. If you don’t have your own house in order, you will make your agency go insane trying to figure out something that you don’t even know yourself. You should be the expert on your product or service, including its pitfalls. You should know its history, its future and everything in between. You should also know the unique inner workings of your business. If you don’t, you will turn two rounds of artwork into twenty, and make every account manager, creative and production designer curse your name in the same way Muslims curse Salman Rushdie.

2. Realize that you hired an agency for a reason

I’m constantly amazed by the pompous voracity of clients. Most wouldn’t dare tell a mechanic how to change a transmission, or stand over the shoulder of a surgeon directing every cut of the blade. But for some reason, almost every client believes they have a hidden talent for advertising, marketing, copywriting and design. I once had a client change one of my subheads as it went onto the press, without our agency’s knowledge. The end result was the following gem – “You’ll wish you’ld called us sooner.” That’s not a typo. The client made up a word, combing you’ll and you’d. They thought is was genius. The agency fired the client soon after. So listen carefully, clients. You have made the very wise decision to let an expert do your advertising. Make another wise decision, and let them do their job.

3. Feedback should not be prescriptive

No agency will ever admit to getting things right the first time, every time. And if they do, they’re full of shit. Most jobs go through several rounds of changes and that is the nature of the business. There’s no way a writer can get everything spot on first time. It’s highly unlikely an AD will know just what’s in your head. But at the same time, you should not charge in with your size 12 boots on and dictate changes. Tell the agency what you’d like to change and why, but not HOW to change it. This goes back to point 2; copywriters are communication experts, they’ll know how to write a line that conveys more humor or urgency, they don’t need you to provide the solution. Designers can make designs that feel more retro without you saying “use this lovely piece of clipart I found.”

4. Too many cooks…

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. That old expression “a camel is a horse designed by committee” is dead on. (In fact, I’m working on my next three-legged, one-eyed camel right now.) When push comes to shove, too many conflicting opinions will only weaken your advertising. You need a strong position and you need to say it well. Don’t rely on a board room full of overpriced suits to help you make the final decision, bringing with them all of their pointless comments. Most of the time, people will have a change because they want to be seen making a change, being vocal, and putting their own stamp on a project. Let them play office politics with someone else’s project, but on yours, try and involve as few people as possible. And have the brass balls to stand up for one idea without sacrificing it to the vultures in the office. If it’s impossible to do any of that, at least limit the number of cooks in your particular kitchen. There’s always dead wood on a project; dump it and keep a lean team.

5. Who’s the boss?

This one may require some self-realization. Sorry. But think about this for a minute and then answer truthfully…are you the boss? By that, I don’t mean “are you the CEO?” But when it comes to your specific project, are you the final decision maker? If not, let that be made clear from the outset. You don’t have to demean yourself, just let the agency know that you’ll have to get feedback from someone else in your organization.

Also, try and involve the actual big cheese as soon as you can. I have seen way too many projects get the green light from a client, only to have that client’s superior come in at the last minute and shag the whole campaign. If you’re a puppet, albeit a bright and attractive one, make sure your role is well-defined. The agency will not be happy with you or your company if key decision makers are only brought into the mix when the ad has been shot and going through round six of the edit.

6. You should be friend, not foe.

Agencies have strange relationships with clients. On the one hand, they’re nothing without you. On the other, they make you money and you should be thankful for it. But generally speaking, it’s the creative department that will be most fearful of what you can do to their beloved campaign. As a client, you’ll instantly want to kill the creativity, merge five concepts together, slam a huge logo and phone number on every ad, and fuck with the design until it looks like an abortion. Of course, perception and reality are often miles apart, and although there are reasons for creative people to be cautious, this sense of dread becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You, as the client, have the power to make sure the relationship gets off on the right foot (by following the advice in this article for starters). Spell out your objectives and be as transparent as possible. Offer your assistance to the creative team, whether that means gathering more research or meeting in an early tissue session to discuss ideas. A great agency/client relationship is rare but produces fantastic results. When you paint yourself as the bad guy, the creative team is less likely to give a crap about your objectives. You really are partners in this; work with each other, help the ideas grow and mature, and you’ll reap the rewards.

7. You get what you pay for

Another damned cliché? Well, it’s true so I’m using it. As a client, you want to pay as little as possible for as much great work as you can get your hands on. Agencies, as far as most clients are concerned, just want to do a few pieces of terrific work for a huge fee, and spend all of your money on overblown ads that win shiny awards. So you shop around, you find an agency that can do your work for a decent price and then you proceed to abuse the shit out of them. Two concepts becomes eight, and you want to see two variations of each. You expect rounds and rounds of revisions and rewrites at no extra cost. You ask for work that never gets done. You expect the royal treatment whenever you walk into their office, and you still grumble when you sign the meager check. Don’t be tight. Great work comes with a price tag. At the end of the day, an agency will only put up with so much BS, even in this economy, before they realize you’re not worth it. And word will soon get around that you’re difficult to work with and have a Scrooge mentality. True, some agencies are overpriced, but most of the time the rate represents value for money. The agency is going to give you a return on your investment. How much is up to you.

8. Don’t hire a plumber to fix the wiring

Do you know what you want from your agency before you shop around? You’d better. Because like any other profession, there are specialists. Some are masters at branding. Some are skilled at pushing out cutting-edge viral and guerrilla campaigns. Some are internet-centric. Some are focused on direct marketing. Lots of agencies say they can do it all, but few can do them all well (Crispin, we know you can do it all…stop gloating). Anyway, this is something you must keep in mind when you choose an agency. In these tough times, some agencies will go after any client, regardless of whether they can actually execute the work. So, look at the agency’s history. Check out their previous work and see where they’re winning awards. If the accolades are all for real estate marketing, you can bet your last cent they won’t be the best guys to handle a guerrilla campaign for beer.

But by the same token, don’t expect miracles from the agency you have already chosen. They may not have the resources or staff to switch gears and do something that’s 180 degrees from why you hired them. Now, that doesn’t mean the agency won’t be able to do the job. Hell, the creatives might even jump at the chance to do something new.

I once had to design four concept cars for Nissan. Being a copywriter, I was so far out of my depth it wasn’t even funny, but I did enjoy that week at work. I especially enjoyed meeting with the industrial designer who did the concept sketches. And the client, Nissan, was happy enough with the results but did say they weren’t exactly what they were expecting. No shit. I’m amazed they even looked like cars to be honest.

9. Don’t ask for carbon-copies of other campaigns

This one is infuriating. You’ve seen a great campaign; for the sake of this article, let’s choose the Apple vs PC ads. You think they’re funny, memorable and really slam the competition. So you walk into your agency of choice, be it a new one or an incumbent, and you plop it down on the table. “I want one of these” you say with a smile. “Give me Apple vs PC but make it Tide vs Dawn.” Creatives in the agency slump their shoulders en masse. The account team tries to talk you out of it in as many polite ways as possible. But no, your mind’s made up. Well in that case, you really don’t need an agency, and you don’t need to put them through it either. Go straight to a production house and get them to do your dirty work. Don’t force an agency to do this kind of crap, it’s unprofessional and won’t do anything for you anyway. Unless, of course, it’s a parody, but that’s another story.

10. Take risks

I was going to leave this one until the end of the last piece in the series, but in all good conscience I couldn’t sit on it. Maybe, just maybe, you’re a client reading this and you’re going to walk into an agency presentation today, or tomorrow, or next week. So here is one huge piece of advice that all creatives and creative agencies are begging you to embrace – take some risks. The clients that do, they’re the ones you envy. They’re the ones who do those astonishing campaigns that blow you out of the water and kill your sales projections. You marvel at the work, and then ask for the same. Alas, it’s not risky any more. It’s been done. It’s out there. It’s proven. You’re just riding on the coattails now. I once heard the story of a copywriter who, time and again, got his work rejected by Target in favor of something much more bland. In the end, he quit and ended up going to work for…Target. He switched from creative to client and when asked why, he simply said “I got tired of seeing great work getting rejected, so I thought I’d start making great work happen.” We all know how that turned out, Target is head and shoulders above any other retailer. So when you see an idea that drags you out of your comfort zone, don’t reject it. Think about it. If it gets a reaction out of you, it probably will out of your customer. If it makes you laugh, it’s memorable. And that means it’s memorable to your customer. And please, please, if you do take a risk on an original idea, have the balls to stick it out. Don’t get cold feet and start hacking it to pieces before it goes to print or hits the airwaves. There’s nothing more depressing in this business than watching a good idea become a pitiful waste of space. Take a risk. It will usually pay off.

In the next installment, I’ll cover ten more attributes of a great client. One of them is patience…so yes, you’ll have to wait.


  1. Dawn Putney May 7, 2009

    I’ve already emailed the

    I’ve already emailed the article to two clients. Bless your foul-mouthed little heart.

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