Would You Be As Brave With Your Own Money?

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Volume 26 In a Series By Felix

How many times have you heard creatives say “this would be a great industry if it weren’t for the damned clients?” Well, I’m guilty of saying it too, so I’m raising my hand. And if you haven’t said it yet, you’re either very new to the business, working in a utopia, or a complete liar.

Creative types are hardly known for having empathy with the clients, usually because clients are a bunch of stiff accountants with over-starched collars and balls the size of peanuts. We scold, we throw scorn, we laugh at their lack of vision, but what we rarely do is think about their financial situation and ROI.

If you’ve ever been given $50 to go and gamble with in Vegas, you’ll know just how easy it is to spend someone else’s money. Same goes for advertising. You get the brief, you scan for the USP and then you go to the line that says “budget.” “Is that all?” you’ll scoff. Or if it’s a gigantic $300 million account, you do a few cartwheels and scream “wow, we hit the jackpot…call Jerry Seinfeld, I always wanted to work with that guy.”

Whether you’re working with pennies or the contents of Fort Knox, the outcome is usually the same; your creative vision will end up being compromised in some way by the spineless client and you’ll argue until you’re blue in the face that your solution is the right one. But how many of you would actually back that up with your own cash?

I’ve seen it done. Only a few times in my career, but each time it floored me. It came from one creative director (Steve, you’re still a legend in my book) who had the confidence and the heart to put his own money on the line.

In a move as audacious as a William Shatner song, he stood up in creative presentations and insisted of taking no upfront fee for the work. Much to the chagrin of the other agency partners, he would often write a check and hand over not only the agency retainer for that month, but the next month as well. He instead chose to take a bigger payment only if the response rate hit a certain number. A big number.

Steve was betting on his creative direction; he was doubling-down on the campaign his agency was recommending, and the client loved that decision. They always, always, went all in on those campaigns because they had nothing to lose, knowing full well that if the work failed they had saved a bunch of cash on advertising fees. And if it worked, the ROI was so big that they could afford to give the agency more cash. Win win.

In the numerous times I saw Steve back his creatives and his gut reaction, it backfired only once. He missed the mark by a gnat’s pubic hair. The client was so happy with the results, they paid the agency anyway, and commended our CD on having the courage of his convictions.

Now, think back to the last campaign you worked on. Was it good? Was it, dare I say, amazing? Was it so creative it was dripping with gold awards and the envy of creative teams across the globe? That’s great. Good for you.

Now here’s another question; was it good enough for you to put your own money behind?

I don’t mean creative enough, I mean good enough. As Ogilvy has said many times, “It’s not creative unless it sells” and when it comes down to it, you are employed to make people buy a product or service. Whether direct or indirect, it’s your job to affect the purchasing decisions of the general public. And suddenly, with your own cash on the line, you will no doubt look again at your creative with new eyes; eyes that lay seeds of doubt and ask you whether that phone number is big enough, or the offer is strong enough.

Clients often cause us pain and distress. They ruin our creative ideas and never seem to have the balls we wish they had. But they also provide the money and the opportunity to keep us all in a job.

This has been proven to me time and again when I looked at self-promotional materials for freelancers and ad agencies. Suddenly, their incredible creative prowess was dulled by the fact that this campaign was done on their own dime, and they wanted it to work. They didn’t care for awards nearly as much as they cared for new business. It’s a paradigm shift, but an important one.

So next time you’re bitching out the client for being a spineless wonder, step back and think for a second. Would you finance your own creative campaign? Would you pay for it exactly the way it is, with no changes? Sometimes, the answer will be yes. But more often, you’ll rethink your incredible creative to make sure it actually does its job.

Never lose sight of the end goal and never forget that the client is giving you the money to make it all happen. Awards are nice, but they should always be a byproduct of work that is there to change opinions and promote products and services. If you do it right, and luck is on your side, you can sometimes do both.


  1. Jordan March 23, 2009

    It’s a risky proposition when

    It’s a risky proposition when nobody ever has any idea if it’s the advertising that’s selling product or not. You have to invest in advertising not because it works categorically, but because you can’t NOT.

  2. M.M. McDermott March 23, 2009

    Based on my mismanagement of

    Based on my mismanagement of my own personal finances, giving creatives the opportunity to take a campaign off the deep end (at least once) would actually be the most reasonable thing I’ve ever done with money.

    That, and buying Sour Patch Kids in bulk.

  3. Dabitch March 23, 2009

    I’ve paid for clients media

    I’ve paid for clients media and production out of my own pocket as I was convinced the idea was a winner. I was right.

  4. Tim Parsons March 24, 2009

    Yep said it before… Yep I’m

    Yep said it before… Yep I’m currently putting my money in to a project right now. One partner in the client company believes in it and the other does not. When it works the split will be 50/50. I have no doubt that it will work.

    Great article to put us all in check…

    It’s all about the results!

  5. Abe March 25, 2009

    This is some great food for

    This is some great food for thought. It gives me something to chew on for a while.

    I agree completely with your point about self promo work.

    Isn’t working with small budgets an opportunity for true creativity?

  6. Charles Bell

    Charles Bell March 25, 2009

    We practice this all the

    We practice this all the time, and on more then one occasion if I think the idea is a good one we offer up our expertise in exchange for ownership.

    The cleints are smart that take us up on it and it has resulting in a lot of what I call “Free” money. We all win and we are getting ready to do this again with a huge opportunity for us and this time I am sharing the venture with my staff.

    I hate those that will take money from anyone that walks in the door, maybe I get it but we have to believe in what we sell and in doing so our work is 10 times better and yes, it is human nature for us all to work better when we have an open ended fee that in part is driven by our own abilities, ideas and drive.

    In the end of it our customers come to us for success….and why should they pay us without that clear expectation. I get the over demanding client, but for those that trust us unconditionally then we have to delver for them. Period.

  7. Denver Web Design March 31, 2009

    I think this is the first

    I think this is the first time the idea of ROI has ever been discussed on this blog. Now, how about some case studies of great advertising that has worked and why?

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