Thursday, October 20, 2011

Truly, madly, deeply.

I have had two clients in as many weeks fall in love with creative work. I don’t mean just being very happy. I mean truly, madly, deeply falling in love. Getting up out of their chairs, using emotional language, clapping, cheering and in one case, honestly welling up when talking about the work.

I am not the common link here. I am lucky to be working with two excellent teams who have produced world class creative solutions in both cases. But I’m interested in what the common factors were in both these (very different) client situations. What are the circumstances that can cause a client to fall head over heals for a piece of creative work?

First of all, the work has to be great. Of course. But it must be great in a specific way. It has to have drawn its solutions, conclusions and inspiration from a place of deep understanding of the clients needs. This is something beyond the basic audience, market, competitor analysis. It goes deep into what I call ‘client empathy’.  I’ve discussed this idea in previous posts. It is one that requires stepping wholly inside your client’s shoes and acting upon their full range of challenges. Their colleagues, their boss, their budget, time and authority constraints – are all part of what we are understanding, caring about and helping them with when we work with client empathy.

Clients fall in love when they can see a way out of the woods. Part of the emotion they feel is gratitude and relief that we are helping them achieve something that they have been losing sleep over.

Secondly, the work has to be brave. It has to go further than the client was expecting and probably further than they are really quite comfortable with. A client told me recently ‘This could get me fired!’ And meant it in a good way. It’s part of human nature to enjoy achievement. Giving your client a sense of optimistic daring  by presenting them with a viable solution that they would not have previously though possible, is a very powerful thing. Great joy comes with exceeded expectations.

Thirdly, the client has to like you. I mean really like you. This one is highly subjective and hard to plan for but they have to start by wanting to be in the room with you and enjoying listening to what you have to say. This is tied to the empathy idea but it is not the same thing.  I think it is to do with a combination of charisma and good old fashioned kindness. You’ve got to be someone they would choose to go on a road-trip with – resourceful, dependable, thoughtful but also a lot of fun. I’ve seen many creatives miss this opportunity, preferring to take the ‘the don’t have to like me they just have to know I’m good’ stance. It doesn’t work. Falling in love with the work is in part, also falling in love with the team that created it.

Presentation is important. But not necessarily in the way you might think. I’ve always been a big believer in rehearsing presentations. Getting the flow just right, making sure the pace doesn’t lag or skip over details. But I’ve had equal success with off-the-cuff, unpolished presentations or ones plagued with technical difficulties. The key ingredient is to have a good story that you truly believe in and to tell it with great passion.

Why does it matter to have clients fall in love as opposed to just liking or approving work? Because it allows us to take them further. Love makes them brave. Excitement makes them think bigger and longer term. Less likely to pick over minor details. More likely to fight for and defend the idea within their own organization.

Most importantly, once a client has known true love, they will always come back for more.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

How to be a rock'n'roll client

It’s hard to meet a young graphic designer who doesn’t want to design record sleeves. Having spent the early part of my career working on record campaigns, when designers ask me about getting into the field I usually try to put them off. The main reason being that recording artists (and their record labels) for the most part are lousy clients.

It’s a lot to do with them being (or at least considering themselves as) ‘artists’. Many of them have been dreaming about what their album cover should look like as long as they have been dreaming about making their album. They feel it’s their album and hence — with some reasonableness — that it is their sleeve. They also tend to be quite young and ‘sensitive’.

Worst of all, in delightful Spinal-Tap alignment, they often have girlfriends who are at art school, or who like to paint...

I’ve triggered more than one rock’n’roll hissy fit in my time by politely suggesting that, while we all agree that they are very talented musicians, it might be best to listen to another talented professional when deciding on the look of their sleeve. We wouldn’t, after all, tell them how to play guitar etc, etc.

Unfortunately, most designers’ romantic vision of working on record sleeves is built on a skewed image. The kind of record sleeves they aspire to being able to create often come from labels such as ECM, 4AD, Mowax or Rune Grammofon where the label has their own favoured designers and is not contractually obliged to have the artist's approval on sleeve artwork. These opportunities are graphic design Nirvana but they are few and far between and tend to be labours of love rather than rent-paying gigs.

As long as you are not in it for the money, there are great graphic design jobs to he had in music but they tend to come from the older and more experienced players. One of the best clients I’ve had from any field, was Primal Scream. I worked with them on the Xtrmntr campaign. By this time they were in their early 40’s, off drugs and starting to have kids, so you could argue I got them at a mellower stage than others before me might have experienced. But it would be hard to find a more directed, decisive and pleasant client than Bobby Gillespie. It helped that we were working with Julian House for whom the Scream have enormous trust and respect as well as a vast terrain of shared influences. It also helped that they know a lot about about design and visual culture in general. Bobby would come to meetings with books and other reference materials under his arm. He gave directed but open briefs, clear and concise feedback at every stage and was free with praise and appreciation when a job was well done (hear thick Glaswegian accent: “Yer, that’s fookin’ brrrilliant.”)

In this, Bobby (perhaps unknowingly, perhaps not) shares some graces with one of his heros. I was delighted to come across this piece of rock-n-roll ephemera the other day (via my former colleague, the very talented Xiaofei Zhang).

There are so many things to love about this letter — the delightful, well-brought-up politeness of Jagger’s tone, the typewriter on yellowing paper — but my favourite thing is Jagger’s one (hastily qualified) piece of direction about avoiding ‘complicated’ formats because we now know Warhol so flagrantly ignored it.

The album that this letter was sent to commission was Sticky Fingers, the one with the tantalizing openable jeans-zipper set into the cover. Besides Motown Chartbusters vol. 7 with its revolving die-cut cover and the imitative Led Zepplin III, Sticky Fingers was probably most elaborately constructed 12 inch sleeve made at that time. 

The sleeve, of course, is a classic and in my opinion far exceeds Warhol’s other more famous effort with the Velvet Underground.

As with most design projects, great album sleeves usually happen when there is mutual respect and like-mindedness between two well-qualified and talented parties. Think Storm Thorgeston and Pink Floyd, Ben Drury and Dizzy Rascal, Peter Saville and Joy Division, Sex Pistols and Jamie Reid... the list goes on.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Highly underused and greatly underestimated, mutuality is an important concept in business and even more so in the relationship between creative agencies and their clients. Mutuality means building a working relationship which is of mutual benefit to both businesses. And it requires having an understanding of the inner workings of each other’s organization that goes beyond the project at hand...

This piece was written for the Design Management Institute. You can read the whole piece here.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

I *heart* clients

Everyone has moments of hating the people they work to serve. Waitresses, bank tellers, and sales assistants all have days when customers get on their nerves. Doctors, lawyers, accountants and dentists all have certain clients that they dread picking up the phone to.

But few professions have practitioners as poorly equipped for managing relationships with those who pay them as Graphic Design.

This piece was published in good old fashioned print by Process Magazine and online by Design Assembly. You can read the full article here.

Monday, April 4, 2011

What’s like got to do with it?

When it comes to design for communication (branding, advertising, graphic design etc) whether or not you like something is irrelevant.

This one is a little counter intuitive so it takes some practice and it also warrants a closer look at what exactly we mean by ‘like’.

To like something is a fairly mild, non-contentious sentiment. It doesn’t require the energy, commitment or depth of feeling implicit in love, hate, adore, despise, respect or admire.

It is also fairly passive. To like something is to not really require anything of it. You don’t expect it to affect or motivate you in anyway and you don’t look to it to impart any meaning as you might from something that you have a deeper form of appreciation for.

A person you like is someone you might enjoy a drink with every now and then but you wouldn’t necessarily go to them for help or advice in a time of need. This involvement is generally reserved for people we have much stronger feelings for.

‘Like’ is also acceptably subjective. You don’t have to explain much about why you like something. But if you claim something is clever, wonderful, moving, scary or complete rubbish people would be more likely want to hear your thoughts on it.

For these reasons, like is a useless concept in communications.

I like Budwieser commercials but I have and will never, drink their beer. I like the Cadbury’s drumming gorilla but it never inspired me to buy chocolate.

When you are commissioning creative work. It is very important to leave your likes out of the equation. For a start, it is not created for you. It’s created for your customer. And beyond that, if your creative agency are factoring what you like or dislike into the equation then they are not casting the idea net wide enough and will likely come up with safe, predictable and derivative solutions.

So what do we replace ‘like’ with? I’d like to think we replace it with ‘good’. And to get to a verdict as to whether a communications solution is good or not ask yourself two simple questions:

Does it answer the brief you set?  And, do you trust and respect your creative agency?

If the answer to both of these is yes, then run with it.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Tell me how it's done

In my list of all-time stupidest things a client ever said to me, I think near the top must be “I wish you would stop telling me that my changes are causing delays!”.

That’s kind of like saying “don’t tell me banging my head on this wall is going to give me a headache!”

As insane as that client may sound, I actually blame myself.

The client was new to their job, had never commissioned this kind of work before and knew very little about how the project would unfold. Their own lack of expertise and my neglect in explaining things better was very frustrating for them. 

I should have recognised this early on and spent some time explaining the way things were going to work before we got close to the deadline and panic set in.

I used to worry about clients feeling patronised if I explained process to them. But I now realise that all projects need to be managed according to the level of experience and expertise of the client you are dealing directly with. Asking a few questions at the beginning of a project to assess this and taking the time to help fill in any gaps in their knowledge makes it so much easier to discuss problems with them rationally down the line.

In my experience, the risk of teaching your grandmother to suck eggs in this situation is pretty slim. Most agencies don’t share enough process information with their clients. Which means that chances are even very experienced clients may have spent years commissioning work which they have very little insight into the making of.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Be nice!

I came across this quote recently from David Ogilvy on what matters to clients:

“It is not enough for an agency to be respected for its professional competence. Indeed, there isn't much to choose between the competence of big agencies. What so often makes the difference is the character of the men and women who represent the agency at the top level, with clients and the business community. If they are respected as admirable people, the agency gets business—whether from present clients or prospective ones.”

I can’t help but feel that this is true for all business relationships. We all prefer to be around people we like and respect. Both at work and at play. So it’s no great secret that people tend to do more business with people when they enjoy their company.

Agencies, for the most part, are nice to their clients. We kind of have to be. But I don’t think many clients truly realise how important it is to be nice to their agencies.

Things always start out amicably. But it’s when pressure mounts, things go wrong, bad news needs to be delivered, that temperaments change. I have seen even the mildest mannered of clients turn nasty when they feel things are not going the way they planned.

The problem is that the client/agency transaction is ultimately viewed (by clients) as a service relationship. And if you are of the mindset that you don’t particularly have to be nice to waiters, bank tellers or shop assistants, then at some point you are going to decided that you don’t have to make the effort to be nice to the people at your agency.

Nobody thinks they are that person. But I am always amazed by how often that person is lurking underneath just waiting for the right circumstance for their outing to be acceptable.

I am of the opinion that losing your cool in a professional situation is never acceptable. No matter what the circumstance or perceived provocation. Aside from the fact that it is embarrassing and erodes respect, it is highly counter productive.

Account handlers and agency managers, to some extent, are built to withstand client outbursts. Creatives are not.

At This is Real Art, like many agencies, we had an open plan office. No matter how much I tried to protect my team from the worst client behavior, everyone could tell when I was on the receiving end of a nasty client call. And I was always astounded by how much it affected them. The general reaction would be that despite our best efforts the client was still not satisfied and therefore unreasonable and will probably never be satisfied, no matter how hard we try. This level of defensiveness, right or wrong, is the sign of a close-knit team and thus, difficult to discourage without babies going out with the bathwater. 

Once resentment toward a client sets in, it doesn’t go away. And it makes it difficult to elicit from your team the extra puff needed to solve the tricky problems that probably lead to the client’s discomfort in the first place.

The flipside to this is that a small amount of kindness and consideration can go a really long way when it comes to motivating teams to pull for your cause.

If it doesn’t come from the natural goodness of your heart and the depths of your winning personality, think of it strategically. Management expert Tom Peters calls it R.O.I.R.—Return On Investment in Relationships. He says, “regardless of stakes or subject matter it's the collecting of allies and the maintenance and nurturing of supporters that determines whether or not things you care about get done.”

If you’re a client, you want the team at your agency to be working late nights and weekends on your project. You want them to be sweating blood and putting the full force of their passion behind your cause. This is how creative people work best. When they care.

There will always be moments when tensions run high and outbursts will happen. But clients, realise this: there is a very simple way to get harder work, longer hours and better quality from your agency. Be Nice.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Ditch the pitch

As reported in Ad Age recently, US retail giant Sears has had written into their NDA that any ideas presented to them by agencies during the pitch process will belong to Sears, irrespective of whether or not the agency wins the pitch.

This announcement has, understandably, caused a bit of a ruckus. Ad agencies are opting out. The American Association of Advertising Agencies wrote a letter calling the clause ‘unreasonable and unfair’.

Sears and their review consultancy have declined to comment but the unofficial reasoning that has begun to surface seems to be that they feel uneasy about the amount of information that agencies get to know about their business in the pitch process and have concerns about this information being used to the advantage of their competitors by losing agencies. They also argue that they are often pitched similar ideas by rival agencies and don’t want to be accused by losing agencies if the winning agencies ideas are similar to theirs.

Honestly, I can’t be bothered looking into the minutia of these arguments on either side. The whole thing is just screaming proof that this process is broken beyond repair.

Agencies have always found pitching to be morally ambiguous territory. Now it’s clear that clients are not comfortable with it either. Why would any of us want to participate in a process that breeds this much mistrust and resentment? And how can it possibly be seen as a good way to start off such an important business relationship?

In tweaking the parameters of a tradition that is so clearly faulty, Sears are just making the whole structure even shakier.

It’s not hard to tot up the time and money – not to mention the erosion of trust and respect – that would be saved by dropping the creative pitch process and reviewing agencies in a more rational way. So why does the tradition persist in it's present form?

I can't help wondering what we (as agencies) are doing wrong to make clients have so little courage in their convictions when it comes to employing us. That we have to do the job to convince them that we can do the job.

Or maybe it's about keeping Heads of Advertising and CMOs busy and powerful. Egged-on by 'review consultants' that really shouldn't exist at all if everyone else knew how to do their jobs properly.

With a bit of luck Sears will have broken the camel’s back with this one and we can start experimenting with something closer to James Cooper’s ideal of Zero Waste Creativity.

Choosing an agency is an employment process and should be handled as one. Look at the candidate’s past experience and references. Interview them extensively. Get to know their attitudes and principles. Then decide if they are capable of doing the job and if they have a character that you can work with.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Up the Organisation

This week's post I have borrowed with gratitude from Robert Townsend, erstwhile Avis rent a car CEO, best-selling author and Theory Y evangelist.

There are so many great things to say about Robert 'super client' Townsend that it's hard to know where to start. In the piece I've lifted here, he talks about working with DDB on the famous 'We Try Harder' strategy. 

Reading and re-reading this stuff (as I have done many times) it's hard to see how anyone could argue against it. But in my time I've never met a client that even comes close to this level of straight up and down respect for their agency. Or, arguably, any agency that deserves it.

Fire the whole advertising department and your old agency. Then go get the best new agency you can. And concentrate your efforts on making it fun for them to create candid, effective advertising for you. Unless you’ve done this the odds favor that you have a bunch of bright people working at cross purposes to produce — at best — mediocre ads. 

We started at Avis asking a few people for a list of the hottest agencies. Then we called on the creative heads of those agencies and tried to interest them in the rent a car business. Ultimately we stumbled on the right question: “How do we get five million dollars of advertising for one million dollars?” (Our competition had five dollars for each dollar we had.)

Finally, Bill Bernbach heard the question and answered: “If you want five times the impact, give us ninety days to learn enough about your business to apply our skills, and then run every ad we write where we tell you to run it. Our people work to see how effective their ideas are. But most clients put our ads through a succession of assistant V.P.s and V.P.s of advertising, marketing, and legal until we hardly recognize the remnants. If you promise to run them just as we write them, you’ll have every art director and copywriter in my shop moonlighting on your account.”

We shook hands on it.

The rest is history. Our internal sales growth rate increased from 10 per cent to 35 per cent in the next couple of years.

Moral: don’t hire a master to paint you a masterpiece then assign a roomful of schoolboy-artists to look over his shoulder and suggest improvements.

To reinforce this extraordinary charge into the rational unknown, Townsend even drafted a client/agency manifesto which he hung in everyone's office both at DDB and Avis. This wonderful piece of straight-thinking boldness is often erroneously credited to Bill Bernbach but it was written by THE CLIENT.

It went like this:

Avis Rent A Car
Advertising Philosophy

1. Avis will never know as much about advertising as DDB, and DDB will never know as much about the rent a car business as Avis.
2. The purpose of the advertising is to persuade the frequent business renter (whether on a business trip, a vacation or renting and extra car at home) to try Avis.
3. A serious attempt will be made to create advertising with five times the effectiveness of the competition's advertising.
4. To this end, Avis will approve or disapprove, not try to improve, ads which are submitted. Any changes suggested by Avis must be grounded on a material operating defect (a wrong uniform for example).
5. To this end, DDB will only submit for approval those ads which they as an agency recommend. They will not "see what Avis thinks of that one."
6. Media selection should be the primary responsibility of DDB. However, DDB is expected to take the initiative to get guidance from Avis in weighting of markets or special situations, particularly in those areas where cold numbers do not indicate the real picture. Media judgement are open to discussion. The conviction should prevail. Compromises should be avoided.

I was tempted to underline what I think are the most important parts of this. But there's nothing here I don't agree with. Would it be possible now to start all client/agency relationships off with a manifesto like this?

Anyone not willing to sign up? And why?

'Up the Organisation — how to stop the Corporation from stifling people and strangling profits.' by Robert Townsend was published in 1970 by Fawcett Crest Books. Sadly it is now out of print but well worth trying to get a copy second hand.) Many thanks to Tim O'Donnell for pointing me in its direction.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Are the good agencies the ones who argue back?

A client once described his experience of working with me with the comment ‘just don’t expect to stay in your comfort zone.’ I’m still not sure whether to be pleased or worried by this remark.

Pleased because it’s good to challenge your clients and not let them (or yourselves) take the path of least resistance when a better solution can be aimed for. But worried because I don’t like the idea that I’m causing anyone discomfort.

I like to think I take care of my clients, reassure them and make them feel they are in good hands. But you can’t win someone’s trust if you don’t tell them outright when, in your professional judgement, they are wrong.

The petulant response from many designers when a client requests (what they consider) unreasonable changes is, “why don’t they go to Prontoprint next time and tell them how they want to logo to look.” There are plenty of places you can go where standing over the shoulder of a Mac operator giving instructions is acceptable behavior (hint, a good design firm is not one of them). These days, add in crowd sourcing and easy-to-use DIY graphics software and the range of ways that clients can get things done cheaper and with less back-chat than going to a design firm, are abundant.

Still most of the time they come to us. And this is because experienced, professional people know that if they want something done well they need to hire experienced professional people to do it.

When you’re a client pressures of ROI are very real and agencies that seem to be snubbing their noses at this can be infuriating and in some cases kind of scary.

As an agency you really don’t want to get put in the ‘too hard’ basket. No matter how great your results, your client may decide they just don’t have the patience or resources to deal with you next time and chose an easier route.

So when does pleasant and easy to work with become gutless and mediocre and when does challenging and forthright become just a pain in the arse?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Who do you really work for?

There are two main differences between the client/agency relationships of design firms and ad agencies and that of other client/agency or client/practitioner relationships.

The first is that a good part of the output is ‘creative’ which can often be interpreted as subjective and unquantifiable (whole separate discussion to be had right there). This sets us apart from, for example, law firms, accountants, builders, management consultants and a whole range of other services that rely on clients to survive.

The second is that our clients are not our customers. In other words, they are not the end-user of whatever it is that we are working on. This creates a very different dynamic to one between, say, an interior decorator or landscape gardener and their clients. If your client is your direct customer, they are hiring you for your professional knowledge and skill but they are also paying you to create something that they personally like. Which means that you are to a large extent at the mercy of their wims. Their favourite colour is puce, they’ve always had a thing for tea roses...

Sound familiar? Frustratingly many clients for whom the consumer —and not themselves — is the end-user of their work, still behave as if they are the customer and that, as the saying goes, they should always be right.

How do we best manage this balance and keep everyone in sight of the fact we all work for the consumer when one party holds the budgets, the power of approval and ultimately the responsibility for success?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Let the fun begin.

I've been half joking about writing on this topic for years, coming out of many good and bad meetings saying "When I write my book about how to be a client...".

A few people lately have suggested it might be a serious project, something that could be genuinely useful to both sides of the client/agency divide. The intention of this blog is to test that theory.

There are plenty of people with more years of experience in this than me. And plenty of others who have been both sides of the fence (I learnt most of what I know about design in my early career as a client before starting my own agency.)

But most of the writing and discussion I hear largely involves one side saying how they think the other side should behave. The conversation never seems to progress beyond ‘don’t you hate it when…’.

All the talk of partnerships, profit-share models, self-initiated projects and client-less briefs (while fascinating and often fruitful) is really just avoiding the issue. Most of us will still need to work ‘for’ clients most of the time to earn a living.

In my experience people working within agencies generally know that they need to get better at dealing with clients but tend to believe that there is a  trade-off between the best work and the best way to please the client. This attitude tends to lead to success in neither. 

Clients will often lack confidence in their own convictions but will blame the agency, the budget or their own colleagues before questioning whether their ability to commission effectively may be at fault.

Anyway, it’s an ongoing discussion.

I’ll put some stuff up here and I encourage you — clients and agencies — to have your say with questions, complains, comments, solutions, war stories and triumphs.