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11 things that make a good client

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In my 20-25 years of being in advertising, I have seen many articles and lots of viewpoints on what makes a good agency. The fact is that very often one of the key reasons behind the success of a good agency are very good clients. But I also realised that just as much as agencies seek and readily receive feedback on performance from their clients, the clients themselves are quietly seeking feedback in not so obvious ways.  

Many clients genuinely believe advertising agencies are true partners and significant contributors to brand building and therefore it’s important to be good clients so as to build great brands .So here I will set out 11 things that make a good client, in no particular order of importance. But let me start with a borrowed anecdote regarding a client – agency relationship (one obviously written by an agency chap!). 

The story starts in the middle of a calm lake, the agency guy and the client are in a boat together, each on either side holding an oar and rowing, the boat gently moves towards shore. Suddenly the client loses his oar and it drops into the water. Meanwhile the agency guy blissfully unaware continues to row. The distraught client yells out to the agency guy saying ‘do something, do something’. 

The agency guy calmly stands up realising the boat has moved away from the spot of the sunken oar, and walks magically on the surface of the water and puts his hand in the water and emerges with the oar and gives it to the client. Both client and agency guy then quietly paddle the boat to shore. That evening the client meets a fellow client for drinks at the bar and says “you know what our agency chap – he doesn’t even know how to swim!” 

The story illustrates in exaggerated detail how advertising folk perceive the challenge it is to please a client sometimes. So the first point to be a good client may seem a contradiction in terms but it isn’t really one.

1.Challenge your agency

With a stretched sales goal or a brand task or a deadline that’s tough to get. Do it sincerely to get the best out of the agency. Make them responsible for your success. An agency that clearly understands the responsibility or is energised by the challenge will deliver their best. A client who challenges sincerely gets serious credibility and attention in the agency teams. 

In fact 15 years ago a client challenged us to either grow a brand (which was stagnating at 5%) or merge it with a large existing brand. The challenge resulted in us creating one of the largest brands Sri Lanka has ever seen. Big things can happen for clients who challenge their agency in the right way.

2.Listen to your agency 

There is a famous story (published earlier) of a ‘ lucky strike’ client who announced to an agency after a pitch that they could be winners of the pitch on answering a question. The client said he would ask for their opinion but insist they do only what he seeks from them. In such an instance the client was keen to know what the agency would say. The agency countered saying they would push back with credible arguments for their recommendation.

The client asked how they would react if he continued to be stubborn and insist on his way. The self-respecting agency argued that they would work hard to persuade him to view their opinion favourably. The client said if he still insisted what would the agency do? The agency head pondered a bit and said: “If you want to waste your money I would rather you waste it through me than anybody else.” 

Ad agencies have really smart people with years of experience working on varied brands and projects. Listen to them. Don’t waste money through them. A client who listens generally finds agencies are contributing significant value.

3.Show passion for your brands  

A client of mine and I went on a holiday. We were exploring a wild life safari in a van driven by a local who knew the route well. We were hoping to see wild life and it was very quiet when I heard my client and the local driver engage in conversation which the client deftly veered to the brand of food consumed by the driver. And before my very eyes the client suddenly became a passionate evangelist for his own food brand. 

At the time I felt it was too much shop talk at an inappropriate time but this client’s passion for his brand stuck with me forever. We as an agency team over time became as evangelical about this brand as the client was. Passion is contagious and infectious. And that’s a prerequisite for great advertising work.

4.Respect the agency

I regularly meet clients who invite you to their office to discuss ‘opportunities’. Very often it’s to send the word out to the current agency and to keep them ‘on their toes’. These games that senior and ‘wise’ marketing people share as tips to fellow marketers over a drink are some of the most destructive things they can do. An insecure agency can never be an effective agency. An agency operating out of fear of losing the business is too often trying to second guess the client than confidently add value on a regular basis. If you feel the agency is slacking off then a clear mechanism of feedback, verbal and written to agency hierarchy should suffice to send a clear message. If you are a valued client you will see the changes soon after the feedback.

5.Communicate constantly 

Very often I have learnt from agency bosses to ‘figure out what keeps your clients up at night’. An agency team is constantly trained to understand the brand woes and see how it can be addressed. Many times clients do not share these regularly with the agency. A client who communicates regularly with the agency team will see a better aligned unit driving work purposefully in the same direction that he seeks.

A particularly disciplined client was one as the story goes, who held weekly meetings with the agency and insisted every meeting started with a detailed reading out of minutes of meeting of the previous week. An aligned agency is a happy agency and helps the client sleep well at night. 

6.Encourage the agency to think of what you need and not what you want 

An agency bad habit very often is to fall into the comfort zone. Too often I have heard in agency corridors an excuse for laziness “I know what this client wants”. Clients many times willingly or inadvertently allow this to happen. An agency delivering only what the client wants is not adding value as they should. A client with a big ego that boasts that his agency ‘ knows exactly what he wants’ is actually one who has been taken for a ride. 

This mindset encourages predictability and comfort. The enemies of creativity. Brand building thrives in very creative environments. Mediocrity thrives in a predictable environment. The client must be open to be challenged and look at new ways of seeing things and actively seek it from his agency partner. The minor inconvenience of regularly aligning a brand new agency person is far less destructive than the drone of the predictable ‘yes yes’ of a consenting agency team.

7.Motivate your agency team

Respond to ideas spontaneously, celebrate victories together and get to know individuals in the teams. Agency teams tend to be ‘heart’ people. They put it all out there with their ideas and thoughts and nothing turns them off more than an impassive client hiding his feelings. Express positives and seek clarifications or modifications and opinions. But for god’s sake respond. 

A client who shows heart is a huge motivator. In my experience agency teams do the best work on clients who motivate most. Simple. It’s how the business works. A good idea received warmly creates desire in the people creating it to do more good ideas. An impassive client gets deadpan ideas. 

8.Be human 

It’s amazing how many clients need to be reminded of this. Very often the people managing the biggest brands in the country will send out briefs with an unchangeable deadline. These deadlines are impossible sometimes. The agency burns the midnight oil to deliver and three weeks after the agency presents the ideas, the client is still too busy to discuss the work and revert. Fixing meetings and cancelling it when Agency is already in the reception.

Not arriving for the meeting or not apologising for the delay are all many of the things clients think are okay to do. A client once told me over a drink “I do it cause I can do it”. Agency teams with high quality talent are no longer in the mindset to accept this plainly inhuman treatment. 

There is of course a legendary story of a creative head of the agency who worked on a global MNC brand and who passed away due to medical negligence. The client company sued the hospital for the negligence. This shows the respect the client team had for this agency partner. This brand still remains one of the most sought after brands to work on.

9.Let creatives do their job

Too often I have seen wannabe creatives at client offices. Global marketing heads who think they are film directors, marketing people who fancy themselves as art directors and junior brand managers forced to play role of copywriters by seniors in their office. There are trained art graduates, copy talent who write books, blogs and TV serials in the ad agencies and they are often held hostage by clients with misconceived notions of creative grandeur based on illusory capabilities. There is nothing more depressing for agency creatives than clients who try to do their job. And do it very badly indeed. On the other hand, a client I knew would encourage one piece in each brief to be award worthy. Every creative member worth his salt wanted to be part of this brand and work with this client in the agency. 

10.Use research wisely

Research helps us validate hypothesis. It can’t help you create scripts. Sometimes clients tend to do research to come up with an idea that works for the brand. Consumers can only tell you what they already know. And chances are they will tell you about your category based on knowledge provided by the loudest shouting brand in the category – either your competition or your own brand. In any case this knowledge will prevent any fresh ideas from coming to the fore. 

The other really frustrating thing clients do is to research a brands scripts with fellow marketing people. These people have their own reasons to comment on the brand and their own preconceived notions. You can seldom get unbiased consumer feedback from colleagues sitting next to you. Too often great ideas are buried in this form of ‘idiot proofing’ as one of my clients ironically used to call it. Few things demotivate an agency team more than a great idea chucked in the bin due to faulty research. 

11.Value your agency

The task of creating ideas for brand development is a valuable skill. And can’t be done by just anyone. It requires a certain skill set that includes strategic thinking, consumer understanding and finally creative execution. The set of people in your agency who deliver this are valuable and need to be valued. I remember a client who once decorated an agency team with an unexpected award at a brand sales meeting. The agency team never forgot this client and always bent over backwards to deliver to impossible deadlines for him. 

Of course no agency can sustain itself if the cost of its high quality talent is not paid for. Increasingly clients are willing to settle for ‘monkeys’ as long as they pay only ‘peanuts’. By devaluing the talents and proudly demonstrating cost cutting capabilities to the system some clients are devaluing their own brands. The time for investing in good talent that builds sustainable brands is now. Add value to build long term brand value.

A wise agency head once told me: “There are three reasons you must retain a client – simply because they pay you lots of money, or they are the ones who give you the freedom to do great work or maybe they are just genuinely nice people.” 

Finally one basic fact remains. Behind any successful ad campaign is a very supportive client. No ad agency exists for its own sake. It’s one cog in a large wheel meant as ammunition to secure a brand ambition. Really smart marketing people and CEOS are the ones at the wheel. 

These are the clients who make everything happen. 

So three cheers to the good clients. The leaders who make big ideas come alive. The champions who make the advertising business so exciting and stimulating. The pioneers who drive the passionate people in advertising to continue to do great work. All power to these clients. 

(The writer is a marketing communications expert with over 20 years’ multinational experience. He could be reached via email at santosh@kl.lk.)

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