Scaring your Clients

Once in a while you create a piece of strategic work that you’re quite excited about. It’s made all the better if it’s for an advertiser in a traditionally low interest category, or if it’s on a brief where the budget is too small or too constrained to make the kind of original creative work that you got into advertising for. If you manage to stumble onto a solution which breaks through all the tricky barriers set up in the brief and better still, you truly believe the idea will be effective, it’s nothing short of thrilling. Your mind starts to wander, mentally drafting up the APG paper you could write based on this case study.

There came a little piece of work like that, for me, last week.

When we finished presenting, we were met with the unbearably quiet sound of a deeply uncomfortable client. I saw what can only be described as stark fear, on some of the faces around the room. The initial questions gave us an indication of what these fears might be based on. And there was nothing that surprising, we had anticipated some resistance.

Nonetheless, we were still caught entirely off guard, when the flat out refusal came, pretty forcefully putting an end to all further discussion. We will not be doing this. It would represent a massive risk. I’m not willing to take that risk.

That’s the moment when you realise, that you’ve completely under-estimated the gap between what a client says they want, and what that client really wants. And worse that that, when you realise that deep down, you always knew this would be the answer.

Client decisions are made based on so many political and human factors outside of advertising effectiveness. If you present a solution, which on the surface seems to serve everyone’s interests and yet is refused, there’s a reason for that. Someone’s needs are not being met. It might be the need to feel ownership of the idea, the need to impress their boss, the need to be seen as certain type of marketeer or as a safe pair of hands in tough times.

Whatever the underlying motivation is, it’s your job as an agency to understand those needs, just as much as understanding the needs of the campaign. Especially if you want good work to be made.

But it’s also your job, to sometimes scare your clients. Because if we’re not scaring them, then we’re not being brave. If we’re not pushing people out of their comfort zones, then we’re not presenting work which is genuinely creative. And once that happens, there’s no reason to hire a creative agency anymore. So we must be brave, or be obsolete. Even if it means facing a crushingly uncomfortable response, every so often.

  1. Bravo for taking the risk and writing about the cost of that risk in a really insightful way. We usually only hear about risk when it’s rewarded – and lets face it, reward is not the real risk, silence is. Even failure from an executed plan isn’t without gain (even if the gain is realising what won’t work). But refusal to try is a kind of failure that has no upshot. Hopefully, you will be able to use this creativity on another client, who isn’t risk averse, so your theory and ingenuity can be tested and refined.

      • Neasa Cunniffe
      • May 22nd, 2011

      Thanks for your comment Steph! Hopefully all failed thinking can at least be useful in arming us for the next project. I always find that past work, even if it wasn’t used at the time, benefits future work in some way. It’s the reason why it’s always worth doing things properly as you never know when it will come back and be a stepping stone!

  2. Good post, thank you. Don’t be downhearted.Too often the path of least resistance involves giving brandowners what they want rather than what they need.
    So much of what we do comes down to a dichotomy between the emotional and the rational. Just as consumers choose a brand by emotion, strategists and creatives understand that the shift a brand needs to make in the way it presents needs to be emotional more than rational.
    That becomes the nub of the problem that leads to the situation you describe. Panels of clients rarely make emotional decisions. Almost always it’s only confident brandowners who vote with their heart.
    Brand Artillery is a creative start-up and we recently had our first fully-fledged pitch. At a very late stage we learnt that there would be 10 people from various aspects of the business there, ‘scoring’. And I knew we wouldn’t get it. Choosing us over long-established companies was always going to be an emotional leap of faith tough to rationalize. Meanwhile, groups of clients rely on reason, and reason will often fail a brand. The world is, after all, full of faultless, solid, indisputable, reasonable, dull, boring, ineffective communication. Glad you’re not settling for it or adding to it.

      • Neasa Cunniffe
      • May 22nd, 2011

      A very thoughtful response Eoghan. It’s clearly a testament to your current (and past) work that you’re getting on Pitch Lists with all the established players. I’ve no doubt it’s only a matter of time before someone takes that leap of faith. And that first big win will give you a client, who will be really worth working with because they’ve chosen you for all the right reasons. I’ll keep my fingers crossed!

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