Think not what your client can do for you, but what you can do for your client

Many years ago I worked with a really wise man. His name was Richard. I’d worked with smart people before, clever people, sometimes quite brilliant people, but Richard was properly wise.

He demonstrated this wisdom in a meeting I was in. As a group we were reviewing the agency’s performance in the previous year. That performance was, if I’m absolutely honest, middling. The agency had won some business, made some money and produced some ads. But none to the level we felt we should have.  

We dissected this performance and came to a surprisingly quick, and convenient, consensus: the problem was a lack of bravery amongst clients. We hadn’t won more business because clients weren’t brave enough to embrace the solutions we were presenting. We hadn’t made more money because we were inefficient, the result of our clients not being brave enough to buy the great work we were presenting, instead consistently sending us back to do more. And our creative work wasn’t great because (and I think you can see where I’m going here) our clients just weren’t brave enough to run it. ‘That’s the problem’, we consoled ourselves, ‘our clients aren’t brave enough’.

Richard was largely silent throughout this conversation. He waited until we’d arrived at our comforting conclusion then simply observed that while an absence of bravery might be an issue, what made us so sure that it was our client’s lack of bravery that was the problem? While we were calling on our clients to be brave in supporting ideas, backing initiatives and championing innovation, what was our quid pro quo? Might it not be more useful to focus on the ways in which we ourselves needed to be braver?

To prove his point he highlighted three:

We should be brave enough to acknowledge what we can’t do. 

It’s a perennial problem for our industry. We’ve seldom seen a pie we didn’t want to keep to ourselves. We’ve fragmented and specialised, in many cases building genuine capability across an impressive range of functions. But at times we’re still guilty of letting our ambition get ahead of our expertise. So, as Richard pointed out, sometimes the brave thing to do is to acknowledge that an idea or a project might benefit from someone else’s expertise. 

We need to be brave enough to highlight the research doesn’t say what people think it says. 

This isn’t an observation on the value, or validity, of research. It’s an observation on the tendency for both clients and agencies to use it to reinforce an established POV. We’ve all seen it, the point at which someone’s interpretation of research drifts past the plausible into the wishful. Sometimes it’s a marketer wanting to support a product proposition, sometimes a researcher seeking to prove a hypothesis and sometimes an agency person trying to preserve an idea. But we’ve all sat uncomfortably in meetings, hoping that someone else will point out the obviously fallacious leap. At which point, as Richard highlighted, the brave thing to do is to call it, accepting that while someone’s feelings might be hurt, at least a brand we’re responsible for won’t be.

We need to be brave enough to represent the world as it really is. 

It’s the one thing I find most people can’t quite understand about advertising. Do we really believe that most people are that attractive, most curves that sweeping, most sand that white and most dads that stupid? Because that’s how we insist on making them look in the ads we make. And, of course, the answer is that we don’t.  It’s just that a great many of our clients would like to believe that their brands do exist in a world like that. So the brave thing to do, as Richard noted, would be to point out that while they might wish their brands did, the people who buy their brands most certainly don’t and that it’s their world, and their reality, that matters most.

The real point, Richard wisely observed, is that getting better is hard, whether your goal is to win more business, sell more units, recruit the best staff, make more profit or do better work. And the most important question to ask is whether you’re brave enough to do the things required to make it happen. 

  • Philip O’Neill is group account director at Saatchi & Saatchi. @philipjoneill.
  • This story originally appeared in the March/April edition of NZ Marketing magazine. 

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