They say clients get the work they deserve. If you knew being a better client would get you better advertising, could you show up better? Would you actually show up better? There’s a reason why there are so many agency reviews: clients can’t really fire themselves. However, if you fire your current agency and then you don’t show up better to the new agency, they will be doomed to fail from the start. And the cycle will continue.
I have seen so-so agencies make great work for an amazing client. I have also seen the best agencies fail dramatically for a bad client. My conclusion: The client matters more than anyone else, as they hold the power in either enabling or restricting impactful advertising from happening.
I have always reminded myself that we never really do anything. We don’t make the product, sell the product or create the ads. Yet, we touch everything and we make every decision. Our greatness has to come from leading the experts we engage, so that they reach for their own greatness and apply it on our brand. Great clients communicate their desires with passion to inspire their agency; they hold everyone accountable to the strategy and stay open to explore new solutions through creativity. Great clients are wiling to stake their reputation on great work. Here’s how to show up better as a client:
Narrow your focus with a tight target: Some brand leaders want options to help make decisions. The problem is that clients write such a wide creative brief that it creates room for strategic options, when really the brand leader just wanted creative options. Instead, have one main message and one objective. Keep your list of mandatories to a bare minimum. Do your strategic homework before you write the brief. Start with the consumer and bring their story to life using insights that will make consumers say, “That’s me.” Knowing you have the right strategy will give you more conviction to decide on the right creative expression of that strategy. The smaller the brief, the bigger the ideas.
Allow creativity to unfold: When you write a tangled weave of mandatories in the brief that almost writes the ad itself, the agency feels trapped and unable to do anything surprising or spectacular. Don’t use every meeting to steer towards the type of advertising you want to see, while being outspoken against the type of work you don’t want to see. Let the agency take charge of writing the brief. You can still debate every word, always knowing if you hold the power of decision, you don’t need to hold the pen as well. In meetings, show you are open to new solutions. It is okay to know exactly what you want, but you should never know until the moment you see it. Think of advertising like the perfect gift you never thought to buy yourself. As the leader, you always hold the final power of the decision. You will be even more powerful if you never have to use it.
Lead with passion: There is no mathematical pathway to choosing the best advertising based on a winning score. Great advertising has to balance the art and science, using both your creative instincts and strategic mind. You need to, be willing to fight to make the best work happen and put all of your energy into making the work spectacular. Do not use the logic of research to choose your path, but to confirm the choice you are dying to make.
Being a better client is something you can learn. Advertising takes experience, practice, leadership and a willingness to adjust. Ask for advice. Watch others who are great. Never give your agency new solutions, just give them new problems. Inspire greatness from your agency; yet never be afraid to challenge them for better work. They would prefer to be pushed rather than held back. Be your agency’s favourite client, so the agency team wants to work on your brand, not just because they were assigned to work on your business. Be the champion who fights for great work even if you have to fight with your boss. Once you show up better, you might find your agency shows up better. Together, you will make amazing work.
Graham Robertson spent 20 years in brand management leading some of the world’s most beloved brands at Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer and General Mills, rising up to vice-president marketing.