At the start of this year, Ad Age ran a story that caught my eye with the headline: "How to Be a Better Agency Client." In the article, CMO-level execs shared their point of view on how they've improved relationships.
And I could already hear the peanut gallery echoing the same line I've heard bandied about from Madison Avenue to the Pacific Ocean: "If we only had great clients, we could do such great work!"
The reality is not all "better" clients land fully formed on your doorstep.
Many of the best of them have grown into the ideal -- the seers, the risk takers and tastemakers. And more often than not, it was the coordinated, determined efforts of an agency that helped shepherd them there. Together. We don't just share the message; we share the responsibility for success.
This got me thinking: What kind of agency has what it takes to grow with a client?
The marketing pros had a general consensus of "better client" themes: leadership, partnership, self-evaluation, communication, plus a willingness to be pushed out of one's comfort zone. As it turns out, these themes speak just as powerfully to agencies, given the right twist.
1. Be a 4-year old: Ask why, why, why, why, why? Pepper away. A creative brief isn't a launching point for creative work; it's an outline for homework. What's the goal, the audience, the history of the brand, history of the work, the voice/heart/soul?
2. The Hydra Principle: Get your whole team on board pronto. Cut off a head, grow two more in its place. That doesn't mean everyone in the shop, but it should include different disciplines, different perspectives. You don't just have resources; you have brains. Use them.
3. Fear is your friend: If you love an idea, don't be stopped by not knowing how to make it happen. Consult with those who might. Obstacles often improve the execution. You're not supposed to be jack-of -all-trades; you're there to be jack-of -great-instincts.
4. Put on your magic glasses: The client doesn't really want an ad. Or a campaign. They want a future. They want confidence that their brand will still feel fresh even when they might not. Put on your magic glasses and see your work as the starting point of something bigger.
5. It's the idea, stupid: That big pitch? It's all about ideas. Something that can be boiled down to an "I get it" nod -- no matter how many ways you slice it. No whip pans, no SFX. "The perfect beer for the beach." "A hero who's a traitor." Get the nod and you're golden.
6. Necks were made to stick out: You've been in the meeting. Everyone waits for "The One Who Matters" to speak before voicing an opinion. Don't wait. Speak up -- and be prepared to back it up with steps one through five. You did the work; don't leave it in the bag.
The truth is , clients and agencies want the same thing: great work that generates real results. A harder truth is that even the inspiration part isn't entirely one-sided. How's that ? Because inspiration comes from focus -- which starts with knowing exactly what to focus on and why.
Original ideas come when our heads are full and focused, not empty. Make the effort to understand the forces underlying the challenge, and you're halfway to "the big idea." And if your client doesn't have all the answers, at least make sure they realize there's a question out there. That you're thinking on their behalf. That you're searching for answers together.
John Brown of Brown & Partners tells this story about Nike . In the early 1970s, he approached Phil Knight about becoming his fledgling company's first agency. Knight made it clear he didn't much care for advertising, but his dealers needed promotional support.
Early work won awards but Knight still wasn't won over. Then in 1977, a hole in the production pipeline left Nike with no new shoes to feature. Rather than rerun an old ad, he asked Brown to do "a feel good thing." Without a new shoe to show, Knight didn't really expect results.
Brown delivered a long shot of a runner on an endless rural road, cutting through the trees. Not a shoe on the page. The ad was about running itself. The headline: "There is no finish line." Copy spoke to the essence of the runner; and how Nike understands it.
In a world before email, runners responded by sending in more than 100,000 letters. The company had tapped into the emotional core of their target . And former-economics-professor Phil Knight 's eyes were opened to the power of a brand. Just like that , the brand essence of Nike was born, ushering in McEnroe, Mars Blackmon, "Bo Knows", "I am Tiger Woods" and, well, advertising history.
Brown & Partners found the voice. Cut to the heart and soul. They gave a small company a vision for the future. They weren't afraid to stick their necks out.
And, working hand in hand with a committed young agency, another great client was born.