When I left Richmond, Va., in 1983 for my first big New York agency job, I died and went to heaven. The pearly gates had a simple, classy name carved over the doors of the huge building at 285 Madison Avenue: Young & Rubicam.
I worked there for five years as a copywriter, and then as an associate creative director. Although I had many happy and fulfilling years after that , those years at Y&R were the happiest, the simplest and the most fun. This, my bosses told me, was my responsibility: Do clever TV commercials that tested well, fly to Los Angeles to shoot them, don't get arrested, come back, finish them and get another assignment.
The clients liked the creative people because they liked and trusted the agency. I was never in a pitch or saw the agency pitch anything maybe because I was always in L.A. shooting. Somehow we got new accounts and we rarely lost a piece of business. When we were in jeopardy -- when one of our creative directors would shriek into the phone "WE'RE ON NOTICE!" and get studio time that was somehow unavailable before the magic words were screamed -- someone would go to the client and smooth things over for us.
Relationships were everything.
Ed Ney, the CEO of Y&R for most of my years there, told me he had three meals a day with clients, five days a week. At McCann, the client guru was John Dooner. At JWT, it was Burt Manning, who truly loved clients, and they all felt that love.
Generous 15% commissions on media spending paid for talent as well as attention. Back then, agencies could afford to hire a lot of the best and the brightest minds. They could afford to keep them and have their undivided attention in solving problems. Agencies could also afford to consult with the biggest brains in any category, they could take clients sailing or dining or to sports events, get to know them, get to be friends. Friends always have each other's backs.
Back in the day, you really had to mess up badly and consistently to get fired. It didn't happen very often because there was trust and loyalty and history and, forgive me, a lot of love going on.
Today, this kind of relationship is rare. It still exists, but so many of the people who know how to nurture client relationships are getting old, and they will fade away. Now we see too much impatience, a grass-is -always-greener mentality and the equivalent of speed dating between agencies and clients. This lack of solid relationships leads to rampant insecurity and makes it harder to do great creative work, harder to take brilliant risks and virtually impossible to accept failure on even the smallest job.
When there is a conflict, it's often about the creative product. This is understandable because creativity is arbitrary and totally dependent on a very fragile emotion: love.
Creative people are purveyors of love. We have to make the consumer love the brand and make the client love our work. We, in turn, have to love the client, our account managers, our strategic planners and each other. Without honest affection there is no team. Without the team there are no stunning solutions to unsolvable problems.
As we all know, love takes time to develop. It has to be nurtured and protected. And yet few clients -- even big, important, clever ones -- understand or accept this. They are promiscuous, changing their agency partners frequently. Or they invite other lovers into the bedroom to "see what they can do" because they think competition is healthy, and maybe they can get great work at half the price.
But clients only get great work at bargain prices in a pitch, when the agency has thrown all its star talent at you, hoping you will fall in love with it. After it wins your business and you reduce its fee to the barest minimum, it can't afford to give you all its star talent. You'll be lucky to get the ones who created the work that won your heart. This is not a dirty little secret. It's just common sense. And it's a very expensive, debilitating way for a client to manage its creative resources.
As a former chief creative officer and now creative management consultant, I desperately want to see the love return to this business. I think it's possible for clients and agencies to find it again, even if it feels like you've reached the point of no return.
Here are three ways to improve your relationship with any creative person. Creative people are the same everywhere, in every agency, in every country, in every discipline, even digital.
1. Recognize that our brains are very different. Our right brain is healthy but our left brain might be the size of a pea. If you understand that you will know how to communicate with us.
2. Carefully consider the creative talent that will work best for your brand and business. There are four kinds of creative talent in every agency: purists (big ideas, but difficult), stars (big ideas, less difficult), good soldiers (solid ideas, not difficult) and hacks (totally accommodating). You want the stars running your business and a sprinkling of purists. If you have hacks on your business it means you are not a good client.
3. If you love us we will do anything for you. If you frighten us, our creativity shrivels up and hides until some love comes along to make us confident again. If you don't understand this you can't manage this dynamic.
As a client you have emotional control over your creative people -- you just have to know how to use it. It's very powerful and it could put the love back into the whole process.