If You Want Better Work, Try to Be a Better Client

Marketers Need to Recognize Their Shortcomings and How Their Actions Impede Agencies' Ability to Deliver the Best Results

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Beau Fraser
Beau Fraser
I love advertising. At its best, advertising provokes thought, differentiates commodity products and helps consumers make better-informed decisions. Done well, it can be inspiring, entertaining and rewarding. But most important, it can help grow a client's business.

That's why I get my dander up when I hear the very clients whose businesses we help build criticize our industry with impunity. A recent survey by the CMO Council recently reported that seven of 10 CMOs surveyed plan on conducting an agency review this year. Those results not so subtly suggest that these CMOs blame their business ills on their existing agencies and naively predict that all can be miraculously cured by a swift change in agency scenery.

Are we perfect? Of course not. But do we deserve constant blame and criticism? No.

The notion that clients get the advertising they deserve is not just a truism. It's a fact.

So in the name of creating a better industry, better working relationships with clients and ultimately better work, I humbly offer the following observations and constructive criticism. Maybe it'll generate a productive dialogue, or at least some humorously indignant letters to the editor.


1. CLIENTS TREAT MARKETING AS A PIT STOP, NOT AS A PROFESSION

Most senior agency personnel like myself have spent more than 30 years practicing, honing and perfecting their chosen profession of marketing communications. We have worked in more categories than there are SIC codes, and we have seen and solved many thorny marketing-communications problems. The result is called experience.

Sadly, the same is not true of most clients. For too many client executives, the marketing department is a career pit stop as they are rotated from department to department, and the brevity of their tenures does not allow them to gain valuable perspective.

Or they spend their careers stuck in an insular industry. The result is incestuous and recycled thinking. No wonder marketing communications for the auto, airline and cruise-line industries, the most insular of industries, is criminally ineffective.

Beau Fraser on clients
1.
CLIENTS TREAT MARKETING AS A PIT STOP, NOT AS A PROFESSION
  • Short tenure equals no expertise
  • Careers spent in insular industries
2.
CLIENTS LACK COURAGE
  • Need to kill sacred cows
  • Business will never have chance to grow
3.
CLIENTS LACK COURAGE
  • Need to kill sacred cows
  • Business will never have chance to grow
4.
CLIENTS LACK COURAGE
  • Need to kill sacred cows
  • Business will never have chance to grow
The issue is many companies do not understand marketing communications or treat it with the respect it deserves. No wonder the average CMO's tenure seems shorter than the lifespan of a fruit fly. I'll save you a Google search: According to Spencer Stuart, it's 26 months. That's absurd. The problem can include clients are hiring the wrong people, there is a serious shortage of strong CMOs or the expectations of senior company management are not correctly managed.

Whatever the reason, don't blame my industry.

Amazingly, companies do not bother to ask: What does this revolving door cost us?

I bet it's costly -- costly to company success, focus, progress and morale and, if you care, costly to your ad agency. Why? Because new people insist on bringing in "their team." Out with the old, in with the new -- again.

But if I had the lifespan of a fruit fly, I wouldn't throw out the one organization, my ad agency, that has an educated and objective understanding of my company's problems and then spend the next 12 to 17 months choosing a new agency to develop new communications programs. That'll leave you about nine months to prove your new program works.

If your company sells something, marketing is your most important department. Hire experienced marketing professionals and keep them in place. And watch the quality of your agency's work improve dramatically along with the success of your marketing programs.


2. CLIENTS LACK COURAGE

I'm not calling clients cowards, so please don't ask me to step outside. But too often clients make decisions based on sacred cows, those rules, standards or formulas that are blindly followed because "that's the way it's always been done." They don't care that the competition, category or culture has long since moved on. Rules are rules.

Clients need the courage to kill sacred cows, because by killing them, you can save time, money and lives. Okay, maybe not lives. But businesses that look only to the past to guide their futures are doomed to failure. In a rapidly changing world, anything dated tends to be dangerous.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Beau Fraser is managing director of the international marketing-communications firm Gate Worldwide and co-author of "Death to all Sacred Cows," published by Disney's Hyperion Books.
If clients do not question why they do the things they do, they'll never be able to do them better. If they resist new approaches, they'll be stuck with more of the same all the time. And if all your decisions are based on sacred cows, which are rooted in the past, then your business will never have a chance to grow.

If you want to accomplish something unexpected, have the courage to do the unexpected. And if you ask your agency for some breakthrough work, have the courage to approve it.


3. CLIENTS ARE NOT ALIGNED

Agencies can have tumultuous internal battles over every significant decision affecting a client recommendation. But once a decision is made, advertising agencies are resolutely aligned. That is not true for clients.

If I had a nickel for every client who said, "This is my decision," I'd finally be able to afford that winery in Tuscany. While I admire the statement's confidence, too often we discover after eight months of work that "Bob" in Tuscaloosa is the real decision maker. And, oh, by the way, he has very strong and divergent views on what is needed.

The numerous rounds of revisions, ideas killed arbitrarily and inconsistent direction that are the result of clients not being aligned are costly to the quality of the work my industry delivers for clients.

If clients came to the table aligned internally the same way agencies are, they would get better work delivered faster.


4. CLIENTS HAVE PUSHED DECISION MAKING TOO FAR DOWNSTREAM

The advertising industry is criticized, often justly, for assigning clients junior personnel. The same can be said of clients. But there is a difference: While junior employees execute our work, for the most part, senior people in all agency departments do the work or make the discriminating, final decisions. It's important that I make the distinction between "intelligence" and "experience." Junior client employees are intelligent, just not experienced. And while they have wonderful careers ahead of them, they should not be making the final decisions on key recommendations.

People make decisions based on what they know, which means an agency's ideas cannot be "smarter" than what a junior client has experienced.

You want senior people? I don't blame you. So do we! Please, put adults back in charge, and you'll see a marked improvement in the quality and effectiveness of your agency's work.

Like my peers, I have been a part of many extremely intelligent, memorable and successful advertising campaigns. While the clients and their challenges differed, what each success had in common was a great client. So if you want better work, be a better client. And before you bash the industry that distinguishes you and gives your products both a reason for being and personality, I politely ask that you first try to understand how your shortcomings affect our perceived shortcomings.
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