Confessions of a Lousy Client

It's Not as Easy as It Looks

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Millie Olson Millie Olson
Amazon Advertising is about to move to a new office, an experience we've survived twice before without too much drama. Our new space is just around the corner, yet this move seems to require a much larger cast of characters: a team of architects, contractors, furniture vendors, telecom guys and a project-management firm to herd them all.

Also to herd us. The clients.

I assumed we'd just naturally be good clients. My partner and I have spent our whole careers on the agency side, and we have strong beliefs about how clients should behave. Having been blessed with some very good clients, we've come to expect certain things. For starters:
  1. Sure, you've got a gazillion things on your plates besides advertising, but please have the decision makers in the room for key meetings.
  2. When giving direction to the agency, come to a point of view among yourselves and then speak with a single voice.
  3. Understand and respect the roles and contributions of the people on our team.
We began our stint as clients with the best of intentions, but in a few short weeks we'd trashed all our beliefs.

Submerged in an overlapping series of new business pitches, we started missing the weekly project meetings. I'd dash by the conference room and see a dozen people gathered. Could another week have passed? And really, who were all those people and why did it take so many of them just to move us down the street? Did we really need someone who wrote down every last thing and sent out minutes each time we met, like a city council meeting?

We told them to keep going without the two of us. We assured them that our key employees could take it from there.

Things started to unravel with the kitchen. We had strong views about refrigerators. We rejected faucet after faucet. They were all so . . . expected. And then there was the kitchen sink. We wanted it deep, but that violated handicapped access laws. We wanted it tucked under the counter, but that didn't work with laminate. We wanted it to look, well, more Amazonian. We gave conflicting direction to different people. When the despairing architects started drafting pricey custom options, the project manager staged an intervention.

By that time they'd figured us out. They invited the two of us to the architects' offices for a late-afternoon session about colors, surfaces and the kitchen sink.

They asked about our new-business pitches. They served us pinot gris and goat cheese as we admired the work on their walls. Then they presented some carpets and colors we hadn't asked for, based on their observation of the agency's need for, um, drama.

We were easy. We concurred on the carpets. We fell in love with persimmon walls. We agreed on curvy faucets and textured counters. And the kitchen sink? We found one that was designed for schools, and how cool was that? We were sure it had never been used in an advertising agency before. Very Amazonian.

We shaped up after that. But it was a vivid reminder: Being a good client is harder than it looks, unless it's the only job you have.
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