The customer is always right - maybe.

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It's said Bill Bernbach carried a slip of paper in his pocket that read, “They may be right.” Obviously this was meant to remind Mr. Bernbach to contemplate what the client's alternative view, before he dismissed it as stupidity. This philosophy revolutionized our industry and DDB did some work that after four decades still holds up as relevant work.

The other day my partner, Steve McKee and I left a client meeting where the client said they didn't like the commercials we had produced for them. We had a very productive conversation and afterwards Steve told me, “You take criticism very well.” He's kind. I don't take criticism that well. I separate myself from my work. I also know that there is always another idea. A better one.

Ultimately a client has to feel good about their advertising. So it's good to follow the rule on Mr. Bernbach's slip of paper. There is a danger however. This is a great philosophy must not be translated into “The customer is always right.” That sound business proverb has been misapplied ever since it was first uttered. “The client is always heard” is more appropriate. The fact is clients aren't always right. Most of the time they're sitting across from you disagreeing because of their inability to even know what they don't know about marketing.

I'm saying all of this because taking “The customer is always right” to a bad place prevents agencies from doing what they are paid large sums of money to do: Move the needle, make sales grow, create a true brand story.

We worry too much about what the client will think before we give them the opportunity to think. Small agencies are really not any better than mega agencies in this regard. But we should be. We have fewer internal layers to slog through. But small agencies, like large ones worry about losing an account. We need to realize we're in the process of losing the account anyway. Today the average client stays with an agency slightly less than three years. Our agency is an anomaly. Several of our clients have been with us 5 to 8 years. The reason is simple. We don't always think the client is right. We listen and allow the possibility, but if we come to the conclusion they are mistaken we say so. This works because when we conclude we were wrong and they were right, we say so. Our clients know from this that we care. So the code we live by is not, “The client is always right” but “What's right for the client, always.”
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