The Joys and Sorrows of Dealing With Clients

We've Been Lucky ... So Far

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Phil Johnson Phil Johnson
Tucked away between the family photos and the miniature Zen garden, I've got a row of books in my office that tell you how to deal with difficult people. They have titles like "Coping with Difficult People," "How to Deal with Difficult People, Volume 1 and 2," and "201 Ways to Deal with Difficult People." Just for fun I looked at Amazon and there were 38 books on the topic. Could there be a problem out there? Is there any possibility that advertising people consume these books like Tums?

I built my collection a couple of years ago, shortly after winning a new piece of business. Not long after the initial toasts, the champagne went flat and the charming day-to-day manager turned into the evil stepfather. He yelled at account people, told creative people they had no talent and challenged every billing. A line of teary, angry, demoralized people formed outside my door. And I did what I always do when I don't know what to do. I bought a bunch of books.

You know, it took a couple of months, a few diplomatic conversations here, some adjustments there, but it all worked out. Nobody quit, we've still got a great client, and I've still got the books.

I've always heard agency people complain about clients who treat them badly. My attitude has been "Why should we get special treatment?" Have you ever watched a tenure battle in academia, or a turf battle in a multibillion-dollar corporation? How about the Democratic primary? It gets nasty.

The more interesting question may be: "Is there anything unique about agency people that attracts a specific flavor of ire from clients?"

I've got two theories. First, a large percentage of the business world thinks that advertising and all of its assorted cousins are a pseudo profession, something anyone can choose to pursue if he wants. It's the opposite of plumbing, or medicine, where people understand that there is a set of skills that they don't possess but need. (Hey, I didn't say it was true.) Second, large corporate structures breed and allow a level of bad behavior that would be unacceptable in almost any other social environment. That's a toxic combination.

Here's how I summarize my approach to the dilemma: There are nice people and there are mean people in the world. Stay away from the mean ones. I confess to a spotty record, but I can also say that with some good fortune I've stumbled into a collection of clients that I love.

Last week I went to lunch with Sam, my very first client. He'd looked at our agency (all three of us) long and hard before he made his decision. When he told me that we got the business, all I could say was, "Really?" We made some mistakes along the way, and in some ways I did a lot of learning on his nickel, but the harshest comment I ever got from Sam was an occasional raised eyebrow. Fifteen years later, he's launching a new consumer-technology company with some venture capital and asked if we would consider consulting. No, I'm absolutely not taking a dime from that guy. I'll help him, but it will take years to pay back the trust and the opportunity he gave me.

Still, it's a rough-and-tumble world out there. Good clients can be taskmasters and tough negotiators. That describes Phil, who ran his own successful agency for a number of years. He also takes a personal interest in our success, recommending prospects and advising me on agency operations. Can you be a client and a mentor?

I've got clients where there is no emotional connection. They're good thinkers and strategists, and I welcome every meeting because you're engaged and intellectually challenged. I've got clients who lean heavily on us for guidance, but they make us feel like we're all in it together. I've got a client who likes to have lunch and talk about how he wants to join me on the agency side. He's insane.

I also like to spend some time thinking about how I would like our clients to think about us. I'd love it if after every engagement, a client told me, "You know, I learned something from this experience." I'd love to hear clients tell me that we've built a group of good citizens that they would enjoy spending time with over dinner. I'd love to hear that we helped a client advance her career, or that we played our part in making the numbers. I'd love to swing for a couple of grand slams too, like we took a struggling brand and put it on the map, or that we found the spark of brilliance in our client's company and brought it to life.

I'm probably deluding myself, but I think one of the reasons I've been lucky is that I took the advice given to me by one of my very first employees. After a challenging meeting, Martha left a card on my desk that read in her impeccably neat handwriting, "Never wrestle with a pig. The pig likes it, and you get dirty." Thank you Martha.
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