IdeaConference

INDUSTRY ANALYSIS: WHEN CLIENTS DRIVE YOU CRAZY

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The horror stories abound, but here's a particularly twisted one. A New England-based creative agency had a client that brought in a new advertising director. In his dealings with the agency, the new guy seemed pleasant enough at first, but there was one odd thing about him: He carried around a coffee mug covered in black tape. When asked about it, he'd say, cryptically, "You'll see why someday." The relationship quickly degenerated, and the ad director became increasingly tough to work with. Eventually, he fired the incumbent agency and hired a new one -- at which time, he revealed what was beneath the black tape. It was the name of the new agency. "Apparently, he'd worked with them in the past, and he knew all along he was going to hire them," says the creative director of the agency that got fired. "It was just a matter of time. He was playing a little game with us." Welcome to the dysfunctional world of bad-client relationships. They can be painful, time-consuming, ego-deflating, financially devastating and demoralizing. They may result in "quick death or slow death," observes WongDoody's partner/creative director Tracy Wong, but almost certainly they will come to a bad end at some point. Almost every client is difficult on some level; so what distinguishes the truly bad ones? A random survey of creative directors from leading agencies reveals that there are certain inherent qualities and identifiable traits that are shared by members of the "truly bad client" species.

THE FEAR FACTOR

Perhaps chief among these is fear -- which can take a number of forms, including fear of failure, fear of the boss, fear of offending consumers. Greg DiNoto, partner and creative director at DiNoto Lee, says the fear phenomenon is common partly because "marketing managers tend to move around a lot -- so for them, it's not about long-term impact, it's about not screwing up." Creatives point out that at some companies, fear is ingrained in the corporate culture. One creative director recalls that when he worked for RC Cola, "there was paranoia running all through the building. You couldn't even fax people there because they were afraid their faxes would be stolen, so you had to fax them scripts at home. And they wouldn't talk on their own elevators, because they thought they were bugged."

VENDOR MENTALITY

Another well-known hallmark of bad clients is what Merkley Newman Harty creative director Marty Cooke calls "a vendor mentality." According to Cooke, and various other CDs who share this observation, the vendor-mentality client sees the agency in much the same light as they see the person who comes in to wallpaper the office. For such clients, "there's no participation in the process," says Cooke. And that leads to all kinds of problems. Since such clients "don't consider you a partner, they don't share goals and objectives," DiNoto points out . "Instead, they have a mystery agenda -- only they know what's going on behind the scenes." Attempting to create advertising in the dark, the agency will invariably fail.

IGNORANCE AND APATHY

The bad client often "doesn't understand or value advertising," says Woody Kay, partner and creative director at Pagano Schenck & Kay, Boston; such clients may be apt to "put the weakest person in charge of it, believing that's where they'll do the least harm." Enter the nephew, or son-in-law, or some other person the client doesn't know what to do with. Such clients also allow too many people (themselves included) to meddle in the making of ads. "A big problem is the client who lets internal constituencies -- sales, distribution, and the like -- drive the marketing bus," says DiNoto. "Naturally, some input from these people can be useful, but they shouldn't be the ones who interpret the consumer marketplace." A client that doesn't believe in advertising will never commit to doing it right -- even though they may have deep pockets and good intentions. Starbucks is cited as a client that, deep down, doesn't seem to believe it needs advertising, even though it keeps hiring great agencies. One San Francisco creative director sees the same thing happening with Silicon Valley's red-hot startup companies. "These companies have achieved early success without advertising," he says. "They go to an agency because, hell, they've got the money, so why not? But their stock is already splitting, and deep down they're thinking, Do we really need to do this?"

SADISTIC KILLERS

There's a sadistic strain that runs through the worst clients. "A truly bad client is one who not only kills your work, but actually derives great joy from killing it," says Bob Barrie, a creative director at Fallon McElligott, who recalls a particular client who "killed ad after ad after ad. The breaking point came when I learned that he had actually been bragging about it in great detail to, of all people, his mother!"

Even worse is the breed of client that prefers the slow, tortuous kill. "First they approve the concepts, then they ruin them in production," says Sally Hogshead, partner and CD at Robaire & Hogshead . "They chisel away at the idea in little bits, and the agency can't fight every single change. But those seemingly minor changes make the final work completely uninspired." Whatever the speed of the kill, "a truly bad client is one that constantly changes its directives," says Hogshead, and has a structure in which "the brand managers have the authority to kill ads, without the power to approve them."

BASTIONS OF BAD

Certain product categories have become bastions of bad clients. This generally includes any business wherein dealers or franchisees have too much power over the advertising. Dealer interference can turn an otherwise fine car client into a turbo-charged nightmare. Things are hardly better in the fast food category. A creative director on Carl's Jr. recalls, "the ads would run, and they'd call the next morning with the computer receipts and say, 'Well, that didn't work.'"

BEYOND REPAIR

Can a bad client be reformed? "Rarely," says Mike Shine, partner and CD at Butler Shine & Stern. "They're like sex offenders. Except there aren't prescription drugs to help them control their urges." Woody Kay concurs, noting that "a truly bad client is often a truly bad human being, and can only be reformed by a therapist. Maybe." Sometimes a difficult client can appear to be reformed -- but watch out for the relapse. According to one former Goodby Silverstein creative, when the Polaroid account first came to the agency, the client was initially willing to approve a lot of good work "because they'd just lost their last agency and they were feeling desperate." But gradually, "as they had time to build up their defenses again," the client became increasingly bureaucratic, difficult, and unpleasant to work with. Assuming it's even possible, turning around a bad client can be "a Herculean task," says Ernie Schenck, a freelance creative director now working primarily with GSD&M. "At some point, I think you have to ask yourself if that particular piece of business is worth it. The toll these monsters invariably take on your people is just horrific. It's a bit like being in an abusive relationship -- you have to know when to walk away."

WHEN THE GOOD GO BAD

It's probably more common to find good clients going bad than vice versa. Just ask Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York, which produced great work and stellar sales results for Mercedes-Benz -- only to be abruptly canned last month for obscure, seemingly personal reasons. A good client can sour overnight, "often with the arrival of one person," says one source. Tough market conditions can make even the best of clients more difficult. Nike, once thought of as everyone's dream client, has reportedly become tougher to work with as its problems have mounted. "Not being cool is something no one knows how to deal with," says a creative who's working on the account. Sometimes success can make a good client go bad: "If they get too many slaps on the back, it can make them embrace the ads with a death hug," says one creative director. "They start to feel they know more about the advertising than the people who created it."

A CONVENIENT EXCUSE

Granted: talk of "bad clients" is sometimes nothing more than agency whining. Cabell Harris, founder and CD of Work, doesn't like too much fingerpointing: "If an agency isn't doing good work, they tend to blame the client -- but often it's their own fault."

"I don't think the phenomenon of the 'bad client' is as pervasive as we like to think," muses FM's Bob Barrie. Often, he says, "it's just a matter of being in the right relationship with the right chemistry at the right time."

MAALOX MOMENTS

Think your client's bad? Guess again. Read these anonymous accounts from the client battlefield and thank your lucky stars.

"We were presenting creative work to a rifle company and the marketing VP was a good ol' boy from down South. In the middle of presenting to him, he announces he has to take a shit. But, he says, that's no reason to interrupt the presentation (as if that comment didn't already do it) and he makes us follow him into the bathroom. Fortunately, we presented to a closed stall door."

"I once showed a new client Hal Riney's famous example of how DDB's 'Think small' could be turned into 'a great ad' by following a few client suggestions, like making the product big, adding people, starbursts, etc. I knew this would be the worst client I'd ever have when he didn't get the joke. In fact, he agreed that the revised ad was better. Fortunately, he told his boss and confirmed his boss' suspicion that he was an idiot."

"I was presenting two alternative campaigns to a client, at his desk. A minute into my presentation, he took a phone call and motioned to me to continue. So I presented my heart out to a man who was totally ignoring me while he yapped away on his far more important phone call. I finished my presentation a few moments before he hung up. Then he pointed to one of the two piles on his desk, and proclaimed, 'That one!' I then scurried off to produce it. I think the guy was trying to impress me with his ability to multitask."

"We were presenting to American Home Products for an aspirin campaign, and we'd put together some footage of the Three Stooges doing nasty things to each other's heads. After we showed it, one of the clients said, 'It's funny, but how do we know these guys will be that funny when we get them on the shoot?' "

"We had a client who would constantly reject our ideas -- and afterwards, they would always serve us a wonderful meal, with homemade casseroles and cream pie. They were wonderful warm people and bad clients at the same time."

"We were doing a successful campaign for a major newspaper. All the numbers were great. Then one day the publisher tells us that his son, in high school writing class, had thought of a new line for the campaign. We stalled, told him it's a good line, we'll see, and so on. When we were shooting the next commercial, he asked us to put the line in, and we said no. The next thing we knew, he sent us a tape; his in-house editing department had inserted his son's line into our commercial. He said, This is the way it's gonna be. We ended up parting ways."

"A burger chain used to promote store managers to marketing managers, with no training. One of these guys had decided he needed the words 'value' and 'quality' as often as possible in every radio commercial. He'd say, 'I want three qualitys and four values in this spot.'"

"I was presenting to Ernest Gallo and the meeting seemed like it was going OK. After a while, I found myself disagreeing with him about something, but in a respectful way. In the middle of this, one of his people passed me a note saying that I shouldn't look directly into Mr. Gallo's eyes while disagreeing with him. I thought, 'That's pretty weird,' then continued with the discussion. And then, suddenly, Gallo started saying, 'Are you eyeing me? You eyeing me?' Then he had security escort me out. Next thing I knew, I was in the parking lot, wondering

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