Who Wants to be a Groveling Huckster?

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People in the advertising business are always complaining about the lack of respect they get from their clients. Maybe it's our own fault. Often, we set ourselves up to be treated like vendors instead of partners. We give clients little incentive but to treat agencies like the hucksters we appear to be. One of the worst examples is the way most ad agencies present their work -- the age-old routine of presenting a creative recommendation to a client along with three or four other `directions,' or `options.' It's one of the oldest performance tricks in the business, because the options aren't really options, but merely straw dogs. Straw dogs intended to lead the client to discover the right answer for themselves, embrace the agency's creative recommendation, and take ownership of the work.

Sounds good in theory; but as a practice, it does immeasurable damage to the industry. It dumbs down the critical task of deciding what's right for a brand. It takes that responsibility out of the hands of the experts (the agency) and turns it into a multiple choice guessing game. And it makes it harder for the rest of us to get great advertising produced. Because now clients have been conditioned to expect not only the best advertising solution, but to see a series of `escape hatches' -- creative parachutes that give clients our tacit permission to bail out if they don't want to suffer the consequences of taking a stand for the best advertising idea.

Presenting our recommendations along with Option B and Option C, as if they're interchangeable, calls into question whether an agency's recommendation is truly the best idea. Whatever credibility we have as advertising experts is undermined. An ad agency's recommendations are often second-guessed, while the advice of a client's other professional advisers, like a lawyer or an accountant, is unquestionably accepted as gospel truth. Presenting our work in multiple choice fashion cements the perception that advertising agencies are made up of hacks who pull ideas out of thin air with no basis in fact or reason. It makes advertising seem like some sort of black art, subjectively guided by what agency people think is cool, not what our expertise tells us is right for a client's brand.

Faced with client resistance to a creative recommendation, the first instinct of most agency people is to fold like a cheap tent. They scramble around to offer more palatable options, avoid confrontation. Anything, it seems, to make the client happy and keep the income rolling in. Would a good lawyer change strategies in the middle of a trial, to one he knew was going to land his client in jail, just because the client told him to? Would a good CPA cook the books of a corporation -- even if his boss threatened to fire him if he didn't? Of course not. It's unethical and wrong. Given the way most ad agencies cave in when faced with a client's dissent, it's no wonder they hold ad agencies in roughly the same regard as the average used car salesman.

If nothing else, presenting work this way is an inexcusable waste of agency staff time and, consequently, clients' money. By creating, developing and presenting four options, you've effectively spent 75 percent of your time working on ideas you know are going to end up in the trash can, and only 25 percent of your time on what you knew all along was the right idea. It makes no sense.

Instead, spend your time perfecting the idea your agency believes is best for the brand -- then go to your client and let that idea stand on its own. At Core, we break ranks with the industry. We present clients with one idea. The client either likes what we've presented and we move forward, or we talk about why they think that idea may be off the agreed-upon strategy, or how it can be improved. But that discussion always centers on the idea that's on the table. We don't trot out an Option B. There isn't one.

Presenting the best idea has worked not only with our current clients, but in new-business situations, as well. It serves as an acid test for the types of clients with whom we work best. Far from the negative reaction you might expect, it fosters immediate respect.

On the wall in my office, there's an article from 1998 about Nike and Goodby Silverstein & Partners. It talks about how Goodby had won the Nike Alpha assignment -- not so much for brilliant creative ideas, but for being "pleasant and flexible." Goodby's president was actually quoted as saying, "We don't get caught in the notion of creative primacy. We don't believe there is only one solution, and we don't think we have to defend the work at all costs." Bullshit. "Creative primacy" is exactly what made Goodby a great creative agency in the first place. And "pleasant and flexible" client relations certainly didn't help them hold on to Nike for very long.

Sure, there may be more than one creative solution. The point is, we all know what our best work is when we present to a client. So if we are advertising experts, and we want clients to treat us as such, aren't we duty-bound to show them only the solution we believe to be best for their brand?

Jeff Graham is an account executive at Core, St. Louis.

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