Don't Blame Bad Creative on Your Client

How to Turn Client Relationships from Selling Ideas to Collaborating

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One of the most common excuses I've heard in my 20-plus year career as a creative in advertising is "the client picked the safe idea" or "the client watered the idea down too much." From my perspective, these excuses are mostly caused by three things: 1) a poor client/creative relationship and mistrust; 2) an unstructured creative process and meeting infrequency; and 3) a creative's unwillingness to listen.

Early in my career, I had the pleasure of getting an interview with one of the hottest agencies in the country. This agency was killing it with consistent breakthrough work that was fresh and original. They weren't even pitching for business at the time. Clients would just call them up and give them the business. During my interview with their chief creative officer, I asked him how they were able to sell those kind of ideas. He responded by saying they don't sell anything, "they have conversations about ideas." And when those conversations don't garner any excitement and momentum, they quickly come back with more ideas to have more conversations about. This happens until both parties in the partnership are 100% excited and onboard with a creative concept or strategy.

Now, if you have been in the advertising industry -- whether for a few months or a few decades -- you probably know it can't be that easy. Surely, this can only be done with a small handful of dream clients.

But in reality there is no such thing as a dream client anymore. Gone are the good ol' days of Don Draper waxing on and revealing three magical words that will send a product flying off the shelf. There are way too many things happening now in marketing. Clients desperately want to be educated and listened to. They also want to be a part of the creative process, not just the final presentation.

So how do you turn your client relationship from one where you are selling ideas to one that is more collaborative? Here are some tips:

1. Bring ideas every time you meet the client face-to-face. Whether you present them or not, just bring some thoughts on solving a specific business challenge or two. This could be anything from an internal communication solution to a product innovation idea. Even if it never gets produced, you are building some creative trust. Some of the best ideas I've ever seen came from a proactive idea that never had a strategic brief or job number. Share a business solution that the client never knew they needed.

2. No idea is too precious, but maybe the creative team is. As creatives, we tend to lean on frequency of angles and explorations over polish and depth of a couple of ideas. We also talk about no idea being too precious. But sometimes people are afraid to hurt the creative's feelings if an idea isn't liked. If a creative on your team is sensitive about these things, he or she should not be in the room. I make sure to avoid this when hiring creatives or putting together a client team. Once you take the pressure off, and start talking about possibilities and potential for each idea, things quickly start to gain momentum or quickly get tossed in the trash. It's just part of the process and a thick skin is absolutely required.

3. Don't present anymore. When it comes to frequency of conversations with your client, I vote for having more. The longer the client waits for ideas, the more the pressure builds and the overthinking begins. I'm not saying you need to present to the client every few days -- just put yourself in the client's shoes and ask yourself how long is too long.

As for structure, this is the most important. It absolutely cannot look like you are guessing, spitballing or even selling it. The ideas need insight and thought processes to get the client to understand where the idea came from. A terrible way to start is by saying, "The first idea is called …" There is no process here. No inspiration and contribution. It's better to start by saying, "One of our creatives sparked a thought that led us to this first direction. And that thought was ..." Don't be afraid to say where you were when the inspiration started -- coffee shop, bar, desk, wherever. Simple things like these help the room to judge less, and understand and contribute more.

4. Don't fall victim to client complaint No. 1. There is nothing worse you can do to a client than to not listen to them. It's the No. 1 complaint and frustration of all clients. The client remembers vividly when the listening stops and the selling begins. If it happens twice, you are cooked. The creative relationship and trust then breaks down, and you can forget about having productive conversations about creative ideas moving forward.

An easy way to make sure the client knows you are engaged is by visually listening. This means actively sketching things out openly as the discussion happens. Actually get up and write the comment down on the whiteboard as it's being said. No matter how much you disagree. Just write it down and document it. Even doodle around it if you're an art director. Then offer up a "what-if scenario" to contribute to the comment and write that down. This is clear visual proof to a client that you are actively listening.

This creative process isn't for everyone and it challenges new methods of collaboration and integration. But over time, clients will champion your ideas even more if they are part of seeing the idea being formed. And most importantly, they will look forward to more conversations and explorations as opposed to looking for other ad agencies.

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