Five Reasons You Should Quit Using the Word 'Client'

CEO of 72andSunny Says There Are Real Business Benefits in Ditching the Term

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If you've been working in adland awhile, chances are you've heard statements like these tossed about in an agency:

"You won't believe what my client just emailed me."

"The client killed the idea."

"The issue is on the client-side."

Or a really common one in the past few years: "Cannes used to be so much fun -- before all the clients started showing up."

We've all been guilty of griping about the roadblocks that our perceived adversary -- the "client" -- has placed before us, stifling our creativity and crippling our ability to be effective. I used to do it, too.

When I did drop the habit, it was unintentionally. At the time 72andSunny was born, we started with zero clients. Fortunately, we had made many friends over the years. And some of those friends wanted to work with us. Their names were Madeleen, Don, Enrico and Paulo, to name a few. As we started, we always referred to each person by first name (or nickname). New people in our culture probably felt the respect we had for these "clients" by the way we referred to them.

While this habit developed organically, we found it to have many advantages over the years, and have since insisted on carrying it on as we've grown.

This isn't to say that the word "client" has been completely eliminated from use in our office. But we've made it clear to all staffers that we have a policy against referring to people as "the client."

The truth is, there are real business benefits to this approach.

Better working relationships
The first reason is fairly obvious. By referring to people by their names, you tend to think of them more as the people that they are as opposed to cogs in some machine.

When thinking about all of the times the word "client" comes up, you'll find it's often found in conjunction with a complaint (while, compliments are usually doled out by, and to, individuals). When that late-night request comes in, it's not a person who has real pressure and worries of their own, it's a "client" who just won't leave you alone. By removing the label, we have found it easier to empathize with our partners and their situations.

Clear communication
Similar to agencies, our clients employ people with various experience levels and functions. Telling me that a "client" is unhappy is not very helpful if it's unclear from whom the feedback is coming. It's not just about whether the feedback is coming from a junior manager or the CEO -- it's about it coming from a person who may have a personal bias. That's when names come into play, along with the personal backstories that go along with them. That can help inform our response. Also, having a little empathy for the folks we work with helps when things become contentious or chippy -- which happens to humans under pressure.

Better creative!

Brace yourselves for what I am about to say: Clients are not the enemy of good creative. In the "Mad Men" days, clients briefed their agencies, and then the creative team went away, found inspiration and came back with a great idea. With all the talk about how the media landscape has changed to an "always in beta" or "prototype" mode, how we work with our clients must also become far more fluid and collaborative.

We actually welcome creative ideas from our clients. It's about being open input before resisting. Instead of a "fight," we have a debate of merit by trying suggestions first and measuring the outcome, rather than judging potential outcomes preemptively. By getting to know everyone involved on a personal level, putting ego aside and trying stuff together, things get better. It's like improv. We find this approach keeps things alive during development, and keeps the door open to magic and mischief that makes great work better.

A Better Culture
Negative environments are toxic, both creatively and spiritually. By avoiding the "client" label, and thus avoiding bitching about those who we come into the office every day to work with, we are promoting a culture of respect, understanding and open-mindedness. This affects the way we treat each other as well. People rise to a higher standard of human interaction. It's also something you can take home with you.

It'll make you a better client
We work with our own partners to bring creative to life, and being more understanding with our clients makes us a better client, as well. Just as we know how to work optimally with Tim at Activision, Todd at Samsung and Melissa at Target, we also collaborate with Jeremy at Haus and Piero at Unit 9, as opposed to assigning task work to "vendors" (the V-word!).

While every agency's culture is unique, it seems like we can all benefit from this simple mental switch. It may seem an insignificant thing, but considering the importance of relationships in advertising, it can make all the difference in advancing great creative and forging lasting relationships -- with clients, each other, and ultimately, our audience.

John Boiler is CEO of 72andSunny, Ad Age's 2013 Agency of the Year.

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