Frozen Frogs & Cooked Books (Or How to Hustle a Client)

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A while back, my old agency had a client-a popular museum in Chicago. They had a new exhibit-exotic frogs from all over the world. Our mission was to get butts through the door even though the exhibit was debuting in the dead of winter. As a pro bono account, the client never spent much-they had less than $50,000 for this deal, but they were open to creative uses of their dough, so we eagerly took the job.

My partner and I had an idea: "Frogs on the Block." It was similar to Chicago's popular "Cows on Parade" from a while back. Our deal was to plant ice sculptures of these crazy frogs on random street corners with some, "You're just a hop, skip and a jump away" messaging. It was focused, cheaper than an ad and would've gotten tons of free PR. In short, major bang for the buck.

Stupid us. We take our idea to our boss who says, "Nice idea, but we can't make any money on it." We look at him all confused. He explains there's no appreciable markup attached to our idea. Which got us thinking, the one thing agencies should actually bill for, the one thing clients can't do themselves is creative-the ideas. Agencies make so much money hustling clients on markups that they basically throw the creative in for free. Creatives don't get a cut of the markups or a percentage of sales. We don't even get to keep our work-we sign contracts making the agency/client the sole owners of the ideas we develop. Why? Because it's a hustle; and in a hustle you're either a hustler, an angle to be worked or overhead to be tossed once they're through with you.

All clients and agencies have one thing in common: they're businesses, and businesses only understand formulas. And because every client is different and every idea should vary by need, budget and audience, there's no formula for determining the true value of marketing ideas and creative concepts. I mean, how do you bill "Where's the beef?" or "Just do it"? In other words, how do you bill clients for tailor-made disposable intellectual property, which is all advertising and marketing really is?

I say the solution's simple: Like athletes and actors, creatives should be free agents and negotiate contracts for their services based on their track record, portfolio and potential, then get whatever the market will bear. Specifically, a creative type would get a fat fee upfront for time and energy spent on developing creative ideas plus some type of usage royalty, licensing fee and/or a cut of the client's sales over a specified time frame. Or better yet, since building a brand is literally about adding equity to a company, creatives who produce top work should get stock options. After all, in almost all cases, a company's brand image is just as important to its success as the product/services it actually provides.

But this'll never happen. Why? Because it's a fundamental paradigm shift, and unless they're causing it, change scares the snot out of most businessfolks. Most agencies are bloated and incapable of running any other way. Moreover, just as every kid thinks he can rap, every brand manager, AE and CEO thinks he can create a great tagline, a hot commercial or a cool logo. In fact, many clients have convinced themselves that the only reason they have an ad agency is because they don't have time to do the heavy lifting of creative development and media buys internally.

Whether it's a blue chip brand or a mom 'n' pop shop, the marketing hustle's the same: Get the budget up, spend the budget up, get the client to re-up. The golden rule on budgets: Use it or lose it. I've seen this hustle run on just about every client I've ever worked on. Until the industry commits to ideas and people over budgets and formulas, we'll remain nothing more than hustlers who get over on clients and consumers.

Copywriter and brand consultant Hadji Williams is the author of the upcoming Knock the Hustle: How to Save Your Job and Your Life From Corporate America.

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