Good Clients Are Hard to Find, and You Hate to See Them Go

Lessons from a Longstanding Relationship with a Client

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There are three calls in this business that no one wants to get from a client: "Sorry, we've decided to go in a different direction." "The budget has been cut." "I'll be retiring at the end of the year." Not long ago, I got the last one from Joe, the CEO of a prominent community bank in Cambridge, Mass., where we're located. At a time when we pursue global dreams and fly 3,000 miles at the drop of a dime to pitch new business, it feels almost anachronistic to have a client in your own backyard.

In fact, proximity defined the relationship from the start. Following the roller coaster of a review and a suspenseful wait for a decision, I got a call from Joe, who asked if he could drop by to talk with me. I told him that I'm happy to walk the four blocks to the bank, but he insisted on coming over.

Running through the superstitious logic that we all do when we're trying to predict the outcome of a pitch, I decided that we must have lost. Joe was too nice of a guy to tell me over the phone, or to make me walk to him for bad news. Sitting in our lobby in his grey banker's suit, Joe graciously said that his team would like to work with us. That kicked off a ten-year relationship and set a tone that can best be described as that of good neighbors.

There was still the predictable dynamic you would expect from a bank founded in the 19th century and an advertising agency nudging them to embrace a digital and social world. We still had to negotiate budgets, and when it came to creative work, we would push and they would pull.

On the other hand, there were also Red Sox games, the support of each other's charities, and a shared commitment to the community. Meetings in the bank's paneled boardroom were as calm as meals in my grandparents' dining room.

Don't mistake tradition and gentility for sleepy. Joe and his team aggressively pursued growth and routinely outperformed competitors in their category across the nation. While cautious, they also maintained a hunger to understand marketing trends and adapt when they saw the advantages.

At least four times a year, Joe and I had lunch where we hashed out strategy, resolved any outstanding issues, and meandered off into discussions of business, sports and family. I sharply remember the first lunch. Wanting to impress, I made a reservation at an upscale restaurant in Harvard Square. Understated as always, Joe raised an eyebrow and said, "nice place," in a tone that telegraphed that this was maybe a little much for a frugal banker. I got the message and after that we went to a basement-level pub for burgers and Cokes.

Jump ahead a year. I had opened a new account at Joe's bank for all of our media money. He called and invited me to lunch. (Literally, he dialed the number and invited me personally. Email tended to be a last resort.) We met at the bank and I started walking toward the burger joint, and he redirected me back to the upscale spot where I took him for our first lunch. "Joe," I said, "I got the distinct impression that you preferred a more modest restaurant." "Well, this is different" he answered, "You're a customer now."

There was one more encounter I think of often. After an impromptu meeting, Joe and I ducked into a coffee shop. As we approached the counter to order, a struggling employee with a tray of dirty cups and trash dropped the whole mess right at Joe's feet. In fine CEO form, Joe dropped down to the floor and helped the poor guy pick up every last bit. Now that's a brand in action.

That experience continues to shape my thoughts about the intersection of brands and reality. The best moments that define you and your brand don't always end up enshrined in a television spot or in your social feed. Sometimes those moments live in the culture and values of a business. And that's a good thing. They get transmitted throughout an organization so that people experience them every day. That's the ultimate lesson I learned from Joe. When you do things right, it's more than marketing. It's life.

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