No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Don't Be Afraid to Tell It Like It Is

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Bart Cleveland Bart Cleveland
It seems agencies suffer most when they're trying to do what's best for their clients. The recent story about the daughter of Dave Thomas criticizing Wendy's current campaign is a perfect example. I'm not a great fan of the campaign creatively but it stands head and shoulders above what's been going on with the brand for some time. According to sources it's also increasing Wendy's sales. Yet, there is talk of the CMO being on his way out and the family of Thomas panning the campaign for ambiguous reasons.

I think every agency can identify with Saatchi's predicament. ROI isn't the only criteria agencies are measured against, after all. No wonder so much of the work we do in advertising is forgettable. It's easy to give in to the pressure of just making everyone happy. Still, we must not give into that temptation.

So how does an agency go about getting its client to do the right thing? Here's what my agency does, for what it's worth.
  • Be honest: Our true responsibility is to advise our clients of what they need to successfully market their brands. If we choose to just go along to get along we're not earning our money. If we're not doing the job we were hired to do, then eventually the client will get rid of us. Don't rationalize. Do what needs to be done to do the job you were hired to do.
  • Speak up: Having a tough conversation with your client that includes an honest assessment of their internal obstacles can do wonders for the success of your work and the maturation of your client's brand. The earlier in your relationship you have this conversation, the more likely positive change will occur.
  • Be consistent: All people have habits that are hard to break. Even when we try to lose weight or exercise, those bad eating habits kick back in soon. We have to be strong to truly change our lifestyle and maintain our health. Clients are no different. Don't be surprised if after a client agrees to change its advertising to something more effective its old ways begin to creep back in. You must point it out and hold the client accountable to its commitment. Think of yourself as the client's personal trainer. It hates you until it has that buff body -- but then you're its best friend.
  • Be willing to walk away: This is the toughest call. Do you give into the pressure to do what you know is wrong for a client just to keep the account, or do you say "no" even if means getting fired? I stand in awe of my two partners in this regard. They really have faith that our principles and standards will see us through to success. I thought I had more guts than most until I began working with them. I've learned a few things about courage from their example.
  • Use the problem: Sometimes the problem isn't going away even though you and your client have done all you can to alleviate it. Embrace the problem. A great example of this was the campaign for the Bahamas that Fallon and Duffy & Partners developed a few years ago. Every island in the Bahamas needed to be represented and their independent personalities expressed within the overall message. The graphic design solution of the Bahamas identity was the foundation that brought the Bahamian islands a common message that could be broken into differential parts as needed. The agency really succeeded where most would have either ignored the problem or compromised the branding to try and please too many masters. (Fallon recently lost the account.)
  • Look in the mirror: It is quite possible that the problem with your clients is your agency. If all of your clients are abusive perhaps you invite abuse. Someone has said clients get the advertising they deserve. The same could be said for agencies when it comes to their clients. If we don't perform at a high level of quality, how can we expect our clients to respect and trust us? If we don't deliver what we say we will, how can we expect the client to not dictate to us what we will do? There is a parable in the Bible about cleaning the beam out of one's own eye before attempting to remove the speck from a brother's. This is a great principle to use in helping a client improve. As an agency owner, I can't expect excellent clients if my agency is not excellent.
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