The Best Client Ever

Having worked in the advertising business now for 40+ years, I’ve seen all kinds of clients – good ones, bad ones, generous ones, cheap ones. Every type, really. Most veteran agency people can give you a list of attributes that set the good clients apart from the pack. In my opinion, here are a few characteristics that stand out.

1. The ability to provide good branding direction.

Since branding is about building expectations, every marcom discussion should start with the question, “What expectation would you like to establish?” If you could wave a magic wand and have customers and prospective customers expect something good from you, what would it be?

This is not as easy as it might sound, because customers are not stupid and neither are they lazy. If your desired expectation is to “be the best,” you’re probably going to have to work a bit harder in describing what would constitute the best and why.

Sometimes they want products that last a long time. Sometimes they want things that are easy to operate. Or economical to operate. Or safe. If you push this discussion, you could probably develop a long list of things that might cause a customer to name you “the best.”

Unfortunately, in the ever-shifting world of branding, you usually only get one attribute because that’s all customers can remember and play back to you. If you try to make your brand stand for too much, you most likely will end up with an unfocused brand that stands for very little.

A good client will understand this and have an intuitive sense of what the most appropriate brand attribute for his or her product/company should be. “We want our brand to be synonymous with _________.” Whatever that is.

2. Can identify the most important messages.

This is almost a lost art, because when I ask clients to name the five most important things we need to say this year, it’s obvious they haven’t spent much time thinking about it. This is the long version of the elevator pitch. If you have the undivided attention of an important customer for the next thirty minutes, what would you say to them that would make a difference?

Again, this is harder than it sounds because customers are not stupid. If you say something naïve like, “we have the best people,” they will probably say they hear that from everyone.

Your messages have to be compelling. If your “people” are considered a strength, what about them makes a difference? Are they given more training? Are they empowered to act quickly on client complaints? Do you have more people with certain types of degrees? Give us a reason to accept that your people are better in some way.

3. Sets the bar high for agency performance.

Too many times, clients do the opposite. They say things like, “Let’s not spend a lot of money on this,” or “Can we do something like you did for the XYZ tradeshow?” even though most of your important customers were there and will recognize the warmed over effort.

The worst clients are the ones who try to write headlines or copy for you, because they think you can’t do anything good on your own. And it’s probably true that many agencies never learn enough about their client’s products and technologies to be creative at an advanced level. Shame on us.

I love it when clients say, “Delight and amaze me!” It makes you work all the harder to come up with something great.

4. Can provide good feedback on creative concept proposals.

“I don’t like it,” is not enough. We can’t make it better with feedback like that.

You need to be more specific. It’s too bold or not bold enough. It puts too much emphasis on XYZ. It doesn’t mention the such-n-such. One of our competitors did something similar (and then find a copy to see how similar it really is).

“We said we wanted to associate our brand with so-and-so – I don’t think this does it.” It’s okay to challenge the agency to make a case for how their proposed creative approach is consistent with the previously agreed upon branding strategy. A good client can step back from the idea itself and talk about it objectively without getting personal.

A good client will also be putting himself/herself in the shoes of customers who are receiving the message. How will they respond? Will it reach them on an emotional level? On an intellectual level? Will it motivate them to take the desired action?

A good client is not afraid of bold, edgy concepts because that’s often required to break through the clutter. A good client is willing to take risks.

5. Will fight to keep good ideas from getting watered down.

There’s always one person in every meeting who, with the noblest intentions, suggests that some key aspect of a concept be eliminated because it’s likely to offend someone. Or they will want to change a distinctive, unexpected term to one that’s more common – again because they fear that people will misunderstand.

A good client will politely brush these well-intended suggestions aside and go with the full-strength concepts. I’ve always wondered if Altoids mints would have been as successful if someone had changed “Curiously strong” to “Really strong.”

A good client will either defend the edgy concepts up the corporate ladder, or simply tell the higher ups it’s a marcom call and they should trust the marketing instincts of their chosen team.

A good client will not just allow you to do outstanding work, a good client will insist on it. You will come to regard that client as “The Best Client Ever.”

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