"Keep the Client Happy"

[November 24, 2009]

Hang out in ad agencies for any length of time and you’re bound to run into conflicting ideologies. The people you work with come from so many different backgrounds, it’s hard to find two people who look at their role in the industry in exactly the same way.

Among the many fissures in advertising culture, however, none is more disruptive than the Servant/Consultant divide. It’s a rift cutting across all departments. Agency types wage siege war over this issue—like mythical beasts, competing for the soul of a troubled hero. Where’s the battleground? It’s on the disputed territory between Want the Client Wants and What the Client Needs.

The conflict really boils over on that fateful day when your client conceives a truly misguided project. You’re asked to create a pig-headed trout with eagle’s wings—a monster of dysfunctional engagement sure to deliver consumers into a competitor’s hands.

The fact that your client is also asking you to “find efficiencies” to save time and money just makes you reach for the Pepto-Bismol that much faster.

Running into the problem by running away from it.
There are three classic responses to this dilemma:

• Denial. No matter how misguided the project, some people will always
  assert it’s achievable. “If we all just pull together…” goes the dreary
  refrain. It’s how those in Denial signal their willingness to thow common
  sense out the window, just to “keep the client happy.”

• Refusal, a tactic that, while untenable in a business environment, expresses
  itself throughout the project in foot-dragging, excuse-making and subtle
  forms of sabotage. 

• Compromise, in which agencies agree to do a less dysfunctional version
of the project, modified just enough to save them from embarrassment. 

Mind you, this monster will still be a major drain on resources. And it will still teach junior team members that industry standards don’t really matter—if violating them will “keep the client happy.”

Client management? Not so much.
As I see it, all three of these responses are the outgrowth of failed client management. In a healthy client relationship, an agency would think nothing of advising a client against this pet project from Hell.

Trouble is, agencies often woo clients like desperate teenagers on a first date. Of course, promising a lifetime of servitude for just one kiss is a mistake most kids make only once. In an agency environment, however, grown men and women strike similarly self-erasing deals every day.

Wherever you are on this issue, ask yourself this: If your goal is keeping clients happy, what makes clients happier than success? It follows that your goal should also be to steer them away from strategies that invite disaster.

We’ve all seen the havoc that the “Fries with that?” mentality wreaks with the quality of our work. I say, “Enough.” We serve our clients best by leading them to new ideas—and by taking a stand against everything dysfunctional, deceitful and downright stupid.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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