Drawing by Alan Sayers

Trying to please demanding or inexperienced clients often leads to ad agencies producing below-par campaigns that don’t help anyone. The best approach to this problem is avoiding the client-vs-creatives battle of wills from the outset.

[Originally published by Business in Vancouver Magazine on October 9th, 2013]

A designer for a major agency recently told me, “We change the work we put in our portfolio because clients always kill the ideas and make us produce crap.”

I’ve never worked at an agency, so this was a disturbing surprise. Digging deeper, I learned that this is an industry norm. Phrases like “don’t rock the boat” and “the client is always right” hang in the psychic background of most agencies. How did this happen?

Ineffective campaign? Who to blame?
On the creative side of agencies lurks a whispered truism, “clients ruin everything.” But on the accounts side, they’re happy as long as the client is. Why? Because the client pays.

But what happens when the campaign doesn’t work? The client blames the agency and hires someone new, the creatives are left with a portfolio that doesn’t represent their tastes and talent, and the account manager is scrambling to find new clients.

An agency’s portfolio must be an accurate reflection of their campaigns. Real work being replaced with “portfolio versions” is a sign that something is seriously wrong. But who’s to blame? The creatives for refusing to compromise? The accounts department for rolling over? The client for trying to take charge?

Everyone is motivated by something different – integrity, profit, ownership and being heard – and there are multiple ways of finding a solution. The easiest route is to compromise and give everyone a bit of what they want. But this rarely leads to the best result.

As a client, how do you know if you bought “crap”? Start by comparing your ad to what the agency shows in their online portfolio. Are they displaying your actual campaign? Or is it a polished version? If so, it may be because the agency spent too little time learning about you before starting the creative process and their ads missed the mark. Or it could be that the person at your company in charge of working with the agency tried to take control. Both are signs of trouble.

Designers: Do your homework
Designers: did you have Photoshop going within a few hours of meeting the client? That’s a problem. Creating a meaningful campaign often means spending weeks or months examining the client’s business and experimenting with ideas. If you consider yourself a strategist you know this already. Flashes of brilliance do happen, but they aren’t the norm. Dig in, research, experiment, brainstorm, and don’t be shy – a realistic client doesn’t expect perfection on the first attempt. Get it wrong first, ask the client for input, then refine and try again.

Business owners: Choose the right agency and trust them
For business owners, are you comfortable with an agency taking the time to explore your brand, ask probing questions and examine your business from new angles? If not, your campaign is in trouble. We’ve all seen mediocre brands succeed through brilliant marketing. If you’ve spent years designing a revolutionary new product, why cut corners when it’s time to showcase it to the world? Find an agency whose work you admire, then trust them to do what they’re best at.

And most importantly – communicate! Throughout the process there must be clear communication channels between the client, the account manager, and the creative department. When time is spent considering and exploring every reasonable idea that surfaces, the process will take longer, but the result will be better.

Article on BIV: The marketing client isn’t always right – and nor is the agency?
David Anthony Childs: BIV profile
Business in Vancouver: www.biv.com
Artwork: Alan Sayers