One of the sacrosanct canons of this creative business is that the work is the most important thing. In fact, it’s the only thing. Thousands of us have been raised not merely to believe but to proselytize that "creative is king." Countless agencies and careers have been founded on this bedrock.
That one-sided, narrow, indulgent, self-aggrandizing thinking has gotten a lot of agencies basically nowhere. There are only a few things … precious few things … that are more important than the work. And, those "precious few things" are employees and clients.
Employees and clients are foundationally and fundamentally more important than the work. They are why great work happens and kingly accolades are awarded. Period.
Great work does not magically or regularly appear at the doorstep of the best agencies. Too bad; that would be soooo much easier. It gets there "on the backs" and through the willpower of smart, devoted, persistent, reaching, undaunted employees who walk over that doorstep every day. It gets there from creative directors who know how to push and support, listen and model.
Great work is hard to do, very hard. Just look at how little is actually out there being noticed, being remembered, creating results. Now, think about how many agencies (thousands) and how many people (tens of thousands) strive to do that work day in and day out. Great work is rare. And it is done by rare employees inside rare organizations. And with rare clients.
Every single piece of award-winning, results-producing, compelling advertising that somehow makes it "out there" had a client who said, "OK … I agree. Let’s go produce that." Oh, and then they said, in some fashion, "Here’s X thousands of dollars to pay for its production and then its placement in the media."
I’d love to see this happen just once … but it never has and it never will … that you have the BIG meeting with the client to present the new campaign. And you present your brilliant idea and sell the shit out of it. And then THE MAN says, "Ya know, I’m sorry. I just don’t see the same brilliance in this campaign that you do. Far from it. But you’re the experts. That’s why we hired you. So, OK … I guess. Go ahead. Produce this over my objection. Run it over my dead body. Oh, and here’s X thousands of dollars to pay for its production and then its media placement. Gosh, I hope I’m wrong about this…."
Great work doesn’t sneak by clients. Or get through them because of indifference. Nor can it really be shoved down their throats as much as some think they’d like to.
You see, we don’t have the last word or even the tie-breaking vote. We don’t have the big thumbs-up/thumbs-down Terminator Controller. Clients do. And thus, clients have a bigger role — and a bigger responsibility — in the birth of great work than we do. Shibboleth shattering. Yep, they control whether the work lives or dies. All we control is the quality of the idea we put in front of them and the relationship we have with them, the Terminator.
That relationship is where, how and why great work lives or dies. Clients need to believe and trust their agency vendors enough to approve — and pay for — bold, palm-sweating, hold-your-breath, job-security-defying work. Not to put too fine a point on it, but clients can actually be putting their internal reputations and/or job security on the line when they make gutsy decisions about great work.
And if they’re the least bit shaky about their agency partners in this high-wire act, if they don’t unequivocally trust their agency’s judgment and motives, then they opt out. As would you.
So, how can "creative be king" when the people who conceive it and the patrons/clients who actually bring it to life must precede it?
The work is decidedly not the most important thing we do. Training, encouraging, challenging, supporting, pushing the people who conceive the work is axiomatically more important than the work. And, building a solid, blind-trusting, true partnership with the patrons who bring the work to life is axiomatically more important than the work.
Whether you know it or not, the best work you’ve ever done was because you had one of the best client relationships you’ve ever had with that client that you did this brilliant work for. Your best work comes from your best clients. No exceptions. No workarounds.
Build an awesome and enviable client relationship with and through your awesome and irreplaceable employees/co-workers, and you will produce more gratifying, successful and enviable work than by any other way. That’s because there is no other way.
And then teach this vital lesson to those who follow you so that you can collectively go on producing awesome work for all to revel in and benefit from. Because, again, there is no other way.
Pat Doody is co-founder and president emeritus of Wongdoody.