What makes a great client?

Ross Farquhar: a partner at 101
Ross Farquhar: a partner at 101

Ross Farquhar, a partner at 101, lists five behaviours he thinks makes a great client.

"My father used to say this is the greatest job in the world except for one thing: the clients." Roger Sterling, Mad Men.

Like most account guys secretly (or not so secretly) do, I hold Roger Sterling up as a client services messiah, sent through the medium of heavily-stylised period drama to act as a touchstone for my profession. But as a client-side defector who now finds himself in the plush surroundings of London’s glamorous adland, I hope his father was wrong.

That said, I recognise where the sentiment comes from. Working with creative people and developing creative work is perilous for clients, and even those with good hearts and good intentions can misstep, much to the fury and despair of their agency partners.

So it strikes me that, for those of us lucky enough to work in agencies that live by the David Abbott mantra of choosing to work with clients who are appreciated not just for their money but also for their company, we have a duty to surface the good behaviours and discourage the bad.

Not least because, as I found out during my time at Cadbury and Diageo, being a client with ambition for great work doesn’t always lead to a clear path to get there, nor clarity on the role you should play in navigating it.

In that spirit, here are five ways in which clients can be agents (rather than bystanders) in getting the work they aspire to:

Be a developer, not a tester

While the world of Mad Men might have characterised clients as simply the people who appear at the end to test the work on, the best ones act as fellow developers during the creation process itself. That doesn’t mean generating ideas. It does mean fuelling those tasked with doing so with as much information and inspiration as possible.

Agencies want to know anything and everything about the product, what work has been done in the past, what the client likes and what they don’t.

Good agencies are great distillers and live by "more is more". And then, when ideas are tabled, it means behaving less like a judge and more like a builder.

Latching onto those ideas that excite and thinking of what else you can do to feed and expand them. It’s always better to create energy behind good but embryonic work than it is to jump to concern and criticism of work you don’t warm to. 

Get to know the creatives

Clients are scary because they’re only met in a boardroom at a moment of extreme vulnerability for the creatives presenting work.

Creatives are scary because they invest so much of themselves into said work that there is a fear that one wrong word could puncture their enthusiasm.

The way to get around both of these things is to spend more time in situations that encourage people to interact like human beings and not professional acquaintances. To get to know what makes each other tick without agenda.

When a relationship extends beyond the work on the table, that work invariably gets better.

Create room for instinct

The corporate world is not set up for instinct. Layers of stakeholders, real-time performance measures and the increasingly short tenure of marketing leaders all contribute to approaching the development of creative work with a rigour that breeds justification and reasons why.

But we all know that isn’t how the general public receive and process creative work. If you’re lucky enough to command their attention for a split second, they respond with gut feel and move on.

The best clients create room to give an instinctive response before they give a rational one.

Be straightforward and direct

You can spot a somewhat dysfunctional creative development process when you exit a client meeting and the other attendees turn to the account guy and ask "What was going on there, then?" Or similarly, when you are reviewing the dreaded "consolidated feedback" and someone finally pipes up with ‘I have no idea what this means.’

As a client, I know first-hand that you’re continually imposing pressure on yourself to cover all the bases you think you should cover in representing your organisation in the process.

What does my boss think? Does this fit with what I told the sales guys? Will the insight team think it appeals to our agreed consumer segment?

As a result, the temptation is always there to cloud the process with conjecture. It’s the easier road. But the great clients put that to one side, and tell their agency what they think and feel about the work in as straightforward and direct a way as they can. And they always paint a clear and vivid picture of success.

They get away with this in their organisation because they do my fifth point…

Take responsibility

It’s no coincidence that when great work is done, agencies laud the woman or man that bought it. Good agencies know that along the way that work will have been saved from almost certain defeat by that person taking responsibility for it and driving it through their business.

That responsibility doesn’t start, though, from the moment the idea is presented. It starts from the moment the client briefs the agency.

Clients who lean in during the development phase – who make time to chew the fat with their agency while ideas are being generated and soften the ground in their organisation while creatives do their thing – are the ones who win in the long-run.

Being a client is an exceptionally hard job.  Being a client who makes their agency think Roger Sterling is wrong is even harder. To the victor, though, go the spoils.

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