What It Takes To Be A Great Client

Every year leading marketing and advertising publications, like AdAge and Business Insider, come out with their ratings of the top agencies. It makes sense to rate them, considering how integral those agencies are at helping their clients reach their communications and strategic marketing goals. The accuracy and validity of those ratings aside, the intent makes sense. While these agency ratings focus on “the most innovative and creative agencies,” they tend to omit the client. I have yet to a see a ranking of the best clients to work with. I’m not suggesting that the world needs another rating to add to the list, but I bring this up because of how important the role a client plays in the development of creative work both great and forgettable.

In my career, I’ve been fortunate to have worked on both sides of the aisle. Prior to becoming one of the co-founders of The Green Room Collective, I was in the creative mix at agencies like NW Ayer, Ammirati & Puris, Backer, Spielvogel Bates, McCann-Erickson, Messner and Doner.  At The Coca-Cola Company, I worked on creative campaigns for Sprite, Mello Yello, Dasani, Barq’s, Diet Coke, Coke Zero and Coca-Cola. On the innovation side, I also led project work for many of Coca-Cola’s customers and partners, including Yum Brands, McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Target, Migros (Turkey), AlfaMart (Indonesia) and Walmart. All told, I’ve seen great clients in action, and I’ve been witness to lousy ones. I’ve led work with agencies to phenomenally successful outcomes, and there have been times, I wished I had handled things differently.

Ultimately, what makes a client great is a commitment to getting to great work. But, what are the key characteristics that make that possible? Based on my experience as both a client and agency professional, here’s what I feel it takes to be the client agencies would drool to work with.

Knowing what role to play: Early on in my career working at a New York ad agency, I would question aloud how a certain client could make such boneheaded moves regarding its creative. Fast forward a decade to my time on the client side where I often thought, “the agency just doesn’t’ get it.” The client and agency relationship can be adversarial, or it can be a partnership. However, to be an effective partner you need to know your role. The role of the agency is to push the client to new creative heights by challenging existing conditions. And the role of the client is to pull the agency through the gauntlet of attacks, agendas and roadblocks that often emerge once an idea gets into an organization. In that sense, the role of a client is that of a skilled facilitator, both in terms of creating an environment that fosters great ideas, and paving the way for these ideas to come alive. Glory goes to the agency, but without a client working the trenches, too often that work will get killed or severely compromised.

Understanding the importance of a strong creative brief: I’ve always likened the creative brief to an inner-city school playground like you find in New York. Typically, what you have is a large asphalt play area surrounded by a tall chain link fence. You know what the limits are, and within those fences, you have a lot of freedom to play the way you want. The same is true for a creative brief, it clearly sets the boundaries, but also lets you know where you can be creative.  Agencies crave this kind of direction, it allows them to focus their creative energies. Too often briefs are anything but brief, filled with jargon, acronyms and lacking in specifics as to what the work needs to do (beyond drive sales). A great client knows this and works hard to give the agency the best chance to succeed.

Knowing when to step in and when to give it space: To use a traveling metaphor, it’s easy to get lost when you’re going somewhere you’ve never been. When I was the client, I felt it was my role to give direction when needed, and then to step out of the way and let creativity happen. Early in my career, I was the global brand manager for Sprite, and my charge was to develop a new visual identity work for the brand. At the time, the brand was largely known for its “Obey Your Thirst” message along with its associations with hip hop and the NBA. In my mind, I was looking for something that would resonate with youth while drawing on the attributes of the product. Most of the agencies I met with really played up the youth culture angle, but very little about the product tie-in. I was getting frustrated because my direction for the work was not being played back. Then I met with renowned designer Brian Collins and Ogilvy’s Brand Integration team. After brief intros and some small talk, I shared my vision to see certain attributes like “crisp” and “clear” brought to life visually within the Sprite brand context.  I still remember Brian’s response “Absolutely, you should!” A great conversation ensued and I knew I had found my creative agency. From there my role evolved, first I gave them the space to create, then, once we started producing creative work, I began alerting them to possible issues or challenges that could arise from the company’s point of view.  Working together we were able to navigate a complex system so that the work could see the light of day.

Being accessible and decisive: Creative work is a journey. The direction you start may not be the direction in which you end up. New truths and insights may be uncovered, and business realities may change. The last thing you want is for your agency to be left hanging on questions that only the client can reasonably answer. In this regard, one of the best clients I’ve ever had the chance to work with were the good people from the Corporate Office of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Canada. When we started, the brief was to come up with innovative ideas to help them significantly increase their fundraising activities, but as we met with key stakeholders, we quickly realized the first order of business was to define the roles between the Ronald McDonald houses and the corporate office. A vastly different brief! Fortunately, our client was engaged, open, readily accessible and decisive. They gave us the permission to pivot and help more clearly define their purpose from one of a charity to a champion of the houses. Once their role was clearer, the ideas for championing the houses through fundraising became greater, more focused and impactful.

Seeing the work as an investment, not a cost. Of all the characteristics that make for a great client, this might be the most nuanced. And let me be clear, this is not about money or budget. It has everything to do with mindset. The right mindset is critical when trying to do work that is innovative, original and ground-breaking. As a rule of thumb, we try to minimize cost, but maximize investment. The numerical difference between a $50,000 cost and $50,000 investment is zero, but the mindset difference is exponential. The way we work at The Green Room Collective, with our clients, we often see that a one percentage point increase in the marketplace could be a gain of tens, even hundreds to millions of dollars in revenue. No small potatoes, and a significant return on a relatively small investment. The key difference between the cost and the investment mindset is that the latter focuses on the potential return of success whereas the cost mindset see the potential for failure. Mindset leads behavior, and in my experience, the investment mindset increases engagement at all levels and produces fresher thinking. This leads to bigger, better ideas.

At the end of the day, work, and especially work that is innovative and original, happens when people work together under a shared vision and a common destination. Great clients are leaders who do just that, they provide clear direction, facilitate an environment where truly creative and innovative work can happen and champion it through to completion. Deservedly, agencies get the lion’s share of attention for their creative exploits, but without the right client that work, and all the energy and effort that went into it, is less likely to land with its full impact within in the business, on the air and in the marketplace.