Clients: Us and Them
"The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them."
— Roger Sterling, Mad Men
Those words are so very true.
When we begin in our careers we dream of 'ideal clients' - that 'ideal project' where the requirements are as simple as 'do your best work' and the rest is limitless.
Many people speak of 'long standing client relationships' but Roger Sterling, a fictional Account Executive from the brilliant Mad Men television show, hits the nail on the head with his wonderful quote at the opening of this article.
Ask most consultants, freelancers or agency owners and they'll at some point in the conversation mention their relationship with their clients - they'll complain about something a client did, or mention a pressure situation a client has put them under and in some cases mention how swimmingly a client relationship is travelling.
To those who are reliant on clients, a conversation will always circle around to focus on them at some point in time.
I've avoided this topic in the last year, it's a deep topic after all. But now is a good a time as any to share with you some insights into cultivating and possibly better understanding the context of client relationships.
And also, to allow you to question the need for them at all.
Our business is changing dramatically and in turn so are we as creative leaders and personnel within it.
Our skills are diversifying and we are reaching a level of expertise that opens new opportunities outside of the total reliance on client projects.
Generally speaking, clients are central to the business model of most agencies, freelancers, designers and marketing professionals. Something I've been challenging of late and have also been challenged by - and I will write about in the coming weeks.
They form the lion's share of revenue and are he focus of the sweat-inducing, never-ending business development life cycle.
Over the 27 years of my experience I've had a range of client experiences; some were (and still are) truly good, wonderful experiences where I've felt like I was part of a true partnership. An equal exchange of value.
Whilst others have been horrible. Let's not mince words, others were down right cheap and nasty - the type of cheap and nasty that can only be washed away with a shower the next morning.
Some situations were caused by my own naivety, mistakes and inexperience, others were the cause of clients who mistook me for something other than a professional who had something of value to offer them.
Tim Brown of IDEO famously said:
“It’s not ‘us versus them’ or even ‘us on behalf of them.’ It has to be ‘us with them'”
Such true words, and such a picturesque ideal, no?
Herein I share with you a range of client experiences as transparently and as respectfully as possible. Names have been changed and in some cases so have the businesses.
After all, clients are people too.
THE SLEAZY FASHION SALESMAN
Introduced to me by a friend, this guy played himself as a fashion entrepreneur. Name dropping every fashion label he could think of and big-noting himself with every opportunity.
I was in between jobs and desperate for work.
I agreed to design a brochure (it was a very long time ago). I would lay it out and send it off to print.
After all was said and done, and we sat to review the first draft of the brochure, he said to me "why haven't you retouched all the photographs?".
I stumbled and fumbled a reply - feeling stupid yet knowing it wasn't what I had agreed to.
"We didn't agree to me retouching all the photographs." I replied to receive a torrent of verbal abuse in return.
He was shocked. He wasn't going to pay me and he was going to take me to court. He called me every name you could think of. And more.
I thought it all a little dramatic, but being a young Designer in need of work I felt terrible that I had let him down. I also felt stupid in that I doubted my own ability to manage a simple job like this.
So I spoke to a lawyer. Sleazy Fashion Guy hadn't paid me. I had given him all he files for his brochure and I was left holding my mouse in one hand and what little hope I had of being paid in the other.
A couple of letters of demand later, the situation escalates to the local Sheriff paying him a visit.
The doors were locked, the building vacant. Sleazy Fashion Guy was nowhere to be seen and the couple of thousand dollars he owed me a evaporated into thin air.
THE CORPORATE BULLSHIT ARTIST
I meet CBA in a boardroom where I'm presenting to her and her Executive team in the hope of winning their account. She's the CEO and her team are a diverse group of intelligent, driven and fun people to work with.
The business is a large, national professional services firm with a strong purposeful, ethical and responsible bent to their business.
I win their confidence and we begin what seems like a long term professional relationship.
I'm in love from the get go. I begin to believe this is the client I've been waiting for, for most of my career. I learn much from the CEO's style of leadership and my team begin to form their own fruitful relationships throughout the business.
The work is solid, we are meeting all requirements and believe it or not, the projects are profitable.
Then the cracks begin to appear.
On the first occasion When my team fails to deliver concepts that meet the CEOs approval, she yells at them through the phone:
"Are you guys even paying any attention for fuck's sake?"
"I could've done that sitting on the toilet!"
You get the picture.
Now, I need to be clear here. My team missed the brief. We didn't capture the requirements clearly and much angst would've been saved if we spent time confirming and validating the client's needs at the very beginning, instead of rushing head on into trying to be 'creative'.
But as we were all foggy from love, we missed this completely unprofessional and abusive behaviour, letting it fall by the wayside.
Eventually, this event slides and we move on to a new, more expansive body of work. We are kicking more goals and doing some of our best work. Their business is a growing, national success and everyone seems happy.
As the business grows dramatically (very much attributed to the work we have done) new layers of management appear between us and team of key decision makers we were initially engaged by and had been working with for over a year.
A new marketing director arrives and tells us we are no longer required during our first meeting with him.
Weeks of silence follow after which the CBA CEO apologises and says to me "that was not the case, if anything like that ever happens again, come straight to me."
More work ensues only now it's different. More layers, a new point of contact is appointed months later who also puts us on notice as his predecessor did.
I write to the CBA CEO as she had requested, only to receive an email of shock and surprise that I'm writing to her about it at all. Washing our concerns away as if they were some childlike complaints.
The relationship ends with a bitter taste in my mouth.
THE GOVERNMENT DEPARTMENT WITHOUT A CLUE
I'm invited to visit a government department here in Melbourne under the pretense of being briefed for a new project.
I find the meeting room, which turns out to be an auditorium filled with people.
A data-filled, PowerPoint template briefing begins.
He's a young marketing person, well-dressed and his excitement to be doing something of value is evident in the gusto he gives to the almost-hour-long presentation on the problem this department is facing.
Meanwhile his superiors, The Very Important People Who Are Too Important To Present But Have Special Seats on The Stage, sit in admiration. Nodding when appropriate.
Customer insights are shared, detail is spoken of and problems (lots of problems) are articulated.
I begin to feel that this is not a briefing for a new project specifically but rather a briefing for all of those in attendance to provide a response - and it seems, if the level of detail Young Well-dressed Marketing Guy is going into, this is the entirety of the briefing. There are no other breifing opportunities.
Bybthe sounds of things, it seems like there is an expectation we are all going to listen to this presentation and then go away and begin working.
All the Agency People are furiously taking notes.
I review the briefing paper I was given and read the single line that describes the expectations of my response:
"The vendor shall provide detail in regards to the problem in their response."
It makes little sense to me, so I raise my arm to interrupt the briefing in progress to ask:
(Now before I go on - do you know that moment when someone in a large auditorium makes a loud noise (ie. sneeze, mobile phone ringing, child screaming) and everyone turns around to see who the idiot is?
That was me - everyone turns around to see who stopped the briefing to (God forbid) ask a question!)
With an auditorium of 50+ people staring at me, I interrupt the presentation and ask a simple question:
"Can you please elaborate on the 'Response' section in the briefing paper? What exactly would you like to see when you refer to 'detail in regards to the problem?"
I know what I'm in for here so I play along.
Young Well-dressed Marketing Guy clearly states that "We'd like to see the solution to the problem in your response. What you think will solve the problem."
The room goes quiet and The Very Important People Who Are Too Important To Present But Have Special Seats on The Stage fidget in their very special seats.
I ask another question.
"Oh great, thank you for clarifying. Will we be paid for providing the solution in our response?"
If the room was quiet previously, you can now hear which seats need oiling.
Young Well-dressed Marketing Guy pauses and blushes. I don't think he has the answer.
Meanwhile one of The Very Important People Who Are Too Important To Present But Have Special Seats on The Stage, stands up and approaches the podium.
Her face is blushing red. She is clearly embarrassed or simply angry with me for asking the elephant in the room to 'please stand up'.
She stutters her response:
"Ummm yes. Yes the solution which The Selection Panel chooses to go through to focus groups will be the one that is paid."
I gather there were upwards of fifteen agencies in attendance that day. That's a lot of solutions to consider without payment.
"Thank you for clarifying." I say with a smile.
I pack my things and leave.
The Agency People were all still staring, but they didn't look annoyed at me anymore.
THE TECH CEO (TTC)
TTC is a tech CEO from pre-internet days. To say he knows what he's doing is an understatement.
He's all business when appropriate and kind when he needs to be.
I've worked with him on four large engagements over a fifteen year period across three different roles I've held. Each time I've worked with him we transact, we aim to understand one another as clearly as possible to avoid conflict over misunderstandings and we respect what we each bring to the table.
Each time it's a balance of commercial reality and a mutual respect for one another and the teams we work with.
He has never asked me to work for free because he values what my team and I have to offer. He never over-steps the boundary of what he's asked us to do because he understands that we need to make a living too.
We never take his business for granted because we know we're only as good as the last few projects we've worked on together.
When we interact it's with the understanding that we both embarking on a simple transaction — one where he needs something and we can provide, not the solution but rather a path towards multiple possible solutions.
I know that he also works with other agencies — he knows that we also work with other businesses within the same field. The understanding is professional, respectful and the work we do together is treated with the utmost confidence.
We're not 'in it together' because he pays us a fee for our service and we deliver that service. We are simply an expense and times an investment towards growth and other goals of the business.
If we were to truly be 'in it together' we would have as much skin in the game as he does — and we don't.
The relationship is one of the best professional relationships I've held.
When people pretend that their clients are going to be there forever, they're fooling themselves. Roger Sterling said it best when he said that 'the day you sign a client is the day you start losing them'. It's true.
We haven't worked with the TTC for three years.
I'm not sure if I'll ever work with him again.
And that's just the way it goes.