Advertising, Random

The most stupid thing an agency can say


Image: morbuto

The client needs to be brave.

They have to take a chance. They have to risk it. The have to be daring. They have to be prepared to go out on a limb.

Christ. I don’t know why we keep obsessing with clients having to be brave. Ok, I admit I used to say it and think it myself a long time ago but since then I’ve grown older. Or wiser.

Demanding, arguing or even expecting that a client should be brave is more often than not just a bad excuse either for a bad idea to begin with or for bad salesmanship. And when I say salesmanship I mean it in the most revering sense of the word, i.e. the ability to explain to a client why the proposed solution will add value to his or her business.

But most of all it’s a complete lack of empathy. Which is sort of disturbing in a tragi-comical way since empathy is supposed to be our forte; one of the things our clients pay us for is that we claim to understand better than they do what the target group thinks, feels and does and, hence, how the communication should be planned and executed.

Well, when we’re selling ideas the client is the target. And we behave like spoilt children.

Because, as we all know when we spend more than five seconds thinking about it, there are some pretty compelling reasons most clients are not, will not and perhaps should not be brave:

  1. They aren’t paid to be brave. They’re paid to deliver results.
  2. Most organizations don’t reward being brave or, in a more appropriate way of putting it, risk-taking.
  3. Being brave is not in human nature. Avoiding risk is.

So before reverting to the “argument” that a client should buy our whacky, revolutionary, bad-ass idea out of sheer bravery, maybe we should take a look in the mirror and ask ourselves why we don’t make a habit out of proposing ideas we’ve never thought of before. Or why we don’t quit our day job and write that novel we’re dreaming of. Or open that Cat-Stuff-O-Rama store. Or get a Mohawk. Why we aren’t more “brave” ourselves.

We need to start seeing the bigger picture and imagine what it would be like to be in our client’s shoes. And if it were our money. And our careers on the line.

Because, at the end of the day, most people are only human.

Disclaimer: This blog post was written by someone in a dark state of mind. Sorry.


9 thoughts on “The most stupid thing an agency can say

  1. Per T says:

    Despite being written in a dark mood: great post!
    I don’t totally agree about the non risk part, since risk is part of a successful business, but often, for the employee, taking risks means risking your job. Hence, safe is better than sorry.
    As you say, through better salesmanship and an even stronger ability to underbuild your idea with facts, believable numbers and similar examples, brave ideas could still be sold.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Per!

    I know. And I agree. I guess what I’m saying is there is always a normative view of the world and a descriptive one. Whereas we think that clients ought to be “brave”, most of the times they simply aren’t (sometimes for good reasons) – and we’ll always be more successful working with a realistic world view as a starting point.

    Your point about risk-taking being an essential part of business is spot on. But apart from the very few Apples of the world, most companies deal in calculated risk-taking, not in flying blind. So, as you say, we need to provide them with convincing “calculations” alongside those whacky ideas.

  3. I agree (yes, we should try and be as brave ourselves, like the danish ad agency advertising in a downturn, that’s money where the mouth is) and disagree as the ridiculously diplomatic person I can sometimes be.

    Perhaps “brave” needs to be more defined in this context, I don’t know.

    Proving, under building what we sell with facts, numbers etc goes without saying. But it only takes us so far. 2 examples that was brave client and not just numbers or data at all:

    VW – Lemon by DDB (and the whole rest).
    VW Jetta crashing in advertising – CPB.

    This was “negative” stuff and “upsetting” stuff respectively.

    It came out of a fell for, and knowledge in, humans, attitudes and probable reactions. It’s emotional and it took guts to sign off.

    Advertising is not scientific (some of it is) but an art form. So I do think that clients have to be a bit brave and go gut feeling from time to time.

    Like Bogusky said: if you have to fear anything, then fear being mediocre. Seldom does mediocre leads to the best results. Brave can equal pushing for much more than mediocre and hence (if stuff works the way it should) deliver results. If clients don’t see this logic it’s hard to be brave. But isn’t it lovely working with clients that do?

    So us wanting them to be brave is quite alright, and if they aren’t – then we either didn’t sell well enough, or they just go for mediocre that helps keep their job. God – It’s selfish and bad manners to comment longer than the original post… sorry.

  4. Olle: I agree that the success of an advertising campaign cannont always be proven in beforehand through facts & numbers: that is why I also included “similar examples”.

    But, the way I see it, being able to thorougly and believable underpin the conclusions youv’e made to prove that your solution rests on a firm ground, is probably something more agency people could be better at. In my former role as a journalist, I’ve met quite a few people – both advertising and design buyers as well as creatives themselves – who has complaint about solutions built on air plainly.

    Advertising is, as well as all communication disciplines and business in general, in some parts an art. You certainly need your guts, you certainly need a sense for culture, audience, ideas, religion, psychology et cetera that is not possible to measure in an empirical way.

    But I still do believe that the art part of the business need to be on top of a firm base of knowledge and understanding of facts.

    (Sorry, Dan, for invading your comment area.)

  5. Per: agreed. That’s my job so anything less would be an outrage.

    I guess my point was that I do believe that clients need to be brave. So do we. So do scientists. So does anyone wanting to improve and change things, in a way. But that’s just because to me, brave more often than not leads to “better”. But then again I’m neither as old nor wise as Dan 😉

    I’m willing to change my mind.

  6. Dan, maybe what where looking for here is risktaking, rather than bravery. If you decide that some companies and clients are more prone to risk and some, risk avert. Then its merely a question of calculating that risk.

    As a marketing/advertising salesperson my role would be to present that risk as worth taking. A potential downside with a chance of a greater upside.

    I agree that bravery is vain and narcissistic to ask for but i cant see anyhing wrong with calculated risktaking.

  7. Cecilia says:

    If you ask me, clients are paid to deliver results. Most companies reward success. You don’t achieve success without guts. Hence, clients need to be brave.

    I sense so much frustration in your post. I hear mixed messages. Your blog is called “Fear no mistakes, because there are none”. How do you interpret that statement? Is it not the ultimate encouragement to be brave? But then again, your blog may be aimed at everybody except your clients?

    I do get if you are frustrated with agencies justifying plain crazy ideas with this encouragement. I do get if you are using the word brave where I would use foolhardy or reckless. I do get it if you are “just” talking from an advertising perspetive rather than a branding perspective. But how could you possibly claim that a client/company/brand of today doesn’t have to be brave? Maybe you refer to clients who want the mediocre and safe? Clients uninterested in constantly pushing the barriers, redefining their markets, wanting to make a real and lasting difference? Clients not aiming for – or expecting – success for their brands and thereby themselves? Clients not wanting to secure long term survival? Clients willing to risk it all due to focusing on nothing but minimising risk? I have tried so hard to come up with examples of really successful companies/brands/people that did not have to be brave in one way or the other to get where they are. I cannot come up with one. Maybe you can provide me with an example?

    I used to be an account planner at an agency in Stockholm too a few years ago. I ask myself – would I have been more prone to buy in to your reasoning in that position and back then? No. And having grown older (having found the courage to leave the pond) and witnessing the fierce and outright chaotic marketplace that todays’s brands exist on, I do it even less. How could I possibly agree with that its silly to inspire bravery in my clients? How could I possibly focus on just helping them minimise risk and setting out to do great things for them at the same time? If you ask me, those two objectives are mutually exclusive. Helping them be brave and setting out to do great things aren’t. Acting out of unwillingness to take risks (be brave) is oftentimes the riskiest thing you can do. I do think it’s our responsibility to convey that to our clients. And you think its stupid?

    I don’t “demand, argue or expect” my clients to be brave. I simply want to inform them that bravery most likely will be needed along the way. I want to encourage them and help them be brave. I think that good salesmanship in the branding business partly is about clarifying and getting the client to understand what it will take of them in order for me to help them succeed. That stems from true empathy. And reallyreallyreally wanting to help them be and do great.

    I tell my clients that they need to be brave enough to set very clear objectives/goals, to accept that they cannot possibly win the love of everybody, to accept that they cannot communicate everything they perceive fantastic about their beloved brands – (but rather simplify radically) to find their own way of being and communicating. From their perspective that often takes courage. If I do my job well, I provide them with courage.

    You too are a strategist/account planner. If you have done a really good job at helping the client develop a really sound and sharp strategy, you will never have to demand bravery when presenting them with a communicative idea. Their sense of bravery will come naturally. Even if they are presented with “far out” ideas (assuming they’re great of course) the client will be willing to stick their neck out in order to minimise risk.

    The equation is simple; no guts, no glory.

    // Cecilia

    BTW – so sorry about my far too long post. I just had to get it all out here and now.

  8. Woohoo! Thanks, Cecilia, for a very inspiring and extensive comment 🙂 And thanks, Calle.

    Don’t worry, we’re all on the same side here. I guess I didn’t make it clear enough in my original post that I’m not con-bravery per se. My point was merely that there is, again, a normative and descriptive view of the world.

    In a normative/ideal world a client understands that you truly need to be “brave” in order to achieve great results and is prepared to live by it.

    Alas, 90% of the time we live in a descriptive/practical world. There, most clients’ gut reaction is to avoid risk, not to chase it.

    So, I’m not saying clients don’t need to be brave. I’m just saying it’s a lousy argument to use in their face: “You really should be brave enough to buy this idea”.

    What you’re talking about, Cecilia, is how to help clients be brave through facts, reasoning and inspiration, rather than just pushing them out on the tightrope going “come on now, risk it!”.

    As you so succinctly put it: “If I do my job well, I provide them with courage”. I couldn’t agree more.

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