The Problem With Clients

As you know, I’ve had an Incredibly Successful Career (ISC).  My job was to be the intermediary between clients and the intergalactic agency.  My employment and subsequent raises, promotions and bonuses were tied to my ability to get and keep clients. I got a lot of them so what I say is gold.

Over the course of my ISC, I (not me personally, but the intergalactic agency)  was hired and fired by many clients.  In retrospect, neither was ever for the right reasons.  Clients fired the agency when sales were up and when sales were down.  Clients hired the agency because sales were not  up enough and when sales were down.  The agency was also hired because we had a “friend” at the client who loved us.  And we were fired because the client had a “friend” at a competing agency.  We were also not hired by prospective clients because we were too big and because we were too small.  (I always loved it when a prospect called me and said, “We chose the other guys ’cause you are just too small/big.”  I would always reply, “We are the same size we were when you invited us to this review six months ago.”  That was usually met with silence.)

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: by the time an agency is fired the relationship had ended long before the bullet. And when you’re hired you are one day closer to being fired.  It’s never a matter of if, just when.  It could take a month (that happened to me once) or it could take 70 years, but it will happen.  Inevitably the client will decide the relationship is over.

So, I thought I’d share my thoughts on some of the reasons client-agency relationships deteriorate.  Here, I will discuss  reasons clients are the problem. Assuming a company who wants to hire me reads this,  just know that I will write next about the problem with agencies. 

It’s worth saying that these apply across any service industries.  There is always somebody providing a service.  And always somebody paying for the service.  In that time frame a relationship exists.  It could be for a few minutes or many years.  The point is that success lies within our ability to create mutual trust.  And that takes commitment on both sides.

Okay, without further blah-blah here goes:

Let’s-Hire-An-Agency Syndrome:  I have sat in client management meetings when it was decided to hire an agency because the company leadership couldn’t decide what their core value proposition was, how much they should spend on marketing or even who their key customers were.  My advice:  You are throwing your money away by hiring an agency.  If you have no idea who you are or who your customer is or what you want marketing to accomplish, then you will spend gobs of money with an agency who will charge you gobs of money for their ideas while accomplishing nothing.  Agencies work best when given clear direction from which they can focus in on single-minded ideas.  When clients are adrift, nothing really gets done and everyone is frustrated.  You must know who you are before you ask someone to help you say it.

The “No” Problem:  Too many clients give marketing folks responsibility but no authority.  That means the primary agency contact has just enough confidence to say “no.”  He/she is not willing to approve anything independently.  Yet the person is unwilling to have the boss think he/she is weak.  So the client contact will say “no” to anything new, unusual or groundbreaking. 

Fear The Ankle-Biters:  This is a corollary to the “No” problem.  Too many client contacts are only confident about minutia.  They focus on spelling, typos and being right.  They seldom see the forest as they are immersed in the trees.  They suffocate creativity and innovation as they manage logo size.   The ankle-biters have a place executing projects and making sure they get done. 

The Management Disconnect:  Boardroom discussions are rarely about ads, new media or marketing in general.  It’s all about revenues, profits and shareholder value.  The marketing department is often quite removed from senior management.  Take a look at Apple to see a tight relationship between company leadership and marketing.  Everything from product development to retail to imagery is tight.  Now look at GEICO.  The company and the marketing used to be in sync.  Now the marketing is all over the place and I’ve forgotten what the brand is all about. I can’t tell you how many times the agency followed the marketing department’s direction only to have everything nuked by senior management who was on a totally different path.

“This is so cool.”  The client who wants to be around the agency because it’s cool will ultimately take the agency down.  There are clients who love hangin’ around the agency, gossiping about the biz and talking about the latest spot they saw or the cool award show they went to.  They are star f****rs and time suckers.  They usually don’t have any real idea of what to do — but they “love” everything the agency does.  They would really like to work at the agency and spend a lot of time in L.A. seeing and being seen.

Advertising will fix our problem.  As a colleague of mine once said:  “If you think advertising will solve your problem, your problem better be advertising.”  Too often, clients think  ads, events, online presence and buzz will overcome other problems — like the product sucks.  Or it’s priced wrong.  Or there are service issues.   The point is that marketing a bad product/service/idea will make it fail faster.  We  had a burger client once who opted to create and promote fish and chips.  Hmm.  Huge campaign.  Huge trial.  No repeat.  Why?  Bad product.  Clients who fail to see that their problem lies outside of marketing are destined to fail.

Say. Do. Be.  Somebody once said:  “Before you say it, you must do it.  And before you can do it, you must be it.”  Too many clients want to promote their green-ness (are you feeling me BP?),  their community involvement, their innovation, their integrity, their service, their quality, blah, blah, blah because somebody else is having success with it.  Or because they don’t really have anything to talk about.  Or just because it would make a good ad.  Nothing will kill a brand more quickly than promoting a value or an asset you do not actually have or believe in.  

“Give me good, cheap, fast — and I’ll take Revolutionary while you’re at it.”  Run from this client.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Well said, Jan. But, of course, that comes from a life-long agency guy. I’m eager to see if I so readliy agree with your criticism of “me.”



  2. […] Lessons learned, Marketing, Profound. Leave a Comment Many of you loved my masterpiece, The Problem With Clients. You begged me to talk about agencies. Certainly over the course of my ISC (you do know what that […]


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