Ad and marketing creatives

How to Be a Good Client

A Visual Thesaurus subscriber's comment to an earlier column of hers inspired Nancy to write this piece. Thanks to both! -- Editor

I've shamelessly borrowed my title from David Ogilvy, who used it as a chapter title in his best-selling 1963 book, Confessions of an Advertising Man. Ogilvy founded one of the world's most successful ad agencies; his clients included Rolls-Royce, Shell Oil, and Sears. Many of his do's and don'ts are timeless: Select the right agency in the first place. Brief your agency very thoroughly indeed. Don't underspend. Tolerate genius.

Substitute "independent creative professional" for "agency" and the rules translate -- with a few modifications -- to my own world of name development and copywriting. Here's how I'd update Ogilvy for my own clients: well-funded early-stage companies and established businesses in need of new branding.

  1. Know thyself. What do you do best? Where do you need help? Who are your customers? Who are your competitors? Whom would you like to compete against? What image do you want to project -- edgy, humble, authoritative, folksy? The more candid you are with me, the better I'll be able to do my job. "Know thyself" includes "know what you're looking for": A complete corporate rebranding? A new name within an existing product category? A critique of your internally generated names? If you want to remain open to a range of possibilities, that's fine. But be aware that casting a wide net will add time and money to my estimate.
  2. Know what kind of consultant you need to hire. Don't expect a speechwriter to write technical white papers; don't ask a developmental editor (someone who shapes a book project from outline through finished manuscript) to do copy editing (checking a manuscript for style and usage errors). On the other hand, don't box yourself in by insisting on narrow subject-area expertise if it's irrelevant. Like most name developers, I've worked with companies in many industries -- wireless telecom, hospitality, health care, office furniture, and more. I can learn the features and benefits about your product or company in a day; it's taken me 20 years to learn how to craft names and present them effectively.
  3. Overcome fear. It's scary to give up control of your brand story to an outsider. But if we're going to work together you'll have to put those fears on hold. Fear is the enemy of creative thinking; if you're constantly looking over your shoulder, you'll never see the road ahead. David Ogilvy instructed clients to "emancipate your agency from fear," and proposed long-term contracts as a solution. Brad Shorr at Word Sell writes about the most common kinds of fear among small and midsize companies; he's talking about strategic planning, but his list -- fear of past experience, fear of diverting resources, fear of theories and systems, fear of meetings, fear of commitment, fear of the future -- applies equally well to any project involving creative outsourcing. I want to work with clients who are confident about themselves and in my ability to do good work.
  4. Don't ask for spec work. Speculative work was the traditional way agencies won contracts. A client would stage a beauty contest in which several agencies would compete to present their best design and copy concepts -- often fully fleshed out -- for no pay and, of course, no guarantees that the ideas wouldn't be stolen. That sort of thing still goes on, but there's been a rebellion. Personally, I can't think of a single instance in which I won a project based on my spec work, and I've stopped accepting those challenges. I choose my clients carefully and work with very few at a time. I'd rather pour my energies into your project -- for which you've given me partial advance payment -- than give away my good ideas, which I'm much more likely to create when I'm not under competitive pressure. Besides, I cherish the story Spike Jones tells in "Hitting Spec Creative in the Head with a Bat":

    When a prospect who owned a world-wide chain of high-end hotels wanted us to do a complete spec identity for his business, I replied, "Okay. But our team needs to stay in at least three of your hotels in different countries before we decide if we'll do the spec work. If we like the experience, then we'll do it. If not, then we'll pass."

    "But we don't give away nights at our hotels for free."

    And then he paused and said, "Point taken."

  5. Understand me. If you're not judging me on the basis of spec work, how are you judging me? The same way your customers judge you: on reputation and track record. Ask my past clients what they thought of our working relationship. Read the case studies on my website. Take me out for coffee and ask me a lot of questions. Look at what my competitors are doing. I don't offer my clients an ironclad guarantee -- chances are you don't either -- but I do promise to work hard and creatively and to give you a range of solutions that match your goals.
  6. Establish early on who will make the decisions. I once managed a naming project in which virtually everyone in the company approved my creative brief, discussed my recommended names, and reached agreement on five names to take to comprehensive trademark review. Then, out of the blue, our conclusions were vetoed by someone who'd never attended a single meeting and about whose existence I'd never been informed. He happened to be the company's main financial backer... and one of the most influential VCs in Silicon Valley. He swept everything off the table, declared new naming rules, and -- in the end -- named the company himself. (P.S. The company failed. Possibly a coincidence.) The moral of the story: everyone who can say "no" in the final round needs to be involved throughout the entire creative process. The corollary: anyone who can't say "no" should stay in his or her cubicle and do what he or she is being paid to do. If your decision making team includes more than four people, you're probably playing politics. The receptionist may be a swell person with a master's degree and influential relatives, but the receptionist probably shouldn't get to vote on the company brand. Or, as Rebecca Lieb writes in Clickz Experts, "It isn't pretty when the CEO's wife wanders into a conference room to cast her vote for an element containing the same warm peach tone as her new kitchen curtains. Yes, I've seen this happen." So have I.
  7. Strategize first, then budget. Don't pull a dollar figure or a deadline out of the air and then shoehorn my process into it. Know your goals before you talk to me and make sure they're realistic. A new, trademarkable brand name and a "clean" dot-com domain in two weeks? Not possible. (Six weeks is generally the minimum.) Not sure how to do the strategy part? I can help with that, too. But let's do it first.
  8. Meet deadlines. Sure, you're busy. But chronically cancelling meetings, showing up late, or failing to answer emails or provide feedback tells me you're not serious about your project. And by the way: please meet your payment deadlines, too. Unlike multinational agenices, I can't afford to wait 60 days for a check. I'm able to charge reasonable fees only because my clients pay promptly.
  9. Collaborate -- but don't kibitz. As Ogilvy put it, "Why keep a dog and bark yourself?" Give me your input up front and your feedback when I request it. Don't micromanage and don't send me a bunch of names your new human-resources manager dreamed up on his morning commute. Not helpful.
  10. Say thank-you. Please. Sure, a promptly mailed check makes me happy. But if you were satsified (or overjoyed) with my work, I'd also like to hear from you. What pleased you? Would you recommend me to a colleague? A short email is fine; a quote I can pass along to prospective clients is golden. And knowing that you've taken the time to express your appreciation is priceless.

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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Monday July 23rd 2007, 8:22 AM
Comment by: dawn michelle S.
Great practical time and money saving suggestions!
Monday July 23rd 2007, 9:23 PM
Comment by: Skye H.

This is just an outstanding article. Sure I've heard and said much of it before, but it's well put, succinct and memorable. Now, would you please distribute this to every known possible client?

Well done.
Thursday July 26th 2007, 10:34 AM
Comment by: Arturo NY (KATONAH, NY)
All your points are good ones. As to #3, emancipation from fear, I think the biggest fear most agencies face is fear of losing the business. All sorts of creative compromises emanate from that one. The best clients I ever worked for were the ones who gave us blanket permission to present new ideas no matter how off-the-wall they seemed. It opened their minds and at the same time taught us important lessons about their business.
Tuesday March 11th 2008, 8:30 AM
Comment by: Helen N.
Can't we circulate this to a couple of our clients? :)

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