Good Clients, Bad Clients

A while back I was having a conversation over drinks with an old advertising colleague that had made the transition from the vendor side of things to the client side. As we talked, the conversation turned to the client/vendor relationship and what was most important in producing positive business results, good clients or good firms?  As I thought about it over the next few days, it occurred to me that perhaps this binary approach to understanding was flawed. It occurred to me that the nature of any conflict is built into the process, not a reflection of two separate cultural points of view. Simply, the best firms, the firms we admire and talk about, all have a method for developing good clients. But before we can discuss the methods, we have to define a few things.

Good Clients, Bad Clients

The first question is what constitutes a good client? What is it that makes a client “bad”? One answer is that a “bad client” is one who makes it difficult to produce good work for them.  Building on that, and perhaps more important, a “bad client” is one who makes it difficult because he or she doesn’t want to learn.

A good client is someone who understands the design process. They value what thoughtful design can bring to their business. They may not understand the details, but they understand that just as they trust their accountant to do solid finance work, they trust the creative team to do what they do best.

So how do we convert “bad clients” to “good clients”? Of course none of us values what we don’t understand. Until there is a clear, shared understanding of what design means, there are going to be conflicts.  What this means is that a good client understands and values good creative, from research to execution.  And who’s job is it to foster that understanding? Ours.  Every difficult client is an opportunity to build a relationship, rather than a transaction, and to create future advocates. As with all relationships, be they new or old, it begins with understanding the other person’s point of view.

Dualistic Thinking

There are many ways of coming to understand a client’s point of view. Understanding the process of how and what we communicate is a first step. The research and creative teams must articulate and balance “objective” with “subjective” elements to create both a powerful marketing experience and a story that impacts the client audience. This means balancing science and art. Subjective creative leaps are made that bridge different ways of thinking about the world.

The problem is, many people see objective and subjective thinking as binary, often leading to conflict. We are taught to think in sequences and compartmentalized knowledge. We develop habits of thinking that work for us in a given context and embrace world views that will bolster our positions within a group. In other words, our “rational” behavior is often anything but rational. When seeking to understand one another, we try to identify the way people think. We label ourselves as more objective or subjective thinkers, and then begin to identify with that label as if it represented some sort of camp or tribe.

In a business setting, people often have a hard time understanding and valuing subjective thinking and design. They understand or revert to data and numbers but have a difficult time trusting subjective leaps. Their preference is for objective thinking because subjective judgments are inherently unpredictable. And to be fair, their jobs are about producing quantifiable results for their business. Design is decoration and secondary to the business.

There are also people who believe they enjoy a very subjective view of the world. Just as “objective” thinkers may struggle to embrace the subjective elements of the design process, “subjective” thinkers may have difficulty valuing an objective view. Whereas objective thinkers may have a hard time coming to terms with the open thinking of creative, subjective people can be difficult clients when they gloss over or dismiss the findings researchers or business people provide. These clients often believe they are designers and have a rough time following the logic of good creative rooted in a balance or art and science.

The Making of Good Clients

A good client, like a good designer, comes to an understanding that design is a balance between two ends of the spectrum – objectivity and subjectivity. These clients  understand that design is more than an ability to draw or write, it is a process of balancing art and business that is defined by knowledge, precision and craft that takes years of practice.

The key to getting a client to understand this is by providing the balanced view of and rational for creative in general and their creative in particular. Step one is breaking through the duality we have created between objective and subjective understanding. Great leaps forward inevitably live at the murky, often indescribable borders between intuition and data.

Regardless of what we have been led to believe, truth, perception and reality are all  shades of gray. The dichotomies we create are useful, indeed necessary, but they are not reality – they are tools for organizing our minds. But the world works as a complex system of meanings. The trick is knowing when to let our dichotomies go. First we gather data and facts and measurements. These give us structure and simplicity. Then we makes our leaps – we think inductively, build hypotheses, create and explore. Having looked at a problem from multiple angles and with a wide range of thinking, we come out the other side with a new view of thinking that is informed, holistic and powerful. This is when we realize that, for example, while a computer is indeed meant for computing, it is also a fashion accessory, a baby sitter on a flight and (like it or not) a paperweight.  And that radically opens up the range and power of marketing and revenue.

Know the Role You Play

So, while all this sounds like an ad for a new age philosophy, what does it mean in practical terms?  How realistic is it in practice? It is realistic if we take a few moments to think about how we view ourselves in the client/vendor relationship.  We  must become guides, teaching our clients that good creative requires holistic thinking. We must also teach this to our own creative teams.

Asking members of a creative team, be it the graphic artist, the writer or the design anthropologist, to guide and teach may appear to be asking too much. There is a lone-wolf attitude that many people in these disciplines embrace precisely because they are holistic thinkers. But being inherently holistic in your approach to world view doesn’t mean that you have either the desire or the skill to articulate it. Doing so takes work.  However, if they want to be taken seriously and have a positive influence on the client, they need to be able to defend why it is they do what they do.

The first thing to do with a client is to think and collaborate. Clients expect you to ask questions, lots of questions, about their business, their customers and the world. Ask about the industry, the business conditions, competitive landscape, future prospects and strategy, customer profiles, communications objectives, and brand strategy. Ask how the work will be used, how it will integrate with other elements of the company’s business strategy and who will use it. Be willing to question some assumptions the client may have. Ask all the questions to get the answers you need in order to create effective communications. They expect you to dazzle them, though they may not admit it, with creativity, excitement and intelligence.  Once you have answers, you can develop a map rather than working in a vacuum and use it to explain the steps you go through in the creative process.

Think about how you can help your clients solve their problems and be open about it.  Be smart but take what a client has to say to heart (in other words, be smart but don’t threaten).  Prove the value of good creative to business. Demonstrate that you are more than decoration, demonstrate that you are an invaluable asset. Know their business, but also know individual objectives. Helping a client achieve his or her goals within an organization turns them from buyers to advocates.

But keep in mind that teaching someone about design is not simply handing them guidelines or pontificating. It’s more akin to discussing philosophy or teaching through example than it is about dictating. Clients will come to recognize that your role is larger and far more important than the preconceived notion they may have.  When this clicks, clients go from bad or neutral to good. All of this will lead not only to a better client interaction, but better work as a whole.

What’s the Point?

As we asked at the beginning, what makes a good client and a good firm? Which is more important? Ideally, one creates the other. The best firms bring out the good in clients and good clients create an environment for creative teams to do their best work. Good firms and good clients co-create each other. The point is to break down the traditional, transactional nature of the relationship and become comfortable as guides. And a new type of relationship takes root, defined by mutual respect and value.

By Gavin