How often have you been in a meeting when work gets presented (whether that be a creative brief, a brand platform, a logo, or a full-blown campaign) and immediately people start talking about what they don’t like? They attack it under the guise of giving the agency “feedback.”
How often have you been in the same kind of meeting when people started off by asking questions about why this, what is your thought behind that, explain to me how this part works again?
There’s a big difference between these two meetings. One leads, inevitably, to disaster and a bad relationship. The other holds out all kinds of hope, even if that work is eventually killed.
Curiosity puts off the killing until the thing that’s being killed is fully understood.
Dan Wieden, a long time ago in an interview somewhere, said that truly creative work doesn’t lead people to shout out, “Yeah!” It leads people to say “Huh?” And nine times out of ten that’s exactly right. (There are the occasional exceptions, depending on the people in the room.) Because something truly creative isn’t familiar. It isn’t comfortable (even if it proves to be exactly right upon further reflection). It isn’t obvious. Usually.
Curiosity and confidence. And decisiveness. These are the three client attributes that lead to a great relationship.
Confidence allows you to rest in uncertainty and probe for understanding. Confidence allows you to recognize, eventually, if it’s the right thing without having to resort to showing it to your church group (a client really did that once) or testing it. Confidence leads to decisiveness, which is the sign of a true leader.
Decisiveness is what happens when confidence goes into action. Work gets produced, even if it takes a few rounds to get there.
Now, what about the agency? What are the agency attributes that lead to a great relationship?
Curiosity, right off the bat. If the agency isn’t deeply curious about what the client knows and feels and what the client brings to the party then the relationship is doomed. Curiosity shows up in questions. Questions followed not by reactions or disagreement, but by digestion, followed by more questions. Every client in the world needs to see and know that they are being heard, and heard deeply. But the same is true in reverse. Every client needs to fully listen – with curiosity – to its agency.
Confidence is another. The agency must act confidently in recommending, to the utmost of its ability, the right path (or paths) for the client. Even if the client doesn’t know that this is what they should consider doing. Even if it’s not exactly what the client asked for. Because our job, as agencies, is to solve our clients’ business and branding problems by using our own skills and experience to do so.
We believe the agency-client relationship should be one of co-conspirators, so that, together, client and agency are working toward the same goal. Not that they’re trying to do each other jobs – that’s disastrous. But they are doing their own jobs in unison. That can’t happen if the client doesn’t want the agency’s expertise, or if the agency doesn’t want the wisdom of the client. If the curiosity isn’t mutual, and sincere, then the relationship is bound to be bad.
Decisiveness shows up in recognizing that it’s vital to do what it takes to make the relationship strong and whole, rather than just letting it unravel. Every infatuation leads to the long, sustained reality of working hard to make the relationship work (just like in marriage). If either client or agency doesn’t recognize this and can’t act with commitment to that kind of relationship, then decisiveness will eventually lead to a parting of ways. And that’s almost always sad.