Archive for January, 2010

The difference, I have finally learned, between a good agency-client relationship and a bad one, is curiosity.

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.

– Doug


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I remember one of the lasts straws working in retail. I was selling men’s ties, shirts, and suits at Nordstrom and I was heading back onto the floor when a manager walked past me and said with total seriousness and not a mote of irony, “Smile!”

Snap. I could smell the marrow oozing out of the camel’s back.

I wanted more than anything to work in a place where I could totally be myself and not have Happy Hilda’s running around telling me how to feel. I wanted to work in…advertising! As a copywriter. Where I could be weird. And I didn’t have to smile. Unless I felt like it.

Well, eventually I did get a job as a copywriter and I could, in fact, be weird. As long as I  also worked evenings, weekends, and in my sleep, eating bowls of stress for breakfast and watching twitchy genitally-challenged advertising-illiterate mid-levels on the client side tear out and eat every shred of value in my copy. (Ah, the early years. But that’s another blog post.)

My point is, nobody likes being told how to feel. How to act. How to be.

Grant McCracken, the anthropologist and brand guru, talks about that in context of Zappos in his recent blog entry for the Harvard Business School. He’s talking about the attempt to co-opt the emotions of employees by a corporation. He is greatly annoyed at the honking horns and cow bells and silly clownish artificial joviality that greets every visitor to Zappos.

I don’t blame him. It’s just such artificiality that makes New Yorkers suspicious of friendly Southerners and West Coasters. They wonder if our friendliness is real. I wonder myself, sometimes, especially when I see how I’m treated by my friendly neighbors during the ruthless evening commute.

And here, o my friends on the client side, is an important lesson to be gained. In fact, it just might be the oldest refrain ever uttered by creatives showing work to clients who ask them for something more…well…usually more fake. Usually more “hard-hitting” or results-oriented. Usually something that tells the audience how to feel, how to act, or what to do.

“People,” we say, over and over again, “don’t like to be told how to feel.”

If you ever doubt this assertion, just imagine some manager hopped up on lattes and self-help truisms walking past you while you’re doing your best to wrestle a big marketing problem to the ground and having them tell you to smile.

It’s why we all stopped carrying Colts back in the 1890’s.

So, why do I beat such a very dead horse? Because look around you. We are still surrounded with brand communications just like the tag line at the burrito chain where I buy my lunch. Every poster, brochure, and menu signs off with the same line: “What are you going to love at Qdoba?”

My answer is: your mother.

– Doug

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Before and After; Illustration as Brand Meaning

Back in August when Disney acquired Marvel Comics and its portfolio of over 5,000 characters I began to wonder what would happen to all of those iconic characters. Stories (and the characters that populate them) are such an integral part of culture, collections of words and images that take us outside of ourselves, outside of our day-to-day lives. Stories are most certainly one of the important things that bring meaning to our lives. (more…)

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We’re having a most interesting challenge.

We’re struggling with a term for our agency.

As written here earlier, we’re not exactly a design firm (despite our past), or an interactive firm (despite our capabilities), or an advertising agency (despite all our experience), or a branding firm (despite our name). (more…)

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Stats poetry

Glancing at the wordpress report on the search terms people used the most to reach our blog, I found poetry.

isaac newton
sir isaac newton
coke logo
el lissitzky

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It’s all part of the same coming conversation. It’s a picture of where we’re all going.

– Doug

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If you don’t have this book yet, by the inimitable Grant McCracken, then you must purchase it immediately. Conversation will ensue.

– Doug

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