Playing not to lose and how it challenges creativity in marketing.

October 17, 2012


Delightfully tacky stock photo of a “difficult client.”

Had coffee with another soldier in Adland. “Why are client’s so difficult?” he asked, rhetorically.

Those of us in creative departments have asked the question so many times it has become rote. Clients are difficult. Period. Especially with regard to buying and approving work. We expect them to demand changes to the concepts, to the script, to the voiceover, to the scene, to the CTA, to the size of the logo and so on.

We have become uncomfortably numb. We expect our work to be criticized. So much so the creation process has “revisions and changes” baked right into it. Furthermore, we are told –indeed, I’ve said it myself- if we were in our client’s shoes we’d do the same thing. To use the ultimate cliché “it is what it is.”

But you know what? That’s bullshit. I am far from perfect but I am usually a damn fine client. When I hire someone to do a creative job –be it a director or an architect or whomever- I never give him or her the kind of scrutiny that is typically given to me and/or my team. An interior designer shows me some designs I tell him which one I like, we discuss time and money, and I pay the man. This even when things are late and over budget, which they invariably are. Once in a while I have a question or an honest mistake has been made. We address it. Done. On to the next. Even though it’s my thing and my money I am seldom a dick.

Chances are you’re the same way.

So, why are advertising clients so difficult? Why all the concerns, tweaks and rejections? Like most things in the negative pantheon, I think the answer is fear based. CMO’s and their get are terrified (sometimes understandably) of losing their jobs. Often their counterparts at the agency feel the same way. Every tree we plant better bear fruit. Or else! With all that pressure (much of it self-imposed) it makes me wonder how they (or we) even get up in the morning.

Yet the resulting behavior –hacking at the tree or chopping it down- absolutely guarantees the tree will be barren. Or its yield will be paltry. In the end death by a thousand cuts is no different than doing nothing at all. Either way, the very thing one fears happening happens. The team is blown up. Another CMO is brought in and in turn another agency. The process begins all over again.

Creating campaigns is thrilling. Yet, their potential is and always will be unknown. Hence the thrill. No one can be sure how an audience will react to a thing until the thing is out there. What makes a client nervous might be what makes the thing truly great. We all know the story behind the world’s greatest advertisement, Apple’s “1984.” When it was screened to dealers everyone except its creators and Steve Jobs hated it. The agency, Chiat Day was asked to fire-sell the media, which happened to be two slots on the Super Bowl. One insertion was not sold. And the rest is history. Granted the follow-up commercial, “Lemmings” was an abject failure. Still, was Apple really hurt by it? No. Being reckless and cavalier has never hurt the brand. Failure can be the most excellent teacher.


Follow up to Apple’s “1984″ was considered a failure. So what?

So put it out there. Instead of ‘why are we so afraid?’ let’s ask ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ If it doesn’t work as planned we try something else.

Were it that simple, right?

Timely piece in AdAge on the virtues of failure.

Virtues of being “unpopular” from Tedx presentation.

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