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Why are client’s so difficult?

Those of us in the creative department have asked the question so many times it has become rote. Clients are difficult. Period. Especially when it comes 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.

But you know what? That’s bullshit. I am far from perfect but I am usually an accepting and grateful 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 or my team. At home a contractor 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 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? 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 must bear fruit. Or else! With all that pressure it makes me wonder how they (or we) even get up in the morning.

Yet the resulting behavior –hacking at the tree- 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 an idea until the thing is out there. What makes a client nervous might very well be be what makes the idea 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. The spot ran. 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. Frankly, Apple could stand to be more brave. Again.

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?

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Graceless expectations…

“Expectations are resentments under construction,” wrote Bay Area author Anne Lamott. There is much wisdom in her statement, but for most of us it takes a lifetime to learn. Or unlearn. It boils down to this: Every time we enter into a conversation, meeting or transaction we bring with us a set of expectations. When positive expectations are unmet or negative ones confirmed the interaction falters.

Face it. We all have expectations about how other people should behave. These prejudices create barriers between the people holding onto them. Invariably, the interaction is crippled before it begins. In politics, we see this all the time: with each party assuming how the other will behave and acting accordingly.

In dysfunctional families, each member has drop-dead certainty how the other sibling will behave, shaping all intercourse. Dad believes his son will be a defensive contrarian. The son expects his father will be an inflexible brute. And so on. Every fruit on the family tree is spoiled this way.

What does this look like in business, and in particular Adland? Well, I’ll tell you. And once you recognize it you’ll see how commonplace and destructive these forces can be.

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Unlike this “stock” argument, in real life usually things just fester…

Jack in an Associate Creative Director. Jill is a Senior Account Executive. Jack and Jill have some history. They’ve worked on a few projects together. Perhaps not all of them went smoothly. And even if they did, both individuals quickly developed a read on one another, and now base all interactions upon it. To an extent, this is normal and healthy. Yet, in the crucible of business it quickly becomes a defect and sometimes a serious one. If Jack expects Jill to only see his work through fearful and conservative eyes, he will soon dread showing it to her. Why bother, right? She’s only going to throw shade…like she always does.

Jill is no innocent, either. However reasonable she fancies herself, Jill expects Jack will be defensive and obstinate. A typical creative. Ergo, she enters into every meeting with Jack bracing for a fight.

You know where this is going. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Both parties have expectations (fomenting into resentments) and, as soon as they spot anything confirming said expectations, they lock into patterned behaviors, souring the meeting and insuring the next interaction will be even worse.

In some ways, having locked-in negative expectations is no different than racial profiling. Though obviously less despicable, the office variety is still quite destructive. Especially in front of creativity. Looking at new ideas, let alone brave and unusual ones, is deeply difficult when everyone involved has negative expectations about the other. These prejudices can become so ingrained they close minds, hindering the ability to appreciate creative. Often, the room divides into fronts, inducing an unstable even volatile climate. Debates become rife with arguments ad homonym. The creative product is ruined in the deluge.

The solution is obvious but not easy. Against our own defective natures, we must let go these leaden bags of expectations, lest they crush our ideas and us.

Yes, I’ve written about this before. But it’s is a real problem that’s not talked about enough. Reviewing creative in a suitable environment is critical. As is being reasonably happy and content at work.

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How in hell do you scope this?

From a business perspective, “creative process” is an oxymoron. Yet, every agency has one. In the age of projects versus client relationships, the process looks like hours worked. PM’s and AE’s must estimate how many people to put on a creative project and how many hours they will spend doing it.

With clients choosing agencies like restaurants and ordering a la carte off our menus, a neophyte might think it would be easy calculating the bill. Unfortunately, it is harder than ever.

From a creative perspective, the process defies accounting. The time frame for making creative was, is and always will be a guessing game, fraught with variables. How long does it take to come up with an idea – Two hours? Two days? Two weeks? And how long does it take to flesh out the idea? And how many ideas do you require?

When guessing how long a project will take to complete the guessers would ideally need to calibrate how different individuals create, which is unique. For example, Sally likes to work alone. Jack and Jill work best as a team and Bill, Fred and Mary love collaborating. And what about nights, when I like to write? If one calculated how many hours I play with a paragraph of body copy we’d be over budget on everything.

In the good old days, an agency had a relationship with a client (with a yearly nut augmented by media commissions), which allowed for expanding and contracting creative resources, contingent upon the growing or shrinking demands of each assignment. Therefore, creative directors could deal in real time, adjusting resources based on immediate needs, wants and capability variables. In a fire drill, we called in resources with impunity. On a pitch, we might give a bunch of newbies a crack. And so on. Though still a process, it was far more fluid and organic than what we have now. The creative department did not have finite budgetary limits.

As a manager, I’m all for tightening the screws and figuring shit out. As a creative director, I know it seldom works that way.

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Hopefully, I strike oil…

I’m writing this on board an American Airlines flight to Dallas, Texas, where I will be meeting some folks about a cool project. I haven’t been to the Big “D” in a long time. Do the locals hate their town being called “Big D” the way San Franciscans loathe the touristy expression “San Fran” or New Yorkers “The Big Apple.” If so, I’m sorry. And PS: I don’t blame you.

In any event, this excursion reminded me of my very first business trip EVER IN LIFE, to the same destination, where I’d been sent to present copy I’d written for Dewar’s Scotch Whiskey. It might have been a couple print ads – I don’t recall. But I do remember sitting in first class – an AMAZING perk of working at Leo Burnett during their AOR with United Airlines.

Though its unhealthy days were numbered, one could still smoke cigarettes on a plane –in designated seats (as if the smoke stayed there!). And I smoked and drank with impunity. Wouldn’t you? Unbelievably, though our flight was but two hours and change, they’d also served us a beef roast (steaks on a plane!) freshly sliced and plated by a stewardess, who, at the time, had no problem being called a stewardess.

Needless to say, those days are over.

In many ways that’s a good thing. Smoking and demeaning titles are no less attractive at 30,000 feet. But as I look up the aisle toward the front cabin from my current seat 24D, I can’t help but have fond memories. I’d missed the Mad Men era by over 20 years but at least I’d caught a last remnant of it then.

By the way, I’m offering my mad-loco copy and creative director skills at recession-era prices. Check out my portfolio. Find me.

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The glittery potential for every brand…

According to Zen, one’s serenity is inversely affected by one’s attachment to things. The more you live the more you realize it. Obviously, you can’t take anything with you but I wonder why it takes us so long to figure that out? On some level, we all accept the spiritual truth in this idea but on a day to day basis most of us don’t “go there.” We are too busy acquiring things, building things, starting things and ending things.

When I began this blog a decade ago I titled it the way I did for irony’s sake. As if there could be Gods of anything, let alone advertising. Ha! I also gave the blog a subhead: “We Make You Want What You Don’t Need.” Even then I felt the low-level hum of tension inherent to making a living in Adland. I’m an agnostic (mostly leaning on belief in a higher power) but I’m also a realist (leaning on skepticism). Still, I knew and know that making people covet brands was a form of idolatry. Obviously, I’m not talking about selling a car on Craigslist. I’m referring to branding. Big “A” advertising: Nike, Apple, McDonald’s, etc…

As brilliant as Nike’s historical marketing story is (and precisely because of), there is a tension to it. When Air Jordan’s came out with its iconic marketing (the jump man and the swoosh and “Just Do It”), all hell broke loose. People who could least afford them wanted them the most. And, well, bad things happened to realize those aims. People stole for them. Harmed others. Or more casually frittered away resources. Nike had become a religion. It is believed God can walk on water. And so, as all of us are lead to believe, with a pair of Air Jordans, can we.

This is an extreme example and not typical of most branding efforts. Yet, that is not because we don’t try to achieve those results. We do. Therefore, in theory and sometimes practice, we are efforting to “make people want what they don’t need.”

Admit it, copywriters. When you’re drafting a manifesto for a product or service or company (it doesn’t much matter what the thing is) don’t you feel the power at your fingertips? There, at your desk, you are creating a myth. Our words are like sparks and we want them to ignite. We are toying with Pandora’s Box and it is nothing short of thrilling. For me it is.

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As far back as 2008, I made a presentation at Cannes (at the Palais no less!) sharing some of the above ideas. I recklessly compared coveting Gold Lions to the Israelites worship of a Golden Calf. Needless, to say I was not invited to give that speech again. Ever.

Who doesn’t want their copy to go viral? To be shared. To spread like, frankly, a disease. If it does, we are blessed with silver in our paychecks and Gold Lions at Cannes. With powerful alchemy, we will have turned people into consumers. Into Believers. We will have become GODS OF ADVERTISING!

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