I like to think I’m a good writer. I like to think I’m a good presenter. Alas, I still haven’t figured out how to sell a client a piece of work they do not want to do. Has anyone… really? Precious few clients are predisposed to do breakthrough work. For most, advertising (regardless of platform) is just a line item. An ever-smaller box to be checked. That these clients don’t behave more bullishly or even see the virtue of truly creative marketing is their part of the problem.

But what is my part? I believe in options. I like to show clients several campaigns for any given assignment. Of these we of course make a recommendation. Sometimes they go with it. Many times they don’t. We still consider it a victory (for both sides) if a client gloms on to one of the other campaigns. If none of them are runts then we have nothing to worry about. Right? Wrong?

Either way, that’s been my policy. But I do wonder. Should we/I have pressed harder for our recommendation? Certainly my creative team would want as much. Yet, if a client desires a hamburger you can sell the steak all you want the client will only get frustrated and maybe even to the point where they balk at the goddamn hamburger. Then what have we got? That’s right: a pissed off client and no sale.


So, we ask: What do you want on your burger?

Yet, when I look back at some of these outcomes I second-guess what might have been had we gotten our way. In order for an agency –any agency- to get to the next level it has to demonstrate extraordinary creative and have at least one iconic campaign to its name. Iconic work rarely comes from compromise or committee. So, I wrestle with the vogue notion of collaboration. Tissue sessions are practical as they vest client participants in the eventual outcome but they also corrupt the outcome, playing to a common denominator.

We all know this but what’s a girl to do? If we force a piece of work down a client’s throat they will most likely spit it back out and usually in our face. Produced ideas –bad, good or great- often don’t reveal themselves in the first weeks of communications, let alone a creative presentation. If a CEO questions the CMO about newly approved work it rarely ends well for all parties, including the agency. Therefore, the CMO is risk averse. Questions turn to concerns, which quickly become issues and then the kill switch is pulled. Second chances are rare. Therefore, doing work that instantly appeals to the many tends to be the safest bet. Rare is the CMO who stays fast with a seemingly risky bet, or makes one in the first place.

Do not assume strategy plays a decisive role in choosing creative. Filet and hamburger are on strategy for meat dishes. Alas, hamburger is a crowd pleaser. Adding to that, it is faster and cheaper.

I’ve worked at enough places to know there are plenty of creative chefs in the kitchen. Dissing agencies for dishing out burgers is easy but perhaps unfair. Not when precious few customers appreciate the cuisine.

It’s maddening. What I can control is putting out a good menu and pitching the top items to the best of my ability. After that I can use all the help I can get. And divine intervention from the Gods of Advertising.

“I can’t stop sucking!”

A colleague of mine was discussing a visit he’d just made with a prospective client. The client had called us because they’d seen something we did for another client. (Always nice when your work speaks for itself. Hurray us!)

Anyway, the report I got was that the client hates their own advertising. Having previewed some of it, I agree with this assessment.

But here’s the odd thing or at least the thing I want to write about: though the client dislikes their own work they also admit being powerless to stop making it. “We are our own worst enemy,” they said.

Fascinating. The phenomena of self-loathing combined with powerlessness to change reminds me of the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different outcome. It also reminds me of the first step in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol (bad ads) and that out lives (marketing) had become unmanageable.”

I don’t mean to be glib but emotional stakes aside, it’s a fair comparison. Likewise, I think the afflicted client deserves credit asking for help to break the chain of insanity. That chain can be long and heavy, with lots of baggage attached to its links. And like a strand of DNA, the chain of crummy marketing is often deeply ingrained into the suffering company’s zeitgeist. Individually, everyone rails against it but collectively they are paralyzed. Approvals, process and untold miscellanea get in the way of doing something truly different. The cycle continues, the blame game erupts and, well, it gets ugly. Obviously, the agency –be they old or new- gets caught up as well.

Still, in the face of such insanity, the agency is probably the client’s best hope. Yet we must be careful not to let our own dysfunction get caught up in theirs. In order to succeed we need to affect change across all sectors of their marketing department. Our people need to match up properly. Bridges of trust must be built and fast. As many of you know this is easier said than done.

What I find most poignant about this story is that everyone in it wants to do good work but for whatever reasons they can’t. To me, this transcends mere marketing problem and becomes the bittersweet stuff of life!