13 ‘Confessions’ on Producing Great Work for Clients — Lessons from David Ogilvy

At the start of the year, a good friend and I started a client services company.

It’s called Course Concierge, and we help authors, academics and those with something to say create and market their own online course.

We’re part production company — helping clients marshal their material, rehearse it, and shoot it in stunning quality — and part marketing agency — working with clients to write sales copy, bring in promotional partners and manage their launches.

Ask anyone who runs an online business what the most stressful part of their year is and they’ll tell you: product launches.

Well, we take them in from multiple clients and do them all at the same time.

I liken it to this picture of Bobby Fischer, the US chess player, who at the age of 21 could handle 50 games at the same time.

(He won 47 and only lost one.)

We’re not yet at 50, but we’ve learned a lot in our first nine months about client management.

And, we’ve been studying one of history’s greats, the ‘king of Madison Avenue’, David Ogilvy. I’ve since developed something of a historical man crush.

Here are some of our biggest learnings, mixed in with those from the great man of advertising…

1. Do your homework

Writing about his most famous advert, for Rolls-Royce (above), Ogilvy notes:

Do your homework

We need to do this — going deep into our clients’ material to understand it and do it justice. But we also need to stay up to date with the day-to-day.

Ogilvy noted:

I always use my clients’ products
Are these not the finest goods and services on earth?

In the present day, you need to be reviewing your clients’ Instagram feeds, YouTube videos and Facebook pages.

If you’re not, and you’re not on the cutting edge of what’s going on in their lives, how will you have context to do the best work you can for them? How are you going to be able to guide them on what’s relevant?

We’re a young agency, but we’re fortunate to work with a calibre of client such that this is a delight — and to be selective enough to keep it that way.

2. Explain your philosophy at the outset

There’s a fantastic recording of a presentation Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp, gave shortly after his company transitioned away from being a web design agency in 2004.

In it he notes that they subscribed to the design philosophy of Paul Rand, most notably the designer behind Steve Job’s logo at NeXT, of only doing one version.

Why put 25% of your effort into four versions when you can give one your all?

But, to make this work, and to make clear to clients why you’re only giving them one version (when they might be used to getting four from other agencies), you have to communicate your philosophy. Explain it at the outset and make the case for it.

‘You can’t just do one when everyone else is offering five. You have to explain why one is better.’ — Jason Fried

3. You have to sell your work

In his seminal Confessions of an Advertising Man, Ogilvy wrote:

You must be able to sell plans

Clients have no idea how much work you’re doing behind the scenes, and it’s on you to communicate it appropriately.

This is true of all companies.

Yesterday in a bookshop bathroom, I spotted this:

Dyson have got it right. Tell people about the great things you’re doing for them.

Pitch doesn’t mean be aggressive, it means tell the story.

It also doesn’t mean write lengthy essays. Keep it short, succinct and digestible. But if clients are paying you well, they want to know what they’re getting.

I once sent a client a logo we had designed for them and, failing to communicate the endless iterations and revisions it had gone through, they asked if we had any other options.

I sent back a screenshot of our Basecamp thread that laid out all of the work that had gone into its production. When they saw that, they were flawed. They loved it and had a much greater appreciation of it. They didn’t want another version, they had just wanted to make sure we’d given it our all.

In the way subscription products market their latest feature updates, you should do the same for clients.

4. Pick your battles

We have great relationships with our clients and rarely get into arguments, but on the occasion you do, you’ve got to know when a client has made up their mind and that anything you say will be futile (and only dig you into a deeper hole).

Ogilvy notes:

Pick your battles

5. Come up with something better

Did you know Steve Jobs wanted to call the iMac MacMan? Seriously.

In the audio mentioned above, Jason Fried notes, playfully, that the pitfall of showing clients multiple versions is that they’ll always pick the worst one.

(So one of the ways we don’t get into arguments is we only show them our best.)

But, should you ever find yourself in the situation of having a client fall in love with something you don’t like, the only way to get them off it is to produce something better.

In the story of MacMan, that was coming up with iMac, and being persistent in putting forward the now iconic name.

Ken Segall, the man behind Apple’s Think Different campaign, notes: ‘I relied on a philosophy I learned long ago from a wise man in advertising. It was “As long as you’ve got new ideas to share, you are free to re-present the old one.”’

A client seizing onto a terrible idea might just be the best thing that could have happened for you (to force you to your best).

6. Nothing should be a surprise

When overseeing a project, if there is a surprise, you’re not doing your job right.

Some things I’ve learned to help make sure there are no surprises are:

a) Send things to clients 1–1 so they are free to criticise work without the worry of offending anyone on the team. (Also, if you have a significant suggestion to make, send it 1–1 so a client can disagree with you without fear of making you look like an idiot to your team.)

b) Keep an eye on things no matter how well a client might be getting along with a designer / video editor / copywriter. Empower people, but don’t abandon them.

7. Taste all dishes before they leave the kitchen

Ogilvy learned the ropes of client management as a Scotsman working in a Parisian restaurant. Here’s what he picked up from head chef M. Pitard.

Inspect every campaign before it goes to the client

Everyone needs an editor, and all manner of work needs a second eye on it to be its best.

8. Show the real thing

Ogilvy notes:

Design your layout for the publication in which it will appear

This is in harmony with Basecamp’s first book Getting Real.

It’s difficult to fairly assess things in the abstract, so stop sending logos over in logo presentations and put them on a landing page.

If you’re fretting about an overzealous client who would put you through the ringer of a dozen rounds of revisions for such an act, i) you should be taking the necessary steps (e.g. colour palettes) to make sure you’re working with raw ingredients they’ll approve of, ii) if still the case, ask yourself if they’re really the one for you.

9. Test-drive clients (and let them test-drive you)

When we partner with clients, we look to do so for the long haul.

Make friends with your clients

As is good practice when hiring, we’ve broken off the first piece of our process as its own package to test-drive the relationship. This allows us to see what it’s like working with a client, and for them to see what it’s like working with us. Sometimes it just isn’t the right fit, and better to know that before signing any five-figure contracts.

10. Keep your clients focused on their audience

With a project that spans 3–6 months, it’s easy to lose sight of who you’re making it for.

To help, as one of the first things we do, we write a customer autobiography for all of our clients. This is a fictional person, but it’s the culmination of weeks of research.

Throughout the project, our design team through to our producer then refer our clients back to their ‘customer avatar’ when working with them.

- What would Andrew think about this?

- Try and put yourself in Karen’s shoes here

- Just say it to me like you’d say it to Ashley

Crazy story: the avatar for one of our first clients was Ashley, a 24 y/o from Los Angeles. After the release of the course, we had a real-life 24 y/o Ashley from LA write to our client to say how much she loved the product!

11. Lead with intent

Things that work well with CEOs generally work with clients.

‘No response needed’ in a message, for instance, when sending a quick FYI.

Jason Fried writes about the importance of his team coming to him with intent.

‘People shouldn’t ask me if they can do this or that. I want people to tell me what they intend to do. If they want to hear my thoughts about their intention, let’s talk! Let’s riff! Let’s work through it. But don’t ask me if you can this or that — tell me what you’re going to so I can cheer you on, help you out, ask a question, or suggest another approach that may be worth considering.’

It’s the same with clients. These are busy people. Never ask, ‘what do you think we should do?’

State: ‘here are our options, we suggest X, here’s why’. Do the hard thinking for them. This cannot be overstated.

12. Discretion is key

Ogilvy notes:

‘Don’t discuss your client’s business in elevators, and keep their secret papers under lock and key. A reputation for leaking may ruin you.’

We might show examples of work we have produced between clients (so they have an idea of what something’s going to look like), but we don’t discuss anything beyond that.

The line is closer than you think. Draw it tight.

13. Be firm when you have to be

This is an important early lesson for anyone in client services.

Ogilvy wrote:

‘We tread a narrow knife-edge, posted between overservicing our clients and going broke, or underserving them and getting fired.’

We partner with our clients, and help them become very profitable, so thankfully we don’t have to barter over things like an extra $500 for minor website revisions — we’re happy to help. But we do need to keep things moving along.

Thankfully, clients want to get their projects completed and out into the world as much as you do.

Remind them of that and give a visual of the chain of dependencies in the timeline. If we miss this deadline, it’s going to push us back another month.

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Every client is different. You’ve really got to listen.

What does the client want? What’s their preferred work style? There’s no one set way of doing things and you have to be adapt and cater to everyone individually.

These are our biggest lessons to date.

Do you run a client-service company? If so, what are some of your biggest learnings?

And, if you’re thinking about putting together an online course, or know someone who might be, get in touch to see if we could be a good fit to help.