Dumb Shit Clients Say to Their Creative Agencies

3 things clients say that sound perfectly logical until you realize they are ridiculous

Clients say a lot of stuff. A lot of it is smart, meaningful and candid. But a lot of it is also misguided, dishonest and, frankly, dangerous to listen to. It’s shit.

I don’t think they do it on purpose. I don’t even know if they know they’re doing it. But the next time your client say one of these things to you, proceed with caution.

1. “Make us an ‘Nike’ ad.”

I’ll just start with my favorite. Clients think saying “make us a Nike ad” (or Apple, GEICO, insert other famous brand name here) fires up their agencies and frees them to attempt daring work. It’s even better when they cite specific execution like “1984,” Write the Future” or “Caveman” — it makes them feel like they’re part of fighting for disruptive work.

But the sad truth is most clients would never — could never — approve work resulting from this kind of brief.

“Nike,” “Apple” and “GEICO” work fails testing. It often costs a shit ton of money, states no product reason to believe, then fails testing again and breaks conventions they’ve been taught positively impacts their business (e.g. call to action, testimonial, bite-and-smile, product porn, etc.)

Even if a client could individually approve it, the difficulty of getting the rest of his or her organization on board is infinitesimally small. It’s just so much easier to do average work. And easy typically wins.

I’ve always believed that the critical failure between clients and their creative agencies is math. Creative impact math — that, given a choice, most clients would rather create work that ensures a 90% chance of 5% business impact while their agencies would rather create work that ensures a 5% of 90% business impact.

Therefore, when they say “make us a Nike” ad, clients are flirting with taking on the latter equation. But they ultimately will not. And any agency that falls for this mock-grandiose brief (without seriously vetting what work the client has actually executed historically) is doomed to tears, rounds of rework and inevitably producing a split-screen-esque comparison ad.

2. “Just do it quick and dirty.”

Often said by clients who want to (1) take pressure off their agency, (2) appear like they think ‘the idea is the only that matters’ (vs. a beautiful PowerPoint deck) and/or (3) get work really fast or cheap.

Two reasons why this is shit: First, if clients really understood what a mess that the creative process was, they’d never go to sleep at night. They need creative work to be presented logically, linearly and cleanly — despite the reality of its chaotic development.

Said another way, if a creative agency showed up with a client’s next great campaign handwritten on a torn Post-It note and explained it in 5 seconds (e.g. we’re going to throw colorful balls down San Francisco’s streets to show the vibrancy of your TV, that’s it. Buy it.), no client would take it seriously.

The reality — for better or worse — is that slow and beautiful presentations matter.

Second, and cynically, doing things too quickly devalues it. At least, in a client’s mind. If you got a brief Monday and turned around work on Tuesday — despite its objective quality — what would a client think? First, they’d question if you actually read the brief they took months to write. Then, they’d doubt your creative and strategic “rigor.” Then, they’d ask you to rework it…right up until their internal deadline.

As agencies, it’s often smart to do it quick and dirty (e.g. efficiently). But to it can never appear it was done that way to clients. Ever.

3. “The product needs to play a bigger role.”

Often said after seeing the first round of work and/or copy-testing results. I swear, all clients have been programmed to memorize this piece of feedback on first day on the job. It’s in a marketing manual somewhere. I’ve heard it used against TV ads, radio ads, sampling ideas, banners, even highway billboards. But it’s shit because, although it sounds smart, it’s actually empty, deconstructive and more often than not, in-actionable.

When you think about it a product (or brand, for that matter) playing a “bigger role” inevitably drives to one creative end: a problem-and-solution formula. There’s a problem (kid spills orange juice), the product plays a ‘big role’ (super absorbing paper towel) and saves the day (effect). A creative agency can fight it, but they know the surefire way to make the product play a “bigger role” is to make it an antidote. It works every time, but leads to shit, unsurprising work. Every time.

The more fundamental issue with this client feedback is its base assumption that creative work can be dissected, analyzed and reconstructed to a better result. It cannot.

Think about another kind of creative work — a melody in music. If I told you, “I love it, but take out the middle two notes and make the third note longer, and put it back together” — is that useful feedback? Or is that just saying, change everything?

Next up: Dumb Shit Creative Agencies Say to Their Clients.