I Ain’t Scared of You Motherfuckers
How Bernie Mac taught me to stop living in fear of our clients
I first saw this clip of Bernie Mac on Def Comedy Jam shortly after he died a few years ago, and I find myself returning to it every few months. For the first few viewings, I had absolutely no idea why this performance had a power over me — I wouldn’t laugh at all, and I spent a good deal of time trying to dissect and understand half the jokes that he tells. For some reason, though, I was still transfixed by the set.
Then I heard some version of this story:
The story goes that when he did “Def Comedy Jam,” it was a big night, with Bill [Bellamy] telling him how everybody knew that if you did really well, it meant good things were going to happen to you afterwards. The guy that went on before Bernie got booed—and Bill was backstage with Bernie and told him, “Be careful out there—this audience is tough.” Bernie replied, “I’ve been going at this too long—I’ve worked too hard—I ain’t scared of ‘em!”
And, as the video shows, Bernie Mac stomps out there and makes a point of saying “I ain’t scared’a you motherfuckers” to the bloodthirsty audience — not just once, but after every joke. He’s telling them, then reminding them, that he’s not going to put up with their bullshit — that he’s here to talk, and they’re here to listen and possibly laugh. The audience eats it up.
This story immediately got me thinking about my own experiences ‘backstage’. As the head of MetaLab’s consulting business for the past few years, I’ve gone in front of clients and given our pitch on why we’re the right agency for the job. Like most people in my position, there was a time when this experience was predicated almost entirely by fear - because usually, there’s a Bill Bellamy deep in our psyche, working from the inside and injecting our deserved pomp with cold logic:
- “We need to keep growing the business, and this is the only opportunity we’ll get.”
- “We aren’t busy. Let’s just take on whatever work we can.”
- “Landing this one client in particular is vital. Let’s do what we have to do to make sure we work with them.”
And, of course, these all end up with us making concessions that we later regret. It could remain something as small as agreeing to net-30 invoices rather than your usual policy of net-15, but usually, the fear causes this small problem to mushroom out towards you losing all control and authority in the collaboration. All out of fear. You’re left dejected and complaining on the internet about your Client From Hell, forgetting how it was you who let the relationship get away.
As creatives first and businesspeople second, we like to think that power doesn’t factor into our client agreements. This is why so many creatives (as opposed to doctors, lawyers, tradesmen, etc.) wind up with the short end of the stick during client work. Unfortunately, power is everything in the early stages, and the sooner we can realize that, the better.
This struggle for power begins the first time you speak to a client, and if it isn’t properly dealt with, it will never stop. The best clients — in terms of experience, business acumen, and intelligence — will try to take the reins aggressively on day one. This is where most power battles are lost, and this is where it’s most important to impart the value of your processes, and to project yourself as the professional that you are. This is where you need to talk business rather than passion, legalese rather than the nuances of creativity.
If you do this correctly — and there is no single correct way of doing this, apart from holding your ground — you will be seen as authoritative rather than a doormat. The client will have respect for you as a businessperson, but more importantly, there will be a renewed respect for your work and your product. The comfort that a client will feel when they respect both your business and creative processes with equal measure is invaluable.
If you’ve been building a consultancy correctly — by focusing on expertise, refining processes, and choosing your clients carefully —you could have eliminated this fear before it took hold, and approached this first conversation with confidence and self-assurance. Maybe you could have identified that they were the wrong client. However, when you operate out of fear and let the client drive the engagement, it will always be something done for them, rather than by you.
Now, look back on what Bernie Mac did here, and think about why it was special. He identified a situation that provoked fear in him and all of his colleagues, and rather than going in with alight respect and a readiness to pander, he came onstage ready to explain to his audience exactly what the terms of this transaction were. That he was going to tell some jokes, and they might like them and they might not — but they’re his. He’d worked for too long and too hard to play by their rules. This moment was for him, although he was ready to let them contribute as much as they pleased.
Now think about the concessions you make with your clients, at the beginning of a project and beyond. Did conceding your processes and expertise create a more toxic work environment? Do you look back on it now and quiver? Did you do it for you, or did you do it for them? Did you have an idea of what you wanted your consultancy to be, and compromised that to work with this client?
If you answered yes to the last question, I suggest that you ask yourself: why are you afraid?