The Real Tricks Of The Trade

Ahh, the allure of a client with deep pockets. Winning their business would give you an incredible rush, fuel your agency growth, triple your staff and hold the promise of a fat, year-end bonus. But beware. They might just trap you in a cycle of addiction and abuse.

There are so many different analogies to draw upon, such as “the golden shackles,” the “poisoned apple,” or “selling your soul to the devil.” But I think the best analogy is simply, prostitution. 

Anyone who has worked in advertising long enough and in some of the larger agencies knows what I mean. The top agency execs talk about pushing for “great work” and the “big opportunity” at hand, but they roll over at the first sign of client resistance. They promise clients quick turnarounds, annoying brand mnemonics and horrible ads overloaded with features. Just whatever keeps the waters calm and the sailing smooth.

However, before we underlings go around pointing fingers and spitting venom, consider this: the C-level execs are not the only ones guilty of compromising their integrity for a few bucks. We workers are just as guilty. We moan and complain about life in the trenches but we keep on slogging through, collecting our paychecks and fearful of getting fired for rocking the boat. It’s all about fear and greed, no matter what your place in the pecking order. 

Fear and greed are the two greatest forces at work in advertising today. Perhaps 95% of ad agencies fall prey to them. The other 5%—the Wieden’s, the BBH’s and the Droga’s of the world—don’t. And they deserve much respect.

For years I came to accept the fact that, in the business world, mediocrity is simply more profitable. Most agencies took the path of least resistance by building their businesses through “client service,” not creative leadership. They gave clients what they wanted—not what they needed—in exchange for a chunky retainer fee. 

But Apple changed my opinion about mediocrity being more profitable. 

Steve Jobs reviled mediocrity and wouldn’t settle for less than perfect art. Sure, he produced a few stinkers (like the Apple III and the Newton) but his heart was in the right place. He never compromised his integrity. Eventually, Apple grew to have the largest market capitalization on the planet, proving to me that mediocrity is not always more profitable. 

In this, I’ve discovered one fundamental truth of building an advertising agency with real integrity: you must accept slower growth.

Apple did not grow big and strong overnight. It took many years. Likewise, agencies who want to be the very best in everything they do, must turn down RFP’s, must swiftly fire bad clients, must not take “no” for an answer and must empower everyone in their companies to exercise backbone. This almost certainly means they will grow slowly. 

The more discerning and picky you are, the longer it takes. Whether you’re trying to select the perfect avocado at the supermarket or building the perfect racing yacht, you can’t rush it. You have to seek out the great clients. The ones who trust your leadership, who buy remarkable work and have the courage to navigate uncharted waters.

Top agency execs often defend their decision to take on high-paying bad clients, claiming to use the income to fund smaller, more creative ventures. And that sounds good. The problem is, it rarely happens. That’s because, when you create a culture “yes” and an army of “yes men” it’s difficult to suddenly get tough. The tough guys you might have had didn’t stick around. It has to be all or nothing, right from the start. You’re either a pirate or a pushover. You can’t be both.

Bad clients demoralize. They oppress. They demand last minute, quick turnaround work. They lack respect and appreciation. They re-write scripts. They carry tweezers and get into the minutiae. They just don’t get it. Why hire an expert and then dictate everything to them? Would you hire a top-notch tax accountant and then proceed to tell him how to do his job? How about a surgeon? Of course not. But clients do it to agencies every day and the agencies bend over backward to please. (Or forward, to be more accurate.)

The worst part is, the business world suffers. It suffers from unrealized potential. Billions of ad dollars go up in smoke because clueless, distrusting marketing clients are demanding their way—which is almost always wrong and totally ineffective. Sadly, agencies can’t say no. The money is too good.

I distinctly remember three separate occasions in my career when rumors started flying around that a high-paying client was unhappy with our agency’s work. The client had grown increasingly demanding and prescriptive while the agency grew increasingly soft. Each time the client got their way, the work suffered. And the agency always got the blame. It just snowballed and eventually rumors of an imminent pitch review began spreading. To avert a potential account loss, the agency got desperate and gave the client absolutely everything they wanted. No resistance, no leadership, just yes, yes and more yes. In all three cases the account went into review and we lost it. Three self-fulfilling prophecies. Naturally, nobody respects a “yes man.”

It’s a little bit like being in a relationship when a woman is losing interest and the man tries everything in desperation to keep her, literally throwing himself at her feet, clutching her ankles, making big promises. Which makes him look like a pathetic loser with no shame. If she was the least bit hesitant to break up with him, now she’s sure of it. He helped her make the decision. 

So what’s the solution to handling your abusive, high-paying clients? 

Fire them. You didn’t get into this business to compromise your integrity and prostitute yourself. You got into this business to change the world and make art. And you will never do it with a bad client. So fire them. You shouldn’t have taken them in the first place.

However, prepare yourself for something unexpected. It’s quite possible that when you approach your client and tell them the relationship is unhealthy and you don’t believe they’re a good fit because they don’t listen to your expert advice. . . they’ll chase after you. 

It’s simple psychology. Like being in that shaky relationship, you’re considering breaking up when your boyfriend beats you to it and breaks up with you first. It’s like a knife in the heart. “Wait, you don’t need me? Let’s talk about this.”

And if they don’t chase after you? Good riddance. Go find another client that will appreciate your best work. If you take this approach, eventually only good clients will come knocking, wanting you for you. After all, your reputation is your absolute best new business tool. The better your reputation, the more clients want you. So fire the bad clients and attract some good ones. 

It might hurt a little but think of it like removing cancer. The surgery will be painful and set you back for a while. But when you heal, you’ll be better off. Much better off. And the employees you’ll have to lay off? What will they think? They won’t like it, but they’ll respect it. Just be honest with them.

I leave you with a great story to prove this approach works. It’s taken from The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin. (Perhaps in the future I’ll compile some more true stories of agencies firing bad clients and post them here, just for inspiration.) 

In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from Seth’s book: 
“At the dawn of the internet age, I took what felt like a huge risk: I bootstrapped an online marketing company (we invented ethical online direct mail) and grew it—thanks to some outside funding—to about 70 employees. We were big. We were doing significant projects with good clients. And we were barely breaking even, in a good month. Our investment money was running out and if we didn’t make some sales soon, we were going to have to either go beg for more money or fold. And a lot of good people would lose their jobs. This was our moment of maximum risk. 
“As founder, inventor and rainmaker, I felt a huge burden. I needed to make sales. And now. At a sales call in New York, with a famous brand, the usual was happening. The account execs and marketing guys, having nothing better to do, were beating my colleague and me up. They were criticizing our work, talking about how expensive we were, and riffing about how smart the competition appeared to be. 
“In that moment, the reality of the infinite game came to me. If saving this company meant doing this every single day, I didn’t want to do it. If I was so desperate to make each and every sale, then those sales would not reflect what we were able to do. They would merely be what the client was willing to buy that day. This wasn’t art. It was a perversion of it. While it would have been tragic and painful to have this business fail, I decided in that moment that it was better to fail than it was to lead my team down a path of mediocrity and abuse. Ten minutes into the hour-long meeting, I turned to the people we were pitching, closed my laptop and said, ‘You know, it seems as though we’re not the right company for you. We do what we do and we’re proud of how we do it. If this isn’t for you, I’m sorry to have wasted your time.’ And then I got up to leave. My stunned colleague stood up and started to follow.  
“You can probably guess what happened. The minute it was clear that we weren’t desperate—the moment we started to lead instead of beg—the sale was made. We made more sales in the eight weeks that followed than we did in the two years before. The game is infinite if you play it that way. You get to keep making your art as long as you are willing to make the choices that let you make your art.”


(Amended 21 Jan 2014)