There Are No Bad Clients

Recently, I was reminiscing about the many bad clients I’ve had over the past 20 years in advertising, recounting some of the stories of the great ads that could have been. To my surprise, my writer friend Tom blurts out, “Yeah, but there are no bad clients. Only bad agencies.” 

“Huh? Ridiculous,” I said. “I’ve got loads of examples of bad clients.” 

Like the time I was working on a luxury car brand and the writer and I were presenting print ad headlines for a new, high performance, beast-of-a-car with a 5.0 liter, 390-hp engine, targeting a strictly male audience. Our recommended headline was, “A wolf in wolf’s clothing.” We thought it was a pretty clever line and embodied the spirit of the car perfectly. The client said, “Nah, we don’t want to be associated with a wolf. They’re dangerous and it seems negative. We want something positive. And something that conveys sophisticated luxury.” We were stunned by his response. 

“But...” we said, “this car is practically made from testosterone. And what guy wouldn’t want to be associated with a wolf? We’re confident that car enthusiasts will find it amusing and memorable.” We debated back and forth but he didn’t budge. We were unable to convince him to reconsider.

I’d had many experiences like this and was thoroughly convinced that there were definitely “bad clients” in the world—who just didn’t get it. I even added that most clients were bad clients. 

But my friend Tom had a different point of view and it really made me stop and reconsider why I blamed failed attempts at great advertising on bad clients.  

His reasoning was this: All clients are difficult. Nothing great comes easy. The notion of an easy client who just approves everything is an illusion.

He had worked at Wieden & Kennedy in Portland and discovered that the clients there were just as difficult as any other place he had worked. The key difference was, Wieden had a culture of pushing for great work. Creative was king. If a client refused to approve something great, the creatives would re-concept and bring back something different but equally great. They never brought a “safe” option. 

So his experience had taught him that it’s not the client’s fault. It’s the agency’s fault every time. 

Then he asked, “Why did you sell safe work to your ‘bad’ clients?” My answer revealed the real truth. “Well...” I said, “whenever I refused to give a client the safe work they wanted, I was considered ‘difficult’ and failing to ‘service’ my client, which would prompt a complaint to my superiors.” 

“Then what would happen?” he asked. “I’d be pressured, or directly ordered, to comply with the client’s demands,” I said.

“There you have it,” he concluded. “A bad agency! They didn’t support you in your effort to sell great work. At Wieden, it doesn’t work like that. As a creative, you’ll never be reprimanded for refusing to present safe work. Even if the client threatens to fire the agency, they will back you up 100%.”

“Okay, bad work is the fault of bad agencies,” I admitted. “But it doesn’t mean the clients are not bad. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say, there are no easy clients.” 

In the end, I was forced to acknowledge that we cannot blame clients for producing bad work. And Tom’s assertion that, “There are no bad clients”—as outrageous as it sounds—points us to the real problem: fearful ad agency executives who are more concerned about making money than building a reputation, and therefore don’t support creatives in pushing for great work. 

Very simply, when our work isn’t great, we can only blame ourselves.


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