The Art of Being a Great Client

In advertising, we take almost maniacal pleasure in discovering great ideas. Like bizarro anthropologists, we obsessively hunt these ideas down and study them inside-and-out as though they're artifacts from an alien world. We salute the insights and creative briefs that inspired them.

What we rarely seem to acknowledge are the clients. Specifically, client behaviors that help enable great ideas.

There are numerous client behaviors we’ve all witnessed when pitching an idea. Whether it’s the basics of open communication, receiving some tough love, or finally agreeing on a creative idea, it's time we celebrate the counterintuitive practices. Here’s how the artful application of a few specific behaviors can help usher in amazing creative ideas.

Sell Out

Don’t worry, you don’t need to check your moral compass at the door. I’m suggesting that the most successful shepherds of creative work tend to “sell out” as opposed to running the gauntlet of "selling in" creative work to stakeholders only after the idea has been concepted. 



"Selling out" is about setting your ego aside and being open to bringing people into the process early. This serves the dual purpose of building alignment around a creative strategy while giving everyone on the team a feeling of shared authorship when the campaign wins in Cannes. When stakeholders have no attachment to the work, it’s much easier for them to kill it. When you’ve raised the oyster together, everyone shares the pearl…er…Lion. 

Steer into Fear 

Many of the most celebrated ideas are the most unexpected. From the classic “Lemon” ad for the VW Beetle to the recent “Moldy Whopper” ad for Burger King. But there is a natural dissonance created when we come face-to-face with something unexpected. It can be scary. People generally prefer to avoid conflict; we run from what scares us toward safety. In advertising, this means finding an idea that comes closer to our expectation.  

Great clients actively avoid that complacent, happy feeling evoked by mediocre ideas. They know those ideas that methodically check all the boxes—while tempting—often have little impact. That doesn’t mean ignoring strategy, but we shouldn’t dismiss an idea that delivers on the strategy in an unexpected way. Odds are, with a little nurturing, that idea is the one that will get you what you’re after. 

Find Flaws Last 

Picture this. It’s seconds after the concept has been presented. The nervous excitement is palpable in the room. Then, after a few polite kudos for all the effort put into the work, the client utters those three dreaded words that are the death knell for creativity: “I’m concerned about…” 

Immediately finding flaws in an idea is the "fight" instinct kicking in. It dissipates the energy necessary to propel unexpected ideas into existence. Frankly, it’s too easy. Who couldn’t run an endless litany of reasons why REI’s #OptOutside campaign might be difficult to pull off? “Closed on the biggest shopping day of the year? Getting this approved will be a nightmare! How many departments will I need to be involved in?” 

The best clients understand that setting an initial tone is vital. They don’t enter a discussion of creativity from the standpoint of what’s wrong with it, but what’s right with it. They explore the possibilities. Not every idea is good. Giving every idea a reasonable chance at the outset can build momentum. With enough momentum you can push beyond “concerns,” operational hurdles, and even enormous business implications. And maybe, just maybe, find yourself basking in the sun of the French Riviera. 

While these are some of the behaviors I’ve noticed in clients who consistently champion great creative work, it’s important to consider these nontraditional practices when working with all clients to bring out the best ideas in each other. It’s not easy to fly in the face of instinct. If groundbreaking ideas were easy, the world would be filled with them. Let’s face it, it’s not. Which is why we all continue digging, analyzing, and celebrating them.

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