Cheap vs. Good... or How Mr. Smith Bought the Wrong Sprinklers

My first taste of the business world came from my dad. He was a high school teacher when I was growing up, but he wasn't the type that could relax during the summer and enjoy his time off like most teachers. So in the early 1980s, he bought a seasonal business: Greenway Lawn Sprinklers. From then on, he spent his summers selling automatic irrigation systems to the summer crowd out on the East End of Long Island.

I worked at Greenway with my dad every summer from the time I turned 11 years old until I graduated college and got a job at Young & Rubicam. In general, our typical customer was extremely wealthy and didn't mind paying top dollar for a state-of-the-art automatic sprinkler system. However, we would occasionally get a customer who didn't want to pay what it would cost us to install the best quality system.

Dad and I once had a customer that we'll call Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith wasn't like our usual clientele. When it came time for him to irrigate his lawn, he must have called for estimates from every irrigation company on the East End. My dad and I designed a system for Mr. Smith that would not only water his lawn, but also used porous soaker hose to water his shrub separately at the root level. The system also allowed Mr. Smith to water his rose garden with special sprinkler heads designed especially for watering roses. The total price tag was about $5,000.



"Too expensive," said Mr. Smith. "What can you do to get the price down?"

My dad made a couple of adjustments. He removed the separate irrigation for the shrubs and the rose garden and replaced them with cheaper components. When he was done, he had a sprinkler system that was about $1,000 cheaper, but it left a lot to be desired in the features department. We told Mr. Smith that the second system wouldn't allow him to set individual watering times for his plantings, his roses and his lawn.

We didn't hear from Mr. Smith for several weeks. In that time, he decided that irrigating his entire property was too expensive. He asked us to come in and provide him with another estimate, this time for watering his front lawn only. Dad and I told him we could do that, but that he should really spend the extra money so that the rest of his plantings wouldn't suffer. Mr. Smith wouldn't have any of it. He approved an estimate only after my dad shaved off a few extra bucks in exchange for using lower-cost sprinkler heads (a move that we warned Mr. Smith against making several times).

We installed the irrigation system and visited Mr. Smith several weeks later to see if he was satisfied.

"These sprinkler systems are a rip-off," he said. "Every night the system comes on at 4 AM and wakes me up."

"We told you that the lower-cost sprinkler heads were noisy, but you still wanted them," said my Dad.

"My front lawn grows faster than my back lawn," said Smith.

"That's because you're watering the front but not the back," I said. "We warned you about that."

"My flowers and shrubs aren't looking too healthy," said Smith.

"We gave you an estimate for watering your other plantings," said dad, "but you wanted a lower price."

Needless to say, we didn't get any more business from Mr. Smith. We sent him a proposal for irrigating his back yard and another proposal for a service contract, but he ignored them both. I don't think we ever heard from him again.

I see a lot of Mr. Smiths on the client side in the interactive media business. They want to find out what interactive media can do for their businesses, but price has become the dominant focus of any discussions with agencies or online media companies.

It is understandable, with the U.S. economy fumbling toward an eventual recovery, that many online advertisers don't want to take the plunge and spend tons of money on an unproven medium. But as advocates for the medium, we need to be realistic and forthright with our clients when they bring $10,000 tests to the table and expect to gain significant learning from those campaigns.

Lots of friends of mine on the production end of this business talk about the concept of "scope creep." That's when a client adds so many "extras" to an interactive project – some tangible, some intangible – that the project never stands a chance of making a profit. Good producers combat scope creep by being ultra-sensitive to it and informing the client at every opportunity that extra work will cost extra money.

Scope creep has an obnoxious little cousin, too. "Dollar creep" describes a situation in which a client is presented with a robust online effort that is then whittled down to a tiny expenditure. Many times, clients have the same expectations for the tiny effort that they do for the original proposal. As responsible agents, we need to hold our clients' hands every step of the way and let them know every consequence of dollar creep.

My dad is retired now. If you ask him about Mr. Smith, he'll smile and say, "That guy negotiated himself out of a really good irrigation system." Unfortunately, folks in the online advertising industry don't have that same luxury. At this point, we can't afford to have clients dissatisfied with the performance of the medium. We can't have clients believing that online advertising doesn't work simply because they spent the proverbial drop in the bucket and didn't achieve huge results.

Beware of creeping scope and creeping dollars. And be sure to tell me about your favorite "creep" stories on the Spin Board.

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