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The truth about brave clients or the day that Nike owned up to its very own Nikemare

I found myself in very hot water after a few glasses of the south-facing in a bar in the upper slopes of the French Alps last week.

In a discussion with a few folk from the world of marketing and advertising I suggested that inspiration for genuine mould breaking ideas rarely comes from the client. I did go a bit further and claimed, out of true and accurate personal experience, that I have never worked with a marketing director who has pushed to go the extra mile.

Anyway it kicked off and became quite heated. I blame the wine and the altitude.

However it set me thinking and I ran over a dozen or so experiences trying to tease apart when a client has added that extra sparkle to an idea.

One outstanding exception was in the development of Goldfish, the credit card, when our agency had proposed an unknown US actor to play the lead role but the CEO of the client pushed us to consider Billy Connolly, for logical reasons.

Cutting a long story short he got his way and the result was truly outstanding, so hats off to Mike Parsons.

Now I’ve run out of examples, but there are plenty the other way.

During the development of ‘Parklife’ for Nike the client at the time poured negative and threatening noises on the whole process but when the film went on air she stepped forwards to take the glory.

I had to fight the MD of Ariston all the way to get the ‘Ariston and on and on’ campaign out the door; he never believed it was the right thing to do and never said thank you when sales shot up.

I would argue that this is more to do with the bravery of the client rather than he or she being the actual inspiration. Putting it another way a brave client can promote inspiration in the agency.

When the launch of MORE TH>N was in development we presented two ‘safer’ routes and one off the wall about Lucky the dog. The idea was to plaster the UK with wanted posters for Lucky as a teaser and the reveal it was about pet insurance. A very brave and enthusiastic client lobbied RSA internally to go with Lucky. It happened and became a huge commercial success.

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Without any doubt all clients are central to the development of advertising, off-line and on-line. However working out their role is often unclear.

In my experience key client decision-makers fall into categories; process people, risk averse people, steady people, brave people and occasionally downright risk takers. Knowing what kind of person the agency is dealing with is crucial to minimise grief and optimise outcomes.

Way back we had a series of Nike ads running to coincide with some major athletics event and all of the athletes we featured fell at the first fence.

The Daily Mirror ran a full page story with the ads and the headline was ‘What a Nikemare’. That day we faxed a full page layout to the client with the headline ‘If you going to put your foot in it, it might as well be in a pair of Nikes’.

It was approved within the hour and it ran in the national press the next day. What followed was more coverage including a slot on the morning BBC television news.

Clearly that particular client was at the extreme end of my risk-taking spectrum, he had the balls to take advantage of the opportunity but it would only work if it was instant. His name was Johnny Trainor – honest.

I would suggest that the challenge is about being inspiring rather than being the inspiration; I think they are different things. The hardest briefs to work on are the ones with lots of ‘mandatories’ listed at the bottom of the page because they box creative people in. It stops people thinking ‘outside the box’ – apologies for the cliche.

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Where clients have a pre-determined formula the chances of anything memorable popping out of the creative department are pretty low.

An inspirational approach we copied from Dave Trott came from time I spent at Gold Greenlees Trott working on London Weekend Television.

We were producing posters to run each weekend to promote a particular programme so the turnaround time was manic. Dave would brief all of the creative department on a Friday and on Monday morning he would have a pile of layouts on his desk.

Dave and Gordon Smith would then select their favourite and I would hot foot it down to LWT to get an approval.

Both the client and the agency wanted highly visible and talked about posters which this process had the best chance of producing because there were no restrictions. The LWT campaign won many awards and helped LWT carve out a very distinctive profile in the TV market.

We approached the Nike posters in the same way – brief everyone, no restrictions, anyone could get their work put forwards. Our conversion of concepts to published posters was almost perfect, say nine out of ten, and, once again, award-winning and commercially very successful.

I tried to explain this to my group in the Alps but I think the wine and the altitude led to everyone taking sides and not wanting to give any ground in the heated debate.

But it remains true that whenever I have encountered real inspiration it has been the result of someone or some people summoning the desire to reach for it.

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About Paul Simons

Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.
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