How do you get clients to buy great work: truth or dare?

Some time ago one of the senior suits at Chiat Day was giving a speech where he said his mantra to account management was “Find out what the client wants, then find out what they need, then get them to want what they need”. Brilliant.

But easier said than done.

There has been some debate about so-called ’tissue meetings’ being a good or not so good method of getting to strong work approved (partly provoked by Sir John Hegarty’s much praised new book Hegarty on Advertising) and it feels to me like another storm in a teacup which ignores the bigger picture.

In my own upcoming short booklet ‘Day 1 to Day 2555 (or 7 years in the life of an advertising agency)’ one of the issues I focus on is the strength of the team and the importance of excellence in all the disciplines.

The reason why is that any weakness in the line-up will scupper the chances of getting first division work out of the door.

It seems to me the heart of the matter revolves around a) the confidence of the client decision maker and b) the corporate culture of the client company.

Back in Simons Palmer days I would often meet a prospective client informally and on my own. We had a ‘soft’ room in the Soho building which was comfortable, relaxing and good for chat over a cup of tea. At some point I would ask the client why he/she was here and very often they would refer to certain aspects of our output, say Nike or PlayStation.

I would then ask them if their company would have bought, say, ‘Park Life’, the Nike football spot. The usual response would be no, the reason would be something to do with their corporate culture. This was always a good thing to uncover very early on otherwise both parties would labour under a misapprehension.

John Hart, who was the European president of Wrangler, said to me one day that working with our agency was hard work! Similar remarks were made by other clients over time. The cause of this was our tenacity at trying to get the best possible outcome, as we saw it, and not compromise on the way through.

We would stand our ground and go a very long way without altering our position. Park Life was under threat several times because the client was nervous about the idea but it got made and everyone then rushed to share in the critical acclaim.

Our way of making this happen was not based on arrogance or blind obsession with an idea, it was based on tremendous rigour, smart analysis and well constructed arguments. My belief, being an ex-client, has always been about the need to provide the client with a well crafted recommendation they could then repeat to their colleagues back at HQ, who are bound to be sceptical.

In my humble opinion the correct place to start is a clear definition of the core thinking.

In the case of PlayStation it was about owning ‘power’ as the central organising idea of the brand and product. This was the result of background rigour which was understood and endorsed by the client. Only then were the creative department briefed.

Their job was how to dramatise ‘power’ so in the end the decision was about creative interpretation of an agreed strategy.

How to get the client to the right comfort zone is then about process and approach; it can’t be about a rabbit out of a hat as the chances are it will scare the client. It must be about a journey that ends with the work on the table that is a logical conclusion of an agreed process.

It doesn’t always work, most likely due to some glitch in the aforementioned process.

Once we were pitching for a drinks brand from IDV and we worked closely with the client team all the way through, sharing our research findings, taking them through our strategy, which led to a very brave place.

The drink concerned was a confection of zero provenance, sales mainly in the north of the UK, and seen by young men as a social lubricant with their girlfriends in mind. We argued that basing the promotion of the brand on truth was the best way forward; the marketing team agreed.

The core idea was ‘Whatever is in your head is your business,’ executed as 48 sheet posters. So we had visuals of a cane on a school desk, a tie draped around a brass bedhead, etc. It was done with style but the point was clear.

On the day of the pitch the brand owner MD turned up and I guessed we were in the pooh pretty quickly. We had never met him, he had never been exposed to the background and thinking, and he was a very conservative chap.

My partner Carl Johnson had drawn the short straw as the presenter of the creative work. This was going OK until he turned over one poster with a 3/4 shot of a washing machine and the line “Whatever is in your head is your business”.

The MD asked Carl what it meant which he explained – the MD jumped up, became very agitated, said he had teenage girls, this was a threat to the drinks industry, and then stormed out of the room. That was a pitch we didn’t win.

Spot the mistake. We simply messed up, the marketing team were egging us on to be very brave as they knew they needed the visibility of a talked about ad campaign but none of us had thought to check the temperature of the water in the top client management. We could have saved oursleves a great deal of time, expense and frustration by finding this out before we started.

I had the reverse experience when we were developing the launch of MORE TH>N for RSA at Ogilvy. Given they were a fairly conservative organisation we had two campaigns that were ‘mainstream’, safe and would not offend anyone.

However I had seen one idea back at the ranch which developed into Lucky the dog. The idea was pretty radical for a company like RSA, I felt it would be pretty tough to get them to buy it so when we presented to their board we took them through the two ‘safe’ campaign ideas first.

My good fortune on the day was that one board member had been the MD of Virgin Atlantic when we worked on the airline. He turned to me and said “I bet you have something more interesting sitting in that large black bag”. So then we presented the Lucky idea.

It was given a big thumbs up and was a fantastic success in the insurance market. Thank you Syd Pennington.

So the point about the Chiat Day mantra finishing with “Then get the client to want what they need” is absolutely the correct thing to try to do but fiendishly difficult to accomplish.

If you can do it, though, the work is usually pretty good.

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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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