Fighting the ‘bad client’

Martyn Hayes recuperates the evening after his gruelling ordeal.

“There is no such thing as a bad client” is the politically correct line which we all tend to subscribe to publicly. Well, if pub conversation is anything to go by, it would seem that we really think there are an awful lot of bad clients, and they’re getting worse.

The decision to air this observation follows a recent conversation with a client who confided that he was contemplating “getting out of marketing”. Why? Because there are too many people with marketing responsibility who he felt didn’t understand the first thing about marketing or brands.

I understand the sentiment and before the cynics among you cry “hidden agenda” – he wasn’t looking for a job in design!

I use the term “bad client” not with regard to little things like selecting the wrong concept, requesting an ugly typeface (because it has more “personality”), or wanting to make massive cuts to timeplans and budgets.

We now have to contend with clients who believe design is an easy scapegoat for much bigger problems, who brief work without really knowing what their brand stands for, or who think that the consumer can’t see through their transparent strategy.

This disillusionment is in no way restricted to design. It is a marketing services phenomenon spanning PR, sales promotion and, most noticeably, advertising. With increasing regularity Campaign reports of “names” turning their back on advertising, readily citing “client frustrations” as the prime reason. These days it would seem that the simple choice is to either go into battle with clients or go against your better judgment.

The main cause may lie in the way that “marketing” has changed from being a creative or entrepreneurial activity – the passion of individuals who see things in terms of opportunity – to that of a function within an organisation.

Commissioners of design today are usually driven by task and process and, as many of the larger marketing organisations are breeding grounds, one generation of “bad clients” simply become the mentors of the next.

Do not misunderstand. This is a clarion call rather than just a sound-off. The efforts and time that we all spend on those daily battles surely would be better directed at a major campaign.

The question is – what is the best strategy? After all we have to ask the extent to which we are individually guilty of fanning the flames of the “bad client” furnace through our own inertia.

For many, the lack of client training (coaching, education or whatever other euphemism suits) seems to be key. If you spend £60 000 on a new Porsche, you apparently receive specialist instruction on how to drive it. If you have an inexperienced, poor or reckless driver at the wheel you are going to be more likely to have an accident. Why don’t design agencies offer a similar service?

The need to elevate the professional status of design (and now it seems marketing consultancy) remains as great now as it was a decade ago and much of the responsibility has to lie with industry bodies who should be pressing the flesh of the senior client fraternity on an ongoing basis. Likewise, does the role of paid match-makers now need to extend far beyond things like pitch etiquette, briefing and funding?

But the education programme may need to begin with ourselves, namely the adoption of greater self-esteem.

We become irritated by the fact that we’re not listened to or respected, yet don’t always respect what we do ourselves.

I would argue that our attempts to be more client-friendly by demystifying design have backfired. Instead we have inadvertently “devalued” design.

Many clients now think they know as much about it as we do, maybe it’s time to put back some of the mystery.

Design businesses should also stick to their principles (assuming they have some in the first place). If they waiver they are in danger of effectively standing for nothing.

Many of us will, at some point, have been attacked as being “precious” for having a difference of opinion. Yet these opinions usually cost the client tens of thousands of pounds so they really ought to be worth listening to.

It may seem as if I’m biting the hand that feeds, but there is a more important underlying message. If we continue to passively accept “bad clients”, stand by and watch them taking bad decisions, often with bad consequences, then we are also surely guilty of being “bad consultants”.

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