Take a walk on the client side

If you really want to produce world-class work, try helping your client to be world class too, says Franco Bonadio

I have had many a conversation with design buddies saying, ‘Why can’t clients just leave the cash by the door and let us get on with it?’ Naive ramblings maybe, but, behind the sentiment, deep down we believe we know what’s best when it comes to doing our job – it is high art, after all, we think – and many clients just get in the way.

But that’s the role of artists and, much as some of us might like to think we are, we aren’t artists. And we have clients who ultimately tell us what’s right or wrong, approved or not.

I have this scientific equation (that I made up myself) which determines that about 80 per cent of my work will be good, clean, effective creative work. Maybe 15 per cent of the stuff I really won’t talk about at all, and that illusive/elusive 5 per cent will be truly world-class work that will make me rich and famous.

So, from the hundred clients or so that I have worked with over the years, there must be at least a few among them that are considered to be truly world class, surely?

That’s a shocking admission; in my 20-plus years of working in this industry, maybe I have helped produce just a handful of truly world-class jobs. But, surely, don’t clients expect and deserve nothing less on every job?

I still wake up every morning thinking, ‘Today will be the day when I make a world-class mark on the planet’, but sadly my personal statistics don’t tally up, so maybe I am doing something wrong.

I know that teamwork is essential to great creative work, and my relationship with our designers and consultants is pretty good. But I think the answer might lie in the blindingly obvious notion that ‘behind every world-class job there is a world-class client’.

World-class clients are not born, but made. Great clients continually try to improve the way we work with them and, in turn, I think they need us to understand their needs, fears, personal ambitions and quirks so that we can do great things together.

I worked on the client side for nearly five years and experienced a bit of what I think they go through, and deduced the (five) points I think they want us to consider.
Noise. You can’t imagine the amount of internal debate (suddenly, everyone is a designer) over something you will have designed: heated and heavily opinionated e-mails from employees and customers get sent to the chief executive; jealous departments try trashing your stuff; sales may not respond immediately and everyone calls to can the work. Clients need us to be calm (especially if there is chaos internally).

Fear. Big, bold ideas often polarise (again, especially with the number of opinions being voiced internally), so clients have to choose their moment very carefully to stick their necks out. Their jobs can literally depend on it. The more we can provide balanced objectivity rather than impassioned rhetoric, the more it’s likely that the best work will win.

Uncertainty. Strategies change, budgets get slashed, management changes – all day-to-day stuff client-side, but they need to carry on regardless and deliver results. If we stand too bloody minded in opposition to this because of our creative principles, we will create a distinctive reputation, but not one we might like even if we are right. Now, more than ever, clients need us to be adaptable to the changing landscape.

Personal agendas. There is a saying, ‘No one is dumber than the previous marketing director’, so the work that went before is often rubbished. Most people like to make their mark (as we do) and clients are no different. So if you come to a new client with a brief to change their world, you have a chance – but tread carefully, because sometimes big change isn’t always right for the brand or the customer, and it can backfire. Guess who gets the blame?

Creativity. Clients ultimately hire us to be creative and solve a commercial problem. They might occasionally play at being designers, but, ultimately, they hire us to do that job. So spend their money wisely, be passionate and enthusiastic, and do the best you can.

So, on reflection, to improve on my (hopefully) 5 per cent world-class achievement I need to look at myself and ask the questions, ‘Am I really working the best I can?’, ‘Is this the best idea I can possibly provide?’, ‘Have I understood the real issues our clients have to deal with?’, and ‘Am I smart enough to ride through this rough-and-tumble client world and hold on to my integrity, and the account too?’

Five client-side points to consider:
Noise
– clients need you to stay calm in the face of criticism
Fear – clients take risks sometimes, so give objective advice
Uncertainty – clients need you to cope with changing briefs
Personal agendas – clients are up for new ideas, but be careful not to exploit that eagerness because it may backfire on you
Creativity – clients play at it, but pay us to do the best we can

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