How to be a mistress in a marriage

Asa Cook

The strength and loyalty of client-agency relationships, like marriage, can’t be taken for granted. A change in the balance can end in divorce. Brand managers are nimble creatures, moving from brand to brand, and sometime designers may have worked far longer on a brand than the client team.

Experience can be a liability. New clients have relationships with other agencies and are under pressure to deliver change. Even golden couples aren’t safe. Established clients may decide to leave on a high and look elsewhere to innovate their brand, assuming that to reassess design against a new brand strategy, requires new eyes not just a new outlook. 

A parallel can be drawn with tale of Scheherazade, in Persian mythology. Every night King Shahryar would marry a new virgin, have his way with her and send her off to be beheaded the next morning. The vizier’s daughter Scheherazade, emboldened by her talent for storytelling, pitched for the position regardless. Well, Scheherazade and the King had a very enjoyable evening – but when it came to pillow-talk he was so inspired by her creativity, one night was postponed to another, leading to a very fruitful and lasting marriage. Easy. Well, not quite.

As a creative director I’ve developed hand-in-hand with some brands from my first day as a junior designer. A few insights have helped along the way to keep ideas and relationships fresh in long-term client-agency partnerships.

• Keep creative standards high

Don’t sit at your desk looking at design blogs every day or consult the same tired scrapbook. As Sir Paul Smith said: ‘You can find inspiration in everything; and if you can’t, look again.’ Some of the best ideas come when you’re on the move, anywhere from the latest exhibition to Selfridges. 

Embrace change and set yourself challenges – when we designed a limited edition of Tate & Lyle Royal Icing to coincide with the Royal Wedding, we didn’t wait for a client brief, we went to them. Take opportunities to get out of your comfort zone – it felt like a stretch to pitch an idea that didn’t use the logo, but being scared is more fun. The results show what creative bravery can do with strategic thinking: increasing sales, distribution and winning awards

Tate and Lyle Royal Wedding packaging
Tate & Lyle Royal Wedding packaging

Don’t just do what you’re told – assume responsibility for creative strategy. It can take you in a new direction and surprise clients that you’ve worked with for years. When Jameson wanted a summer edition for global travel retail, we didn’t take the brief as written. Since the brand has no real link with summer we created a new strategy inspired by travel.

From its humble roots in Dublin, the bottle can now be found in the edgiest bars everywhere from Brooklyn to Moscow. We asked the bars to send their identities for the bottle – mapping an insiders guide to the best places off the beaten track. The result was not just an eye-catching bottle but an idea with real substance that inspired new Brand ambassadors. Who better to advocate a whiskey brand than a Brooklyn bartender?

Detail from the Jameson Urban Holiday bottle
Detail from the Jameson Urban Holiday bottle

• Mix it up

I like the idea that juniors keep us all on our toes. If you are lucky enough to have a pool of designers, use it to your advantage. Combine different skills and varying levels of experience to inject new ways of thinking. Fearlessly give junior designers opportunity by dropping them in at the deep end. It’s not about sink or swim but supporting new talent with a safety net of experience. 

Don’t be afraid to introduce new people to clients or new designers to big projects. Designers naturally try to out-do each other and put their own stamp on a brand. Leverage the fresh thinking of a new team backed with a solid understanding of the brand. We recently won a pitch to continue our long-standing relationship with Tate & Lyle by letting them know that they didn’t need to go to a new agency to get new designers.  

• Don’t fake it

Clients don’t want an agency that says yes, yes, yes (!) to everything.  Say no if you mean no and back it up. Honesty at all costs. If you design against a strategy you don’t believe in, the results come out in the wash.

We were asked to design against a conflicting strategy for a large brand and refused. Although we lost the account, we avoided being associated with disaster when the new design lost millions and it freed us to work with brands that shared our philosophy of how to tackle the category. You might lose a pitch by sticking to what you believe in but a client will come back at some point when the timing is right.  

• Monogamy – the good bits

Established trust means you can push for more. I think there can be a tendency for designers to mistrust suggestions from marketers. A strong relationship makes an agency try harder to understand and address feedback. Our redesign of Onken was an 11th-hour solution because we could stay open to new ideas. When client-agency teams really understand each other you can bring more to the table as real partners in innovation. Besides, team nights out are much more fun when you really know each other!

Onken packaging
Onken packaging

So long may our relationships continue. As King Shahryar discovered, one-night stands are not always the most satisfying.  

Asa Cook is creative director at Design Bridge.

Hide Comments (3)Show Comments (3)
  • Akhter November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Fantastically interesting, inspirational and capturingly writ article. 5*

  • Kulisek November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    spelled “Scheherazade”

  • Jeanne Manuli November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Ah, yes … the power of the least-in-love. In any relationship, the power balance is constantly shifting but it’s important in a project-based business to remember that you need to love your client more than they love you. Step away from the email and go see them: online is for great for porn (or so I’ve heard) not for lasting partnerships!

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