Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” remains a standout after more than 14 years. By deconstructing beauty norms at a time when few women considered themselves beautiful according to modern standards (in other words, skinny, young, and blemish-free), the personal care brand created what Ad Age considers the No. 1 campaign of the 21st century. A successful brand campaign such as this may look effortless, but it’s the product of skilled marketing expertise, good strategic judgement, and boundless creativity. But what about the campaigns that don’t meet these criteria?
We’ve all had them. We dread them, yet sometimes they seem unavoidable. That’s right, we’re talking about unsavory clients. They come in all shapes and sizes – the CMO with way too many opinions, the brand manager with absolutely no opinions, and of course, the decision making executive that seems impossible to reach.
Now, before the scary music starts to play in your head, know that just because we can’t predict how a client will behave doesn’t mean there aren’t strategies to navigate these choppy waters.
Let’s first see how to protect yourself from a potentially disagreeable client relationship before the ink dries on the contract. You’ll want to keep an eye out for these red flags:
Ambiguous payment terms. Remember, you have the upper hand when laying out the timing and terms of payment. If a client wants to renegotiate several times, that can be a warning sign that they are testing your limits and how firmly you stand your ground. Pro tip: Type “$” in the search when reviewing an electronic document.
Ownership of work product. Make sure it’s 100% clear between your agency and the client who has ownership rights, and what those rights entail, in all pieces of work. Keep in mind that payment terms often dictate when and how work product is transferred. Ownership of work should stay with the agency until the client has paid in full.
Penalties if anything goes wrong. Make it clear who is liable for what. If the client refuses to take responsibility for their own (in)action or is unwilling to opt for mediation, it’s a red flag. You don’t want to lose everything just because the client is dissatisfied.
It can definitely be seen as insulting when a client demands you dazzle them before they commit to working with you. If they tell you they need to be convinced, let them know that is what the consultation is for. If they aren’t convinced during the consultation, it’s likely that no amount of tap-dancing will keep them satisfied. Remember, this is a working relationship that goes both ways and they need to be just as good of a fit for you and you to them. If it’s not, it is okay to walk away. We’ll get into that in a bit.
2. straying from the brief
As projects evolve, it’s natural for ideas to come and go, and you can expect tweaks to happen. However, if a client is requesting too many changes that will take much more time than originally allotted, or if they are asking for something completely different than work that was already created, you will want to come up with a solution or you’ll have some angry copywriters, producers, and creative directors on your hands. Be honest with the client and let them know that their changes require extra bandwidth than your team can realistically turn around. By giving them a better understanding of time and work constraints, it will be easier for them to accept why their straying isn’t possible.
3. unrealistic deadlines
As previously mentioned, clients don’t always understand the time and bandwidth constraints that agencies are working with. It makes sense. They’re not thinking about the other clients you may be dealing with. So when a client drops a major project on your lap alongside an unrealistic deadline, you’ll want to arm yourself with a strategy to protect your agency and your creatives. Make sure your contract states that deadlines will be established during the briefing stages. From there, always stand firm. Your team will appreciate it.
4. lack of communication
Just like on dating apps, it’s not uncommon for clients to ghost their agencies. Whether they’re too hard to get ahold of or they just aren’t providing any feedback on projects, the lack of communication can be frustrating. One way to try to avoid the issue is to set up standing meetings every week/month/etc. Consistency is key. If after that, a client is still hard to reach or they aren’t communicating, be clear and let them know how their lack of communication is actively hurting the progress of their projects.
5. know when to walk away
No one ever wants to throw in the towel, especially if the working relationship has been a long one and a lot of work has been done. However, if a client creates personal tensions or there is just no seeing eye-to-eye creatively, it is okay to walk away. It’s not worth it to spend so much time and energy on a client that drives you crazy when you can be focusing on a client you love and work with well. Honesty and communication is key and it’s always good form to recommend a new agency. Never abandon a client or end a relationship via email.
The solutions to each of these situations fall into the common themes of effective communication and holding firm to what you and your agency stand for. Remember that the integrity of your agency and your creative team is the driving factor, and that every client-agency relationship is a two-way street.