We have all heard the phrase, “The customer is always correct!” But what happens when the client wants more than what has been budgeted? What happens when the customer has expectations that have not been wholly communicated? What happens when the challenges overshadow the benefits of their business?
Make it Bigger!
I first noticed Tom Fishburne’s work about five years ago, likely because a colleague passed it on for a good chuckle of recognition. “It’s so true!” we probably said to each other, laughing. And the cartoons kept on coming, all too true, poking fun at the absurd interactions between marketing clients and agencies. “Make it Bigger!” “Can you put a logo on every page?” and my personal favorite, “It just doesn’t pop.” The client and agency often share a lack of vocabulary, so we’re often reduced to facial expressions and broad hand gestures, hoping to make sense to one another.
How can anyone be “correct” if we can’t understand each other? What do you mean by “bigger”?
Research is the Answer?
Creative work is both a mystery and a science. So, despite a lack of a common vocabulary, agencies often explain their practice as if it is some form of alchemy. We frequently suggest research or focus groups to put the science to the magic. We can use data to measure results; we can research the heck out of a product or brand position, trying to anticipate how people may feel about something before it has been unleashed to the public for consideration, consumption, and consternation.
But it takes a trained, creative, human heart to put soul to paper (or website or audio or video) and move people. Steve Jobs was famously skeptical of market research, once saying, “It’s tough to design products by focus groups. Often, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
It’s Getting Out of Hand
So what does happen when the client wants more than what has been budgeted? What happens when the agency has a “great idea” to surprise the client with, hoping they’ll buy off on the zig when they wish to zag? What happens when the customer has unspoken expectations the agency doesn’t pick up on? For starters, scope creep. Budgets balloon, hearts race, tension rises, and trust breaks. “How did we even get here?” both parties start to say.
Where I Start to Thread the Needle
Inherent to any good relationship is trust. The client must trust that the agency has the client’s best interests at heart. The agency needs to trust that the client came to the agency in the first place because of its expertise, experience, and excellence. 2 Fish Company grew out of a reputation established by its predecessor, Pivotal Communications, out of Kalamazoo, MI. John Sadowski, the agency owner and chief sage (and finally, a personal friend), had established a reputation for great creative that was strategically developed to deliver dollars. I worked for John for over half a decade and learned much from him. Chief among the lessons was to deliver what you promised. When agencies—heck, anyone—do that, they create trust. Trust affords more leeway and runway, room to move to keep delivering.
But mistakes happen. Missteps occur. Campaigns sometimes underdeliver. Budgets go awry. And this, my friends, is how our headline becomes relevant.
One of our core standards is “Relationships Matter”. We explain it this way: relationships are to creative as breath is to life. If we don’t start a working relationship on a foundation of trust, we’ll never earn it. How do we earn it?
One way is by starting small. When prospective clients approach us, we often suggest starting with one project. I’m amazed at how frequently we hear these folks tell us they expected us to come at them with a retainer. Apparently, this is a standard practice for many agencies from the get-go. And I get it: securing business is critical to the agency’s long-term success. There’s no better way, the thinking goes, than to guarantee a relationship for a year with a contract. But those contracts, without having earned a relationship, automatically sow distrust. It is better to start small and make the business. This has a second benefit: if, in the course of that project, either party suspects that there may not be a fit, nothing is binding them together! Either party is free to move on with no penalty.
Another way is to understand how each party thinks. Since its beginning, 2 Fish Co. has used the AcuMax Index to capture how our clients process information. From our perspective, it helps us understand how to approach them well. If we’re working with someone very detailed and likes to work in teams, we’ll design the relationship to favor that style. In return, we share our profiles with our clients so that they understand the people they’re working with. We build trust with information about ourselves, not just the task.
Why Only Working with People Who Want to Work with You Is Important
Over the past couple of years, we’ve forgotten to adhere to our standards in the wake of the Global Pandemic. We’ve worked with people willing to work with us, regardless of whether the fit was right. As long as the checks cleared, we were going to be ok. We’d work on making the relationship work along the way. We ignored the signs that signaled the relationship wouldn’t work.
Not only did that hurt the relationship with the client, but it hurt the relationship with the team. One of our team members told me, “I’m so glad we’re not working together any longer because I was going to quit. And I love working here. I love being part of this team!” I knew that, however painful, we had to make a change. So, over the last ten months, we’ve examined relationships and have made some hard choices. No one likes to break up, even if the relationship is terrible. Because, at our cores, we’re good people! We want to ensure the people we work with, live with, and play with are happy. But those relationships extend past the client/agency one.
We’ve been working hard to live to this new understanding of our old standard. Relationships DO matter. We want to work with, be friends with, and get married to people who want to work with, be friends with, and get married to us.