Bad Clients

I rarely ever talk about “work” on here. I prefer to use this site as an outlet to share music and art… but sometimes life creeps in too. The following is a cover letter that I wrote for a job application. The prompt asked for a “short story about a marketing campaign gone bad.” Unfortunately, I’ve experienced this enough to write candidly on the topic. Fortunately, I can also find the cosmic humor in these experiences, and each one has helped me grow as a writer and a person. I just enjoyed writing this, so I wanted to share it here too. 

Sometimes clients don’t know what they want. Sometimes clients don’t know what they need. Most of the time they don’t know either. In my experience, that’s been because they see their competition’s work and say “let’s do that” as if it’s that simple. Clients are also extraordinarily risk averse. I recognize a fellow penny-pincher when I see one, and I get it. Especially when we’re talking thousands (or millions) of dollars, month’s worth of development, and something that might put your job on the line, I can understand why you’d be apprehensive.

Especially in advertising where you’re viewed as an outsider, a meddler, someone playing within a realm that the client eats sleeps and breathes. The truth is, you’ll probably never know their product as well as them. What you bring is yourself. You bring an outside perspective that can approach their product (and their obstacle) from a different viewpoint. The problem is, that outsider perspective is scary.

Another problem is clients want something smooth. Something non-threatening. Something amorphous and ethereal. And that’s not bad in theory, but it’s rarely ever the most effective solution. Advertising (and creativity as a whole) is about building something that’s the polar opposite. It’s about creating something pointy, and sticky, and jagged that stays with the viewer. This is the fundamental “battle” carried out in advertising. A war of settling. With our side wanting to create something special and unique, and the other viewing that effort as an artistic wankery, a waste of money, and a risk in every sense of the word.

A few weeks back I met someone at an event who worked for a small boutique advertising agency here in town. They had been working with a local theater to produce a city-wide campaign trying to get people to come in and see live plays. Their current audience is the stereotypical theater-goer: well-to-do middle-aged couples, so this campaign (like many others) was designed to bring in a younger millennial audience that falls outside of their typical age range. Cool, right? He showed me some early-stage mockups of a few executions they were working on, and they looked incredible. And keep in mind; I’m the audience here. I thought these were eye-catching, interesting, and inspired me to read the copy for more info. When I asked him what the client thought, he replied: “Oh, these will never get produced.” I was at a loss. In his words, these were too “extreme” for the client. They looked great, but they were essentially too scary for this client to invest any amount of money into. They wanted something more traditional.

There’s the dichotomy.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It’s a cliche used by daytime TV psychologists, but that doesn’t make it any less true. This particular client essentially wants to retread the same ground they’ve covered in the past in lieu of something new because that traditional approach what’s familiar to them. But you’ll never attract a new audience by retreading old ground. You know who you’re going to attract with that old campaign? The same people who are already in your audience. In their mind, this older idea is a “safer bet” than a scary new campaign. They are at odds with their own goal.

I’ve experienced this myself when working with a local sports team attempting to achieve the same goal as my friend’s theater client. They wanted to attract students and young Portlanders to come to their games. Simple enough. We spent weeks concepting, narrowed it down to the strongest one and got approval. Great! We liked the executions, got approval for the budget, etc. We jumped through all the hoops. Then somewhere along the line, the client got cold feet. They explained that they thought they were going to “pick the best” of our executions and run with those not understanding that this was a full campaign. They basically wanted to cherry pick their favorites, change some copy, change some design, and then running with those.


I think it’s easy for a client to see a finished product and say “what if we change this word to this?” or “what if we make the logo bigger?” or “why don’t we write this entire thing ourselves?” because at that point the hard part is done. We, as creatives, have designed, written, and carefully pieced together each element of every execution. We’ve done days, weeks, or months worth of work founded on strategic research. Now that the client has something concrete in front of them, it’s easy for them to say “change this word” without knowing how purposeful of a process it’s been up to that point and how long you’ve agonized over every single word of that headline.

It’s an interesting relationship, and at the end of the day they’re the ones paying, so they have final say. It’s a hit we copywriters and designers have to take; we’re ultimately at the whim of the client. That’s the difference between art and advertising. Artists create art for themselves. Advertisers create art for someone else.

I’ve had concepts killed for no reason. I’ve had an ad killed because the client didn’t know what an anvil was. At the end of the day, you have to ride it out and find the cosmic humor in things like that. There’s a reason we sit down and write hundreds of headlines. Not only because the first few are always warm-ups, but because the whole thing is exercise. It’s about digging hundreds of one-foot holes, not one 100-foot hole. There’s beauty in advertising, and I’ve come to adore the entire creative process, flaws and all.

I think some compromises have to be made on both sides of the equation. And not every client is bad, far from it, but if you want to do something new, you’re going to have to try something new. You’re going to have to trust me as someone who eats sleeps and breathes writing the same way you eat sleep and breathe your product. Sometimes the new thing is scary, but it’s better. Sometimes it takes an “out there” headline written by a 24-year-old to strike gold. But trust is a two-way street, and you won’t know until you venture out of your safe zone. A bad client can become a good client, but it takes an attentive account manager to make that happen. It takes a skilled creative team to walk that line. And it takes a client who wants to change.

The ones that do are worth their weight in gold.