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September 22, 2004
Client Relations: The Star Trek Model

Ad agency execs turn to myriad different resources to refocus their minds on the keys to business success. Mentors. Consultants. Case studies. Great books.

Me, I prefer to watch reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

It's not that I think it's a particularly good show (sorry Trekkies).

Nor do I find its characters to be universally applicable to our business. I have tried walking around our agency, barking, "Make it so,a la Capt. Jean-Luc Picard—but people just look at me strangely. Nor have I yet found an analog to "Data," to head up our account planning operations. Nor do I necessarily want a Worf-like Klingon enforcer to keep people in line (though it is tempting sometimes).

No, the value for me of The Next Generation rests in one character alone, and a relatively minor one at that. It's Lt. Commander Deanna Troi.

For those who don't know her, Lt. Commander Troi is an "empath." Her role on the Enterprise is to discern the emotional perspective and needs of the people and aliens the crew is encountering. She stands beside Captain Picard, offering him insights into what's really bothering the Klingon who's threatening to blast them out of the Galaxy. Capt. Picard knows that, only by understanding the true emotional needs of these people, can he make wise decisions.

To succeed, we all need a Lt. Commander Troi—within ourselves, and within our agencies. It's been the single most important key to our success—the ability to focus conscientiously, systematically and purposefully on our human clients and their emotional needs, just as we do their company's business and communication needs.

What consistently generates business success for us—and differentiates us from so many other agencies—is to be genuinely passionate about the personal success of our clients. They are the people who hire us, and they are the people we should be passionate about.

It's so fundamental, we've made it our agency brand.

Two years ago, under the notion of practicing what we preach, we undertook a process to identify our agency brand. We began thinking it was our great work that distinguished us. Neiman Group, under our Chief Creative Officer, Rudy Banny, is blessed to have a creative department that is making its mark nationally. We saw our creative as the essence of our brand. The work, the work, the work.

But, just as we advise our clients that, without research, you're just guessing—we hired a consultant and charged him with interviewing employees, clients and former clients, to see if the perception of Neiman Group out there in the marketplace matched our own suppositions.

And what we found couldn't have been more striking. People loved our work, to be sure. But what they came back to time and again was our passion for them. How we are passionate about their business success. And passionate about their personal success.

Interview after interview came back the same way. "They really care," was the recurring theme.

Thus was born our agency brand position: We give a damn. Everyone at Neiman Group knows their job is to show that to our clients every day. The people we hire have it in their DNA already. Because giving a damn isn't something you can just set out to do. It is something you have to feel. It needs to be part of the genetic code of the people you hire. We've always done so, subconsciously. Now we work to nurture it and grow it.

Every day, we see anew how meaningful this is to our clients, and how differentiating it has become between agencies—especially in this age where agencies increasingly are conglomerate corporations that seem less and less personally involved with their clients.

How does one "give a damn" about the personal success of his or her clients?

  • See the world through their eyes. Be disciplined about it. Spend time thinking about what they must be feeling.
  • Read when your clients are having a problem—and focus your energies on helping them to make it better—even if that wasn't your agenda to start.
  • Listen when your client is saying that your idea isn't right for them. And genuinely believe that, if a campaign isn't right for them, it isn't right—no matter how strong its worth, nor how much it's beloved back at the shop. They are the ones who ultimately will be held accountable. Respect that. Embrace it. Make it your mission to help them succeed.
  • Show them small kindnesses. The letter of congratulations on a promotion. The unannounced visit when you know they're under a lot of pressure—just to see how they're doing. The framed copy of the print ad for their office, the one you know they particularly loved. Little things matter.

These efforts will never make up for shoddy work or weak strategy. But in an age when every agency needs to provide quality work as a price of admission—passion for the people you represent often is the difference.

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Steven Neiman is proud of the agency he's built, but even prouder of the people who've helped him build it. Founded in 1980 in Harrisburg, PA, The Neiman Group is making waves with provocative work and big-picture thinking for regional and national brands. sneiman@neimangroup.com

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