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March 19, 2003
The Ideal Client
Advertising guru David Ogilvy once wrote, "Most agencies run scared, most of the time. Frightened people are powerless to produce good advertising. If I were a client, I would do everything in my power to emancipate my agencies from fear, even to the extent of giving them long-term contracts."

If you were up to the challenge, Ogilvy would have probably made a great client. These days however the long-term contract is becoming a rarity. And some might say that a little fear is good. Personally, I think a channeled fear or challenge from a client is healthy and can produce great advertising. But it depends on the client.

When you get right down to it, clients are the key to Bernstein-Rein's business -- more than the product, more than the brand, more than the contract. A good client can make even the smallest brands, or those with the least flexibility, great to work on. A good client can motivate an agency to overcome the toughest challenges.

On the other hand, a bad client can make working on even the coolest brands a nightmare. They can cripple a talented agency. To a less experienced agency person, a bad client can force you to consider a career switch.

Companies that go through four or five agencies in as many years, and continue to look for a "better" agency, are looking in the wrong direction. They need to look inside at what could make them a better client before they look for a better agency.

So what makes an agency client good? What are the ideal characteristics? How do you find clients who will practice Brand Humanity within the agency partnership? In many of the new business RFPs Bernstein-Rein receives, there is a request of us to describe the ideal client. Our responses to the request have always been pretty consistent (and probably obvious), regardless of the type of client.

But rather than dwell on what we as an agency think are the characteristics of an ideal client, I thought it would be interesting to find out what clients think are the characteristics of an ideal client. So I polled some of our clients as well as some competitors' clients to see what they thought -- and practiced ("walking the talk" is essential here).

What follows is a combined, abbreviated, and at times slightly paraphrased list, of clients' opinions of the characteristics that make for an ideal client.
An ideal client:
  • Respects the agency and its creative process
  • Recognizes that he/she is responsible for the success of the agency
  • Recognizes that he or she must spend a great deal of time preparing and communicating with the agency to plan the work -- then get out of the agency's way while it gets the work done
  • Respects an agency that challenges poor or questionable direction
  • Understands that advertising is a scientific, fact-based, consumer-driven discipline, not magic
  • Understands that advertising is more than entertainment, it must impact buyer behavior
  • Believes in research rather than a sample of one (or worse, a sample of many ones)
  • Is willing to take risks
  • Knows what he or she wants and gives clear, concise direction
  • Establishes critical success factors. That is, what (in the eyes of the client) will demonstrate a successful conduct of business by the agency
  • Is professionally up to the job of managing the agency; any lesser skill level puts the agency in jeopardy and usually guarantees a mediocre product
  • Understands the value of a fair compensation arrangement
While individual priorities might vary, most advertising professionals would agree with much of this list. The key to an ideal client however, is practice -- or walking the talk. How many of us in the agency business have had a wonderful first meeting with a new client where the relationship intentions were "ideal," only to discover later the realities of business life under pressure?
At a minimum I'd say the ideal client treats his or her advertising agency fairly and consistently. And given the turbulence in the agency business of late, that's a great start.

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Dave Lubeck may be in Middle America, but he is at the top of his class. As Director of Client Services for Bernstein-Rein in Kansas City, Dave is responsible for account management for a stable of world-renowned brands, including Wal-Mart, McDonald's, Bayer, and Thrifty Car Rental. Listen up, as Dave speaks from the heart and the Heartland.
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