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September 13, 2007
When Bad Ideas Happen To Good Agencies

So last week, Steve Jobs caused quite a stir by dropping the price of an iPhone by $200 only 2 months after it was launched. After hundreds of people complained, Steve issued a mea culpa 24 hours later and offered a $100 credit to iPhone owners.

As one of those people who stood in line for 2 hours on iPhone launch day to get a phone, I have to admit I wasn’t pissed off about the price reduction and I’m pleasantly surprised at the $100 credit. I’m glad he admitted a mistake and tried to make amends. That’s rare in corporate America.

But I have a couple of bigger questions:

Did anyone tell Steve Jobs that he’d be pissing off Apple’s most loyal customers and damaging his brand?

Can an Apple employee ever tell Steve Jobs that an idea of his is a bad one?

Power struggles, and fear of retribution after those struggles, are pervasive in business and politics. And they’re especially pervasive in advertising.

Ever been in a client meeting where you’re hearing a client spout a really bad idea or suggestion, but no one speaks up? You know, something’s being proposed, an ad is being changed, or a committee of clients hacks an idea to pieces, but no one in the agency says a word. It’s all smiles and niceties, and then the minute you get out of earshot of the client you look at one another and say, “What the fuck was that????”

I’ve been witness to many a capitulation. Because in the face of a client’s demands, no one, not a President, Account Director, Creative Director, Junior Account Executive, or even me, was willing to speak up.

And I know why it happens. People don’t like to be told they’re wrong. Or even that they might be wrong. No one will ever thank you for telling them they’re wrong, even if it’s to avoid a costly mistake. In advertising, our clients are our customers, and we’re often afraid to make them upset.

But clients routinely do things that are not just a waste of the agency’s time—they’re a waste of the client’s own money. Or they push ideas that damage their own brand.

It’s easy to say “give the client what they need, not what they want.” But it’s hard as hell to do it. If you want to keep your job, that is. Standing up to a difficult client is one of the few big risks you can take in the ad business–because you risk the chance of unemployment, foreclosure, divorce, bankruptcy, and your dog pissing on your leg in disgust.

Occasionally, some people are willing to take that chance. The example this year has been Cramer-Krasselt. Faced with the prospect of a mindless and unwarranted account review, the CEO told its CareerBuilder client to take a hike. Later, the C-K CEO said, “There are a few times in your life when you have to tell someone to fuck off and mean it.”

This was such a rarity in the ad industry it became front page news in Ad Age. Lest you think it would signal to the marketing world C-K's arrogant, unprofessional attitude, the agency continues to win significant new business and increase its profile. Not to mention it’s an attractive quality in an agency workplace, where employees feel so rarely respected by clients. I’d gladly work for someone with that kind of courage.

Of course, the CEO of an independently-owned agency is empowered to tell a client to fuck off. You, however, might want to think twice before trying it.

But it does give a hint of what might be possible if more ad agencies had the backbone to tell clients when an idea is bad. The best advertising people have innate instincts to know that superior thinking and great creative work can make a real difference for a brand. But you can’t measure an instinct. There’s no trackable ROI for a gut feeling. And many of us, and our industry as a whole, haven't earned the trust of clients to truly tell them when they're off-base.

I’d love to believe more businesses will learn from people like Steve Jobs and his moment of unchecked ignorance of brand loyalty. I’d love to believe more ad agencies will follow Cramer-Krasselt’s example and express their objections, develop some courage and tell clients what they really think.

Yes, I’d love to believe it. But I’d be wrong. I’ve been wrong before, but I’m confident enough to hear you say it to me.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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