I will remember that question for the rest of my life.
Before we could start our presentation to our largest client, one of the franchisors sitting at the table stopped us and started to tell us everything he and the other franchisors had agreed that they wanted and didn’t want concerning their advertising.
The list was rather extensive.
Without skipping a beat, our agency’s CEO stood up and addressed their list.
“Let me explain what you just did to us. Imagine your were coughing up blood, and you went to the doctor. And you said to the doctor, I’m coughing up blood but I don’t want a shot or an x-ray or pill or a serum or a scan or surgery or chemo or radiation — make me better. What do you think the doctor would say?” he asked.
Not giving them time to answer, he said, “Who do I notify as next of kin? You’ve told us everything you don’t want or that we can’t do. So, the only question I have is, who do I notify as next of kin?”
No one had a retort.
Sitting at the head of the conference table was the marketing director from the client. The franchisors were part of the meeting because the advertising affected them directly but this client maintained most of the control of the marketing and advertising at the corporate level — the marketing director was the real power in the room.
Smiling at our CEO, the marketing director said, “I would have fired your agency if you had not put them in their place.”
Turning to the franchisors, he continued, “We hire our agencies for their expertise in marketing and advertising, trust them to do what is best for us — that may not always be what you like personally or what you would do but they aren’t being paid to please you, they are being paid to attract more customers.”
Our CEO was a genius.
The room fell silent and we were instructed to present our ideas. They bought the campaign we were proposing. And they were never happier with the results — the numbers were amazing.
But that’s a story for another day. The real teaching moment came during our debriefing.
Immediately after the meeting ended and the client left, we gathered in the same conference room to compare notes and ensure we all heard the same thing. The account supervisor had a different idea.
“What were you thinking?! You told the client ‘no!’ Do you have any idea what you have done?” he said to our CEO.
Now, before you think this is odd, these folks had worked for years together; behind closed doors, titles seemed to melt away and folks could express their opinions. I miss those days.
“I didn’t tell the client ‘no.’ I asked them, ‘who do I notify as next of kin?’ It had to be done. You heard the guy from corporate. If we hadn’t, we would have lost the account — today. Is that what you want, that we lose our biggest client because we failed to do or say what we know needed to be said or done? Come on, you know that isn’t us,” our CEO responded.
“But you know the franchisors are going to be pissed. Can you imagine what it is going to be like to deal with them now?” said the account supervisor, clearly frustrated about how hard his and his people’s job had just gotten.
“Maybe, but you’ve seen the work, we’ve gone over it — you know this is best for them. You know that once they start seeing the numbers, they’ll forget all about this. Well, most of them, anyway. Trust the work to make this better. I know things are going to be rough for your people over the next month or two, but we are in this together. Hey, this is why you get the big bucks! Seriously, let’s do everything we can to make sure they have little to complain about,” our CEO said.
There it is.
Buried in the CEO’s response is so much about the responsibilities that advertising agencies and professionals have towards their clients.
“You know that once they start seeing the numbers, they’ll forget all about this.” Advertising is never about creative for creative’s sake; it is about results, delivering a value to the client. Don’t over-promise or rely too heavily on the numbers. Make sure the work is both creative and smart, and delivers on what it is supposed to. Explain your reasoning and thoughts behind what you have created. Explain why.
“Trust the work to make things better.” Only present work that you know will do what it is the client needs it to do. However, do not only present work that is on target — show how the work does what it is supposed to do. Overcome the objections before they can be voiced. Understand that you may make the client uncomfortable, but you have to be willing to stand by their side through the process, and help them to see how this will work.
“…but we are in this together.“ Yes, we are. We sometimes forget that all the departments may have different functions, but we still play for the same team. We need to do less infighting and more pulling together to better serve the client. Understand that everyone cannot and should not be the star. Sometimes the best thing you can do is serve in a supporting role. Get over your ego and play whatever role you are assigned.
Heck, the exchange itself is a lesson in managing creative types. Yes, I believe account service people need to be creative also.
Allowing people to voice their concerns doesn’t usurp a manager’s or boss’s authority. It is an opportunity to address issues instead of having them festering unknown and out of sight until they emerge as much bigger and more dangerous issues. Imagine if the account supervisor had held all that in, and let it affect how he and his people interacted with the client. Instead, the CEO responded and brought us all back to the same page. He recognized that things were going to be hard for the account service team, but he reminded us that we were in it with them — we were a team.
Just imagine how everyone felt leaving that meeting after witnessing the exchanges between the CEO and the client; the client and the marketing director; and the CEO and the account supervisor.
Vision statements are nice, but nothing makes a statement about who an agency or advertising professional is like being willing to live the words through your actions. You are going to win some and you’re going to lose some, but you will be surprised how long you can stay in the game by sticking to your plan.
Derek Walker is the janitor, secretary and mailroom person for his tiny agency, brown and browner advertising, out of the big city of Columbia, S.C. He is on Twitter as @dereklwalker.