The monkey business

Clients want work that shifts products; creatives want to win awards. The agency’s job is to try and reconcile the two

If there’s one thing that I’ve learnt over the years, it’s that I’m not a natural fit for client-facing roles. The problem is that, when the client suggests amendments to an ad, I have this tendency to wince. And when I say “wince” I suppose I really mean swear under my breath. And, OK, when I say “under my breath”, I mean loudly.

I know, it doesn’t help. It’s even cost me some quite good jobs, but there is a childish part of me that finds it intolerable to work hard on an idea and then to have that idea rejected in favour of something demonstrably worse, on the recommendation of someone who’s never written an ad in their life. “What gives you the right?” I always think. And when I say “always think”, I mean sometimes actually say.

It was ever thus. Well, sort of. The professional client is a modern invention. There are no brand managers in Mad Men. Bill Bernbach would have dealt with the CEO. But as advertising budgets grew, it made sense for large corporations, particularly those with distinct brands, to appoint someone solely responsible for how those budgets were spent. The creation of this new role had an important side effect. If you’re primarily, say, an automotive engineer, you can derive your job satisfaction, not to mention self-esteem, from designing cars. You might even see managing your ad agency as a distraction from your work. As soon as your job title is ‘marketing manager’ you’re much more likely to look at the scamps and think ‘what these really need is management’.

Everyone has their own client horror story. The client who thought that monkeys were too “bite-y”. Or the client that didn’t like body parts: not obscene images of body parts, dismembered body parts, disembodied body parts, just any part of the human body. But however absurd clients are, I recognise that there’s something equally ridiculous in complaining about them. They’re not going anywhere and, more importantly, they’re paying. Without them the advertising industry would just be so many dickheads lounging around on beanbags comparing tattoos.

And not all clients conform to type. My friend Tom is the marketing director of a successful start-up. In the interest of my impulse-control therapy I try asking him how he responds to his agency’s work. “You have to view it dispassionately. Does it answer the business problem?” So-far so-sensible. And what if the agency presents you with something that you don’t like. “Well, it shouldn’t ever be a surprise, if you’ve done your job properly. If you’ve articulated the problem well enough in your brief.”

You’ve never rejected work because it had hands or monkeys in it? “No, that would be a question of taste. It doesn’t matter if I think it’s cool. If we just wanted a boring statement of the facts we could do that ourselves. The whole point of hiring a creative agency is to get a multiplier effect on your media spend. You just have to be brave and trust your agency.” OK, will you stop being so reasonable? Do you ever have to tell the agency what to do? “Agencies want to make creative stuff, and there’s maybe this tendency to be slightly self-indulgent. Creatives often aren’t that in touch with the effect of their work on sales. They seem to want to win awards.”

I’m finding this very hard to disagree with. No creative earns a reputation based on sales uplift, and no client wants award-winning work that doesn’t sell product. In a way the creative and client have more in common with one another than anyone else in the room. We have a distinct set of values we want to see manifested in the work and we’re more interested in them than keeping everyone happy. The agency is where art and business have to be reconciled. And if the negotiation feels knuckle-bitingly unfair it must be the people who facilitate it that are at fault.

In fact, perhaps my problem isn’t the clients at all. Maybe the people I really hate, are account handlers.

‘Gordon Comstock’ is an ad creative

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