My career as an advertising copywriter began at some point between the time the earth was cooling and the Pleistocene. Or at least that’s what the interns that I work with believe. Because I’ve survived in a business notorious for chewing people up and spitting them out, I’ve worked with an enormous cast of characters, many of them clients.
“So what makes a great client?” you might ask, if I were putting words in your mouth.
Let me describe my five most important qualities. And then I’ll go away, and you can put on some soft music and relax.
#1 HONESTY. As the famous music professor from the Bronx wrote: “Honesty is such a lonely word. Everyone is so untrue. Honesty is hardly ever heard. And mostly what I need from you.” Some clients seek to spare our feelings. They’d rather call the account guy after what the agency thought was a successful meeting and say, “You know, I’ve been thinking about that ad. It just doesn’t blow my dress up.”
Great clients lay it on the line. Sometimes they have persuasive reasons and can articulate them. Other times they can’t put their finger on the problem—and they admit it. And sometimes their reaction is purely subjective: “I just don’t like it.”
Regardless of their reason or lack thereof, great clients are frank. Not brutally frank. Just frank. They don’t sugarcoat. Oh, they may be diplomatic at times. But they know that agency people have pachydermatous skin. And would rather get the news—bad or good—face to face with no punches pulled.
#2 GOOD TASTE. How do you feel about white space? A great client loves white space. Adores white space. Has an appreciation for the language of type. Understands the value of muscular body copy. A great client knows when to use understatement and when to grab the audience by the lapels. A great client realizes that the message implicit in production values can be as powerful as the explicit message of advertising.
Money can’t buy good taste—or The Donald would have a decent haircut. But you can ensure that your advertising exhibits good taste. Look at the advertising your agency does for its other clients. The work you admire for its elegance, its simplicity, its wit. Now trust in your agency to do that kind of work for you.
#3 A RISKY NATURE. Welcome to the Era of Safety First. Who wants to stick his neck out for an ad campaign? No one. Because you just might feel the blade of the corporate guillotine. And that can mean blood spilled, lives lost or worse, endless trips to Kinko’s to photocopy your resume.
But despite these threats, day in and day out great clients take risks because they believe in themselves. They trust their instincts. And it’s likely, they work in a culture that encourages them to aim high but does not deny them the right to fail from time to time. Clients who take calculated risks—not reckless risks—can see their personal stock rise in direct proportion to that of their brand.
As the old chestnut goes, “No guts, no glory.” Which leads me to the next quality of a great client.
#4 GRACE UNDER FIRE. Papa famously wrote, “Courage is grace under fire.” He also penned, “He was a coward and that was the worst luck any man could have.” Hemingway wasn’t referring to marketing clients, I suspect, but his wisdom certainly does apply.
When a client takes the agency’s creative work back to his boss or staff or whoever else passes judgment, will he stand fearlessly in the ring and let the bovine charge? Or will he toss his capote de brega to the dirt and get his ass the hell out of there? Great clients coolly stand their ground and artfully vanquish the bull.
#5 A SENSE OF HUMOR. During the Dark Ages, I actually had a client tell me, “Lee, I don’t know what’s funny.” He rendered this announcement immediately before rejecting a hilarious radio campaign I had written, featuring the voices of two soon-to-be-famous comedians, Louie Anderson and Roseanne Barr.
As I watched my would-be CLIO begin to melt like something on a Salvador Dali canvas, I instantly realized a profound truth: Some people truly lack a sense of humor.
Now this may seem obvious to some people. Like the guys who worked with my Uncle Mel after he had his retirement portfolio sucked dry in a well-publicized Ponzi scheme. But for those of us who spend our days sharpening our rapier wits with art directors while trading Mark Twain quotes and reciting Python sketches, it doesn’t dawn on us that some people simply have no funny bone.
But if you’re a great client, it’s imperative you possess one. The vast majority of memorable advertising entertains as it informs. A client who lacks a sense of humor stands a good chance of also lacking engaging creative work that could make him and his brand famous.
Besides, life is too short and ad careers too long to work with people who don’t have a good sense of humor.
So that’s my list of five. I’m grateful for clients who embrace most of them. And eternally optimistic that I’ll work with more clients who embody all of them. Optimism, by the way, is one of my five most important qualities if you want to have a long career in advertising. But that’s another list.