October 27, 2009

How to be a good (digital) client


In his book “Confessions of an Advertising Man”, David Ogilvy devotes chapter 4 to the subject of clients and gives them some advice about how to be a good one. He says that bad advertising can unsell a product but often this catastrophe is the fault of clients (sorry). Ogilvy said “some behave so badly that no agency could produce effective advertising for them”.

The book lists 15 rules that David Ogilvy would obey if he were a client dealing with an agency. Do these rules apply to clients dealing with agencies in our digital world? Let’s check…

1 – Emancipate your agency from fear.

Ogilvy said, “frightened people are powerless to produce good advertising”. The digital revolution in advertising has generated more fear than empty pizza boxes after late night deadlines. Everyone has been afraid. From the early days of “if we build it will they come?” to the current extreme of all traditional media being on its deathbed (it isn’t). As a client of agencies developing digital campaigns you should be able to trust their knowledge and abilities to execute an idea flawlessly. This is no longer a new media. You don’t need to be afraid so there is no need to make your agency afraid either.

Of course the digital medium is still evolving and new techniques are appearing all the time. Clients could insist on following tried and tested paths but if you really want to stand out you need to put aside fear and take the leap with your agency. As Alex Bogusky of Crispin, Porter + Bogusky said, “if you have to be afraid of something, then fear mediocrity”.

A great example of fearlessness? Philips Carousel >

2 – Select the right agency first

In his book David Ogilvy suggests that clients find out if they like the people at the agency as the relationship “has to be an intimate one, and it can be hell if the personal chemistry is sour”. He also looked at the pros and cons of big agencies vs. small ones.

The Cannes Cyber Lions this year has shown that the “traditional” agencies have caught up with the pure digital players in their ability to deliver amazing work online. As the playing field becomes level clients will find it harder to judge agencies by their technical or creative skills. More agencies are spending time expressing their individuality by how they project themselves online. The new site from Crispin Porter + Bogusky brings to the forefront what the world is saying about them and the work they do. Even the opinion of the interns is used to show how different the agency is from anyone else.

In the same way that the “traditional” advertising industry had its stars we now have the digital celebrities who play a key role in making clients feel confident about their agency choice. All this adds up to the chemistry clients are looking for today.

3 – Brief your agency very thoroughly indeed

“The more your agency knows about your company and your product, the better job it will do for you” said Ogilvy. In the digital world this is more true than ever since a client might brief his agency to create a campaign but, knowing the client’s business, the agency could come back with something radically different. Maybe they’ll respond with a service like Fiat’s Eco Drive or a platform such a Nike +.

4 – Do not compete with your agency in the creative area

“Why keep a dog and bark yourself?” Ogilvy complained about backseat drivers and while this may be true things are less clear in digital realm. Creativity and technology have merged so much that the traditional idea of “creative” is less distinct. Yes, clients should let agencies do what they know best – come up with great creative solutions. But a client that comes along with a smart technical innovation could be helping to spark an idea for campaign that the agency may not have explored otherwise. For me the best clients are collaborators.

5 – Coddle the goose who lays the golden eggs

As David points out many clients spend years developing a new product but give their agency just a few weeks to put together a campaign that will present it to the world. In many ways the way a product is marketed owes as much to its success as the product itself. If clients could involve communications agencies soon enough in the process then perhaps the product launch could stronger. Bring the agency into the loop earlier and they might lay a golden egg that shines a little brighter.

6 – Don’t strain your advertising through too many levels

Committees do not make for powerful ideas with a single-minded vision and executed in a creatively unique way. It was true then and it is still true today. As Ogilvy said, “hydra-headed clients present insoluble problems.

Within a client organization there should be one clear leader who can cut through the crap and give the agency one voice. The digital world makes it too easy to share work in progress with every stakeholder from Tokyo to Texas. Input can be useful but there comes a point when you need to ask if too many cooks are watering down a big idea. Being bold is always better than appearing mild.

Take a break from this long blog post and watch this parody video about designing the stop sign shows what happens when too many people throw in their opinions:

7 – Make sure that your agency makes a profit

While advertising spend online may even be overtaking TV in some countries it doesn’t always mean that agencies are seeing the benefit. There is still a problem convincing some clients about how much it costs to develop online communications. Their kids know how to build a website so this somehow makes them believe it is a piece of cake.

Building complex campaigns costs money and unless clients understand the work involved and the value agencies bring the results will suffer. Hopefully the days are over when clients blindly accept a million dollar budget for a TV spot but question just a fraction of that being spent online. When agencies make a profit and can afford to hire talented people clients will see their campaigns improve in creativity and effectiveness.

8 – Don’t haggle with your agency

David Ogilvy suggested that clients trust their agencies about the cost of projects and not haggle. Just like old-school advertising, digital is not an exact science although it is getting there. If your agency recommends testing then take their advice. Digital campaigns are much more complex than traditional you need time to fix problems. Skip that to save money and it could end up costing a lot more in lost customers and reputation.

9 – Be candid, and encourage candor

“Don’t beat around the bush” as Ogilvy said. Clients need to speak their mind without being so brutal that they “paralyze the troops”. Be clear about what your expectations are or otherwise the agency will be playing a guessing game. With all the tools available to us today there is no excuse for poor communication between clients and agencies.

10 – Set high standards

Expect more and you’ll get it. Don’t forget to praise your agency when they do well but always ask them to do even better next time. When you can access all the best campaigns online (with sites like Contagious, AdAge or Campaign) it is even easier to find examples of what your agency needs to beat. Hopefully your agency would have seen them already too and are already pushing themselves to do better.




11 – Test everything

Digital advertising and marketing is data driven so it’s easy to know when something has worked or not. Ogilvy was a great believer in testing. Testing promises, media, headlines, frequency, images… One of his most famous quotes is “Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving”. Today we can test while a campaign is running online and adapt it as we go. We can test multiple versions, change a call-to-action on the fly… a campaign never needs to be finished. It may always remain in perpetual beta.

12 – Hurry

No worries there. Very early on it seemed that clients felt that because it was digital it took less time than traditional media. While sometimes it can be a bit rushed there is a real need for speed in our industry. If your agency has a great idea then help them get it out there quickly. That includes the internal approval process clients go through. If you are not quick someone else will steal your thunder and do something online that makes you look more like a follower rather than a leader.

13 – Don’t waste time on problems

In his book Ogilvy advised clients to “concentrate your time, your brains, and your advertising money on your successes”. Even though digital media is no longer a new kid on the block there is still an element of experimentation. If you invested in Second Life then take what you learned and move on. Not all developments pan out. Watch the video of George Bodenheimer,
President of ESPN speaking at the 2008 Verge conference and see how his approach to leaving failures behind helped ESPN be a digital leader.

genius14 – Tolerate genius

Yes, they can be disagreeable as Ogilvy pointed out (he wouldn’t use the word assholes) but they can lay golden eggs. There are not that many around but if you can tolerate the ones you find then what they come up with could put your brand on the digital map.

15 – Don’t underspend

The last point in the book’s chapter urges clients not to skimp on budget. David said that “it’s like buying a ticket three-quarters of the way to Europe; you have spent some money, but you don’t arrive.” Great ideas don’t have to be expensive and digital campaigns often cost a fraction of the budget of a traditional media campaign. But if an idea calls for a higher investment then try to find the money. The results will be worth it.

Want to read the book that inspired this blog? Click below to buy from Amazon.

Confessions of an Advertising Man

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