Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Five Scary Client Stories To Tell In The Dark

Picture it: You're sitting around a campfire and swapping stories of your worst client engagements -- tales beyond moments of annoyance, and way past discomfiture. We're talking the sorts of experiences that could be called disastrous were it not for the fact that ultimately it's only advertising.
In general, I detest stories that place the blame on clients -- or agencies for that matter -- when an engagement is supposed to be a partnership. While it will be clear from these stories that partnership was not the client goal in each case, the agency bears responsibility for these snafus as well. But each of these incidents makes both a good story and a great opportunity to learn from the mistakes and missteps of others.But at the time people were going through these events, minds and stomach linings were consumed in prodigious quantities
Oh, enough of my caveats. I interviewed a few agency people to collect some good "horror stories" for your amusement and edification. Each teaches a lesson -- to both agencies and clients -- about how to make relationships and projects work better.

Scary story 1

Losing tens of thousands for lack of a $30 credit checkAn old friend tells of a time that an agency -- a big 'un -- got so excited about the prospect of a massive web project that it jockeyed for the account without doing any due diligence on the company it was courting:
They were looking for a big e-commerce site, which would have given us the opportunity to show how well our team was aligned with a back-end web dev company that our holding company had just acquired. The prospect client threw out a budget that was astronomical -- three or four times the cost of any previous web project we had done. We jumped at the chance and signed a contract within three days of the initial inquiry.
The instant the contract was signed, the client became an absolute nightmare, speeding the timeline by 60 percent and tearing out the hearts of four project managers who were assigned to the account in succession. The average tenure for PMs on this gem of an assignment was about four days. One person quit the industry as a result of the project:
Finally, the agency found someone in the account team who could deal with the evil and bile, and the project got on track. A week or so in, the A/P team first sounded the alarm that the initial payment had never been received. There followed several weeks of "it's in the mail," "we have record of it being signed for," and "how dare you ask me about this again."
About four weeks into the project, someone typed the names of the website founders into Google. The results page exploded with lawsuits, complaints, and invective-filled blog posts about the clients and how they had garnered web work in the past without ever paying a cent. The agency called the client to tell it work would stop until payment was received. And the agency never heard from the client again.
Lesson for agencies and clients: A credit report costs $30 or so. A Google search even less. Don't be intimidated into foregoing basic due diligence. Separately, clients need to ensure that their agencies have the financial stability to do jobs as well. While this wasn't an issue in this case, that is a problem that happens with some frequency these days.

Scary story 2

The client that wanted the agency to take the legal riskI heard from one person who was working on a vitamin supplement brand. That person was directed to put certain claims in banners that would be extremely compelling, if they were true:
We got started on the project before all of the terms of the contract were agreed to, but with a payment already made by the client to cover the costs of early development. Fortunately, the copywriter had worked on supplements before, and was aware that the FTC has strict rules on what can be said -- and not said -- about supplements.
When the client sent back the contract terms and conditions, it had crossed out provisions that stated that the client bore ultimate responsibility for the legal risk. In short, the company was unwilling to back the very claims it wanted made in the advertising.
Despite great pressure from the client, the agency refused to traffic the ads and lost the business. And likely averted tremendous legal consequences for false statements:
Soon after, the individual client was fired from the company. Turns out that the company as unaware of what this marketer was trying to do until the agency's refusal to run the ads.
Lesson for agencies and clients: Think about the potential legal implications of projects before you take them live.

Scary story 3

The client who cried "innovation"Many agency folks spoke of clients who demanded innovative ideas but only ever bought the most offer-focused banners and other kerplunk direct-response programs. What drives this, I think, is a desire to be at the forefront of the industry but ultimately being beholden to very strict performance objectives.
Tens of thousands of brands have tried virtually every sort of digital tactic, but the reality is that a subset of digital is virtually always better at driving DR metrics.
What agency people told me was that this all becomes problematic when clients want the sort of creative campaigns that will serve to "make their career" and "deliver their number." DR tends not to be sexy like that.
Another respondent told me:
I once worked on an account that asked us to run DR-focused banners on ultra-elite pubs -- sites with CPMs $30 or more. We explained that this was unlikely to deliver great DR metrics, but the client persisted. The idea was to enhance the brand image of the service while also delivering some sales. And besides, how do we know it wouldn't work? When the first performance reports came in, it quickly became apparent that more efficient audience-based buys were far more effective and that brand goals -- which weren't even being measured -- weren't serious considerations for the client. They were wants not needs.
The resulting scramble to refocus dollars proved that old adage, "It's not a DR campaign until the first reports come in."
Lesson for clients: For best results, communicate bona fide objectives. Tell us what really matters.
Lesson for agencies: Be strident in alerting clients to bad direction. We are ultimately paid for our expertise, not our agreeable natures.

Scary story 4

Six months of Mars-Venus relationships for want of three Southwest ticketsAn old friend tells me that her agency has had a client for six months and has never met anyone from the day-to-day team face to face.
The client expects to do about $800,000 a year in creative business, and place more than $10 million on banners through Christmas. The account is very low margin for the agency owing to a tough round with procurement, but it keeps a bunch of designers and planners working and gives the shop a modicum of prestige.
My friend is convinced that the work could be much stronger if the agency team felt more ownership and had a better understanding of the business:
Our people would be more energized and do better work if they actually knew the people they present to on conference calls. Issues and problems arise because the people on both sides are disembodied voices to one another.
This client refuses to pay for three airline tickets to send the account person, the creative director, and the lead designer to the home office. They feel it is an unnecessary expense.
The agency and client towns are served by Southwest. I just checked, and the supersaver fare is $59.
I pointed this out to my friend and asked, "Why doesn't the agency just pay?" The response:
Well, the contract indicates that the client pays for travel. So you may find it penny wise and pound foolish for the agency not to spring for the tickets. But there is a principle at stake. And when you start making exceptions to procurement-driven contracts, the slope gets awfully slick awfully fast.
Hmm. Would a site visit improve the work? It certainly seems worth three $59 tickets plus cab fare to find out.
Lesson for clients: Find a way to get face to face with the agency, especially at the outset of a relationship. It doesn't cost very much relative to the amount you are probably spending through the agency, and I promise you it will mean better work.
Lesson for agencies: See lesson for clients. And if the terms of a contract are so onerous that you can't afford a couple of Southwest tickets, don't take the contract.

Scary story 5

The "huddle" and bad feedbackI once had a remarkably overstaffed client that involved a CMO, SVP of marketing, three VPs, five brand managers, and four assistant brand managers in every creative meeting. Yep, it was a CPG company.
Having lots of decision makers is not an unexpected part of the territory. What generally isn't is "the huddle," where agency people are ejected from the meeting to allow the client team to privately debate and discuss the campaign. Ostensibly the huddle is to enable the less-experienced assistant brand managers to speak more freely. I get the idea (though I would point out that in 25 years I have never worked with an assistant brand manager who was afraid to share an opinion). The huddle is also said to ensure that the agency gets one unified set of direction. That is appreciated -- but the act of kicking the agency out puts distance between the teams.
While I personally find the huddle off-putting, I understand the desire to talk privately for a short period. What wasn't reasonable was being made to stand in a hallway for an hour or more while the client team members debated the executions.
The most prolonged huddle was more than three hours. The executions under discussion were Flash banners -- DR banners.
What could they possibly have been talking about for three hours?
Lesson for clients: If you want your agency to act in your interests as part of the team, involve its team in discussions. Oh, and contemplating every word in a banner for 17 minutes apiece is a tad excessive.
Lesson for agencies: If something in the client's process is counterproductive, have the courage to tell them and explain why. We bitched about it amongst ourselves but didn't explain why it was a problem.
Advertising is a service business, and agencies need to adapt to clients. And it would be wrong to look at the stories above and conclude that the clients always sucked. Certainly in the case of the company that had no intention of paying for services, that was the case.
But to look at all those stories and say it's the clients fault is destructive behavior.
We all need to be masters of our own destinies, and the desire for short-term harmony shouldn't outweigh the airing of genuine concerns. It isn't always the client's fault any more than it is always the agency's.
Our role as individual participants in this process is to do what's right, not what's easy.
And of course, never, ever, ever forego running a credit check.
Thanks to iMediaConnection for running this first.

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