Do Awards Matter? Hell Yes They Matter!

I read recently that awards in the ad industry have lost meaning, winner.jpgthat they now longer matter. While I would agree that their relevance has changed, overlooking their role in landing (and retaining) business shouldn’t be ignored. So how important to advertisers are the creative awards in reality? In this era of data and technology, one might expect marketers to talk about creative awards through gritted teeth. After all, much of their time is now spent trying to justify the value of every aspect of marketing at boardroom level.

The rational debate is not over creativity versus effectiveness, but about connecting the dots between creative prowess and advertising effectiveness. The obsession has fallen to data, with some justification. But with more data and more media channels, it is important to have a glue to keep the brand, campaign, or communications strategy together – that glue is fundamentally a great idea, which goes through a creative process to deliver an effective business result.

I certainly understand the nervousness that exists in the minds of our clients, who are trying to look good in front of their bosses. They need to demonstrate their value.  Makes sense. They would rather win effectiveness and not creative awards, which can be seen to carry a greater element of risk. But if an idea is not brave or does not grab attention, how can it be effective? It would be like walking into French Laundry and being served on paper plates. OK, that may be a bit extreme, but you get my point. For work to really cut through and drive a significant change in performance, it has to be highly relevant at an emotional level. And one of the primary ways of achieving relevance is through creativity. Creative awards are a benchmark against which not only great work, but also effectiveness, can easily be measured.

Creative awards also help drive innovation, explore new ways to touch the consumer, encourage the sharing of best practices. Being recognized externally for great work means that the people we employ, from strategists to designers to account folks, can be even more proud of the work they produce and know they are world class. Awards attract better talent, while keeping the best we have from looking for greener pastures elsewhere. Even the smallest shops can raise their profile with some lions, Addys, etc. Metal on the shelf and a mention at Cannes puts everyone involved on the ad world radar.

Awards are a shot in the arm, both for the agency and the clients. And clients, at least those we all dream of working with, have started to take notice because awards do heavy lifting for them as well. They raise their profile, they make them look smarter, edgier, more innovative, more effective. They make them relevant. Clients know that if you are pushing to create award-winning work for them, you are pushing to make the best work possible. And that’s a win/win for everyone.

 

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Taking Clients Along for the Ride

In the last few years, ethnography has shifted from a novel and often misunderstood methodology to a do-it-or-die necessity in many marketers’ and product designers’ tool kits. The idea of ethnography has a logical appeal for business clients; market intelligence born from the homes and hearts of customers. It’s an ethnographer’s job to talk to and observe people, as they go about their daily routines, using sociology and anthropology methods for data collection and analysis – giving clients true-to-life, informed insights and a firsthand understanding of their customers.

Perhaps naively, many ethnographers assumed that we would work in a vacuum when they learned their trade. We’d go into the field – people’s homes, workplaces, and leisure areas – and then report to clients what we learned. However, we soon realize that some clients take us literally when we state ethnography will bring them into their customers’ homes. They aren’t always satisfied with just overseeing the project or telling us what they want to learn and why. This is a great opportunity for clients to see customers using their products in real situations and a chance to get to know the customers personally. But it presents ethnographers with certain challenges. 

Involvement Risks

Ethnographers tread delicately. Every time we perform fieldwork we need to become instant friends with participants. We need them comfortable enough to behave “normally” while we point a camera at them, and to feel that they can tell us anything – even if they’re just talking about peanut butter. The field is spontaneous and sensitive, and anything can happen. That means making sure we and our clients do all we can to ensure that the field remains as natural as possible.

Clients have varying levels of fieldwork experience. Some are qualitative market researchers with a little in-context interviewing under their belts, and others don’t have much first-hand knowledge of qualitative research or the human sciences. Consequently, clients might interfere with the interview process, misinterpret the data, or overlook important but subtle information. However, ethnographers can take steps to mitigate these concerns.

1. Explore Motives

Understand why clients need to go into the field and what their expectations are of the project. DO they want direct exposure to generate ideas, ease issues of trust/competency/legality, train their in-house ethnographer, or simply be more engaged in the process? For the sake of both the research and the client-ethnographer relationship, articulating these issues is essential.

It’s paramount that clients communicate goals for a smooth operation. On one occasion, a busy client of ours wanted to see his products used in context, so he attended two field visits early in the project. Knowing his reason and planned number of outings, we ensured they’d include use of his products. Everything went well, and his observations were eye-opening. Because he didn’t have time to invest in more fieldwork, we sent him a video document every time someone used his products during the project.

2. Establish Boundaries

Before fieldwork, ethnographers must communicate the research boundaries and client role. Clients should recognize that ethnographers’ expertise consists of more than an ability to build rapport with strangers; their skills are rooted in a keen understanding of social theory and methodological rigor, and entail years of training.

Ethnographers have a process and particular mindset that directs the interview, interaction, and interpretation, so guiding client input before starting a project will help prevent everyone from asking leading questions or biasing conversations. Limits ensure quality work and allow clients to make the most of a field visit.

It also permits them to function within a frame of hierarchical authority, lessening their need to be project leader. In other words, clients understand that the context reduces or removes a layer of authority. It lets them focus on learning and executing predetermined tasks, instead of feeling compelled to handle everything. They can filter information through a training perspective while taking a holistic approach.

3. Allocate Responsibilities

Providing clients an indispensable role in the projects, such as videotaping an interview, helps them feel more like team members and less like visitors. It also raises comfort levels of everyone involved. Assigning tasks s also a practical necessity: Clients can replace research assistants in the field. Two researchers plus a client can threaten and crowd a participant, who just wants to demonstrate the best way to clean a bathroom countertop.

4. Encourage Reciprocation

It’s important to know clients well and be thoughtful about their flexibility, political realities, and character traits. Unfortunately, there often isn’t enough time to do so in-depth. Clients might arrive a half-hour earl for an afternoon interview and leave that evening, never to go into the field again. In this case, an ethnographer can only outline some expectations and techniques – through phone and e-mail conversations beforehand, and on the spot (frequently while sitting on cushy hotel-lobby chairs).

When clients have more time to invest in the ethnography, there are two parts to building a solid team and guaranteeing productive fieldwork (despite their lack of experience.) Clients must be willing to adapt to new or unfamiliar methodologies – techniques for data gathering and interpretation – regardless of their backgrounds (e.g. design, business strategy, engineering). And ethnographers must appreciate and incorporate clients’ theoretical and practical contributions. Success requires devoting time and energy to discovering the capabilities of all the team members – ethnographer and client alike.

Each team member can learn to apply findings across a range of activities. After all, a key to business achievement is using seemingly disconnected information to build new products, brands, and business models. Learning how best to conduct research and understanding individual roles in the field ultimately helps the client use the gathered information most effectively.

Protection and Collaboration

As ethnography becomes a staple of market research, we just might see marketers and product designers make an exodus to the field – with or without us. Ethnographers need to prepare for the possible outcomes. They should do so by not only preventing research from being disturbed, but also by harnessing clients’ intelligence and know-how – using their involvement as a springboard for more effective and actionable ethnography. In the future, most marketing decisions and product innovations will be based on real-world experiences with ordinary people.

Getting Over Ourselves: Make research meaningful

The other day I was privy to a discussion by a researcher who was decidedly upset about having to “dumb down” the research report he had completed. The client was impressed by the depth of the work, but equally frustrated with the seemingly academic depth of the language of the report and the use of jargon that was, realistically, more appropriate to anthropological circles than to a business environment. The researcher was upset by the client’s request to strip out discussions of agency, systems design theory, identity formation, etc., and stated something along the lines of “I had to learn this sort of thing in grad school, so they should take the time to do the same”. And while I think it would be lovely (and perhaps beneficial) if clients took such an interest in what we as researchers study, I have to say my views on the matter are very different. Making what we learn useful and meaningful to the client isn’t “dumbing it down”, it’s performing the task for which we were hired. We do not receive grants and write peer-reviewed articles when businesses hire us. Indeed, we may not write at all. What we do is produce insights and information that they can use, from their design team to their CEO. If they aren’t asking us to become expert in supply chain models or accounting, then asking them to embrace often daunting concepts in socio-cultural theory is both unrealistic and, frankly, arrogant.

In general, companies hire ethnographers (anthropologist, sociologists, etc.) for a simple reason: to uncover new ways to achieve competitive advantage and make more money. This translates, most often, into research to understanding new product opportunities, brand positioning, or salient marketing messages. Unfortunately, our clients often have no idea what to do with the research. But more often than not, the fault lies with ethnographers, not the client, and can be overcome if we apply ourselves just a bit.

Usefulness means being a guide, not a lecturer. So why are we so often disinclined to make what we do useful to business people? Part of it, I believe, stems from an unwillingness to address our own biases openly and honestly. There is a tendency among many of us coming out of what have traditionally been academic disciplines to ridicule or react negatively to people in the business world. To be honest, it’s why we chose, say, an anthropology program over a business program in college. We often, consciously or subconsciously, hold these people in contempt and believe that it is they who should bend, not us, as if we are providing secret knowledge are indeed of a higher order of life than they. We resent the idea that these lesser minds would have to audacity to ask us to curb our genius. And yet, there’s nothing new in making complex ideas useful, simple, or intelligible to people without advanced training in the social sciences. Look at any Anthro 101 course and you realize we’ve been doing this for a very long time already. The fact of the matter is that in order to be relevant and to get the client excited about what we do and to value the thinking behind our work, we have to remember that not everyone wants to be an expert in social science any more than they want to be physicians or painters – they want us to be the experts and to know what we’re doing, including crafting what we learn into something they can grasp and apply even as they try to balance their own work load. Balancing jargon with meaning is, or should be, the goal.

Another struggling point I often think stems from how many of us were trained. Traditionally, the researcher is either left to work alone or as part of a very small team. The findings are analyzed, complied and shared with a small group of like-minded individuals. (We would like to believe that the numbers of people who care about what we write are larger, but the truth is most of us don’t give the work of our colleagues the attention they deserve or would at least like to believe they deserve.) Our careers are built on proving our intelligence, which means making an intellectual case that addresses every possible theoretical angle in great detail. But in the business context, to whom are we proving our intelligence? And do they care? They hire us precisely because we are the experts, not to prove how smart we are. This isn’t to say that we can or should forego the rigor good ethnographic research should employ, but it is to say that whether we like it or not, most of the theoretical models we use should end up in the appendix, not in what the client sees, hears or reads. Not only does it overcomplicate our findings, it often comes across as either arrogant or needy, neither quality being something the client finds particularly enticing or reassuring.

The fact is that we do ourselves and the discipline a disservice by not learning the language and needs of business people. We complain that untrained people are slowly “taking over” ethnography, but it’s our own doing nine times out of ten. It isn’t enough to have a better grasp of the complexities of the human condition, we have to learn to translate our work and come to terms with the fact that the people hiring us have a very real, practical need for our findings. If it cannot be translated into something that can be grasped in the first two minutes, then in their way of seeing the world, it is money wasted.

Are we there to educate or inform? Our work is frequently deemed too academic. So what does it mean when a client says, “It’s too academic.”?
 It means that they didn’t hire you to teach a class about anthropological theory and method. It means they don’t want to sit through a 100 page Power Point presentation before getting to the heart of the matter. They are in business and have neither the time nor the interest of a scholar or student.  Again, this doesn’t mean you don’t do the work or fail to set up the points you are trying to make, but it does mean that you be cognizant of the  fact that the audience hired you to improve their business and products, not teach a course on anthropological methods.  And indeed, some concepts are simply too complex to turn into a couple of bullet points. But that doesn’t mean we cannot try, particularly if we hope to get more work from the client.

The people with the luxury of sitting through a lengthy presentation or who have the time to discuss the intricacies of social theory rarely have a significant amount of authority in the decision-making process, and they rarely hold the purse strings.  This isn’t to say that those two hours of research findings we present aren’t meaningful, but rather that presentations need to be tailored to the needs of the people buying your service (research) and product (recommendations). For the business community, the product is not knowledge, but intelligence.  In other words, the product is knowledge that is actionable and useful. And to be fair, it’s worth noting that the client is the one who pays for our work. If the idea of providing them with the service and product they need is unpalatable, then I would argue that the ethnographer needs to quit complaining and start exploring a different line of work, plain and simple.

The researcher, research team, creative team, client, and everyone invested in the project need to work toward turning information into something they can act upon. When the time comes to sit down with the client and explain what you learned, the ethnographer must be prepared to also explain what to do with it next in a simple, clear way.

 

 

Writing Your RFP Response

Landing a new client is, as everyone knows, a difficult process. For every ten RFP responses your write, only a handful will result in actual work. And when you consider the effort that goes into building an RFP response, that means many hours of work that result in very little payoff. But it’s important to remember that the RFP is not about the researcher, it’s about the client. Writing a proposal, then, is more than a matter of research plan design, it is the first step in a courtship.

The proposal is, in effect, an intellectual (not legal) contract between you and the person or people asking for work to be done. It specifies what you will do, how you will do it, how you will interpret the results, and how you will make them useful for the client. In specifying what will be done it also gives criteria for determining whether it is an actuality done. In approving the proposal and awarding you the bid, the client gives their best judgment that the approach to the research is reasonable and likely to yield the anticipated results.  And those results are about more than the research – they are about making the client look good in the eyes of their peers.  The research may in fact demonstrate the smartest, most productive, most innovative work imaginable, but if it doesn’t address the explicit and implicit needs of the client, it won’t get off the ground.

The objective in writing a proposal is to describe what you will do, why it should be done, how you will do it and how it will benefit the client. A vague, weak or fuzzy proposal can lead to a long, painful, and often unsuccessful bid A clean, well thought-out, proposal not only secures a job, it forms the backbone for the long-term relationship with the client.

Proposals help you estimate the size of a project. Don’t make the project too big or too small – make it fit the needs of the client. This isn’t to say that the quality of the work should be compromised or that there’s no room for adding imaginative elements to the work, but it is to say that it needs to fit the scope of what a potential client has asked for.  If they need a needs assessment and only have $50K to spend, then writing a proposal based on a lengthy, expensive process will be fruitless. If you’re unwilling to do the smaller job, walk away. The client will remember that frankness when they do have the time and money to conduct a project that fits your recommendation. The key point is simply this; write the proposal that fits what they’ve asked for first.

Proof read your proposal before it is sent. It is a simple enough task that is too often overlooked.  Many proposals are sent out with idiotic mistakes, omissions, and errors of all sorts. Having been on both sides of the vendor fence, it is amazing how quickly a simple mistake can destroy all credibility. Clients have seen proposals come in with research schedules pasted directly from other proposals unchanged, with dates, prices and methods that are clearly irrelevant research tasks. Proposals have been submitted to the wrong person at the company. Proposals have been submitted with misspellings in the title. These proposals were, of course, not successful. Stupid things like this kill a proposal. It is easy to catch them with a simple, but careful, proof reading. Don’t spend six or eight weeks writing a proposal just to kill it with stupid mistakes that are easily prevented.

Finally, no matter how much experience, training, and expertise you have, everyone retains a bit of skepticism. “Does this guy really knew what he was talking about?,” is the question on the minds of those involved in the selection process. Remember that knowing your stuff isn’t enough. You will need to answer questions, make changes and compromise.

Writing Case Studies, Not White Papers

When we were in college, particularly those of us who came out of the social sciences, we tended to write volumes when given the task of reporting. I recall regularly churning out 50 pages or more every week at times.  For better or for worse, many researchers, ethnographers in particular, have come to think of themselves as descriptive interpreters, which often leads to rich but dense texts.  Our role has been to translate cultural practices and allow those people who consume our work determine what, if anything, should be done.  We tell a story and provide information that is deep and expansive. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can, however, get in the way of writing short pieces meant to sell or skills and engage readers with little time or patience.  When it comes to case studies, nine times out of ten the reader is looking for information that is quite literal and instructional.  Ambiguity and/or involved anecdotal descriptions are usually rejected in favor of what is more concrete. Rather than looking for a white paper, they are looking for simplicity and proof that the research had applicable results.

White papers are detailed, often lengthy descriptions of methods, variables, problems, outcomes. They are meant to expose the reasoning and rationale behind a position, a problem or a generalized topic. The point is, they are designed to be consumed with a higher degree of reflection on the part of the reader. Case studies, in contrast, are (or should be) direct and brief. They should convince the client to seek more information and take the next step, namely, engagement with the author or company that produced them.  The case studies most potential clients want need to be short, simple, to the point and entertaining. So, other than being brief, what makes for a good case study?

It starts with understanding why we’re writing what we’re writing. It needs to entertain and be thought provoking, but it also serves a purpose for the author. Good content isn’t just fun to read. It should set in motion a sequence of visitor thoughts and actions that ultimately lead to a sale. Case studies are meant to get business, not just enlighten or entertain. The people reading the case study assume you’re writing them to drive business. If you don’t hook them, they assume you’re incompetent or you’re wasting their time. Case studies are the shiny-shiny of authorship.

Before you begin writing, organize your information around two basic principle: what was the business pain and what were the results. reveal real business pain

We often spend more time than is necessary on the way we went about finding a solution rather than thinking through why a solution was needed in the first place. Or, we don’t link the process to the outcomes.  Shorter is better and remembering that everything needs to relate to the Why and So What will help focus the story.

If the objective is to showcase your organization’s ability to generate awareness, revenue or innovation, it needs to equate capabilities with results.  Once the two fundamental points are defined, the story being told needs to be broken out into three simple elements:

  1. Issue
  2. Solution
  3. Results

A well-written case study should:

  1. Build suspense and be provocative: State the problem in terms that make the readers stop in their tracks and want to know what is to come. Simply stating problem in dry, mechanical terms doesn’t attract the reader. Set the stage with language that makes people want to see an outcome – an outcome they can’t predict.
  2. Solve a specific business problem (company X needed to know Y): Tell the reader what needed to be done, how you solved their specific problem and why your process was different from (and better than) your competition. Simply saying something along the lines of “we used an ethnographic approach to uncover insights…” won’t engage and it won’t set you apart.
  3. Solve a generalizable business problem (make money or save money): Once you tell the reader the specific problem you solved, tell them what ultimately matters most; how you made the client money or helped them save money. If the results can be quantified, all the better. The point here is that we often actually manage to overlook this part.  We give examples of outcomes that are often interesting and inspiring, but we fail to tie them back to the money.
  4. Have a satisfying conclusion: Resolve the tension that the story built at the beginning of the case study.  Don’t simply leave the reader with numbers, give them a sense of emotional resolution.
So, as an example:

What does a company do when it’s flagship product isn’t making the money it once did despite huge advertising budgets? It figures out how to talk about what it makes and sells in ways that have never been considered before. It embraces new markets. But to do that, it needs to define those markets in ways their competitors hadn’t. It needs to rethink who it is. 

As part of a brand repositioning and product development initiative, [the client] needed to develop a better understanding of how [lite beer] was understood and used in context by Latinos. They needed on-the-ground, experience-rich information. The response was an in-depth ethnographic project spanning multiple geographic areas and seasons. This wasn’t just interviews – it meant attending rodeos, picnics, BYOB restaurants, bars and birthday parties to gather insights about symbolism, rituals and uses of the product.

The research steered the client down a completely new road of product positioning, saving them millions by developing a campaign strategy and messaging system that were in line with what consumers do, not just what they say they do.  Unlike their competitors, [the client] were able to use the insights uncovered to identify entirely new channels for sales and promotions. Ultimately, sales saw a 6% increase in the first year of the new campaign.
Not a bad end result. Sometimes doing research right leads to big things. 

This is hardly ideal and its quality could no doubt be argued. But it does tell the story. And for someone simply trying to narrow the field from thousands of vendors to just a few in the space of an afternoon, it is considerably easier to read than a full-blown white paper. And that is more likely to help you make a sale.

 

 

 

 

Hire Me: “Selling” Good Ethnography

The term “ethnography” has been used fairly loosely and expectations about the work and final outcomes vary as much as the people calling themselves ethnographers. Businesses have embraced ethnography with mixed reactions and mixed results.  Ethnography has become as much a $10 word for those who feel at ease interviewing people in a “natural” setting as it has a legitimate, systematic meaning of learning.  As I’ve said before, trained ethnographers do more than talk with people – they rely on a set of analytical tools that take experience and specialized training.

Unfortunately, we rarely sell this or explain why it matters to the people who hire us. The fact of the matter is that we rarely address business people by saying “hire me because…” in a straight forward way.  I’ll be the first to say I don’t believe in the idea of simply laying out a capabilities deck and pushing the hard sell. Question-based selling is a much better bet because it is, I contend, focused on establishing a partnership with the client and helping solve their problems (rather than defining self-serving opportunities).  However, I also contend that it is beneficial to practitioners and buyers alike to understand what it is we do and to differentiate how we, meaning anyone selling ethnography, will make them money, increase brand equity, etc. Before a client decides to use an ethnographic approach to answer a research question, it is imperative to know what to expect from a provider.  And that falls to us to explain it. 

What Is It We Do?

Ethnography provides a real-world way of looking at a problem or opportunity, applying social and cultural understanding to the topic.  What this means is that ethnography provides a wide range of answers that, if analyzed properly, go well beyond the tactical, the sensational, and the superficial. What that means to a business, and something we should be more bold about stating, is defining new opportunities for revenue. Far to often we leave the message at the theoretical or deliverable levels without explaining how the work will be translated into actions.  We fail to explain why good methodology and good analysis is important. Providing real-world examples of how our work has been used, vivid accounts with readily defined outcomes, is important but so is articulating how we got there is perhaps more so.  This isn’t to say we bore clients with jargon and detailed explanations of every step of the analysis process, but it is to say we tell them the underlying framework and thinking processes that allowed us to go from findings to insights and recommendation to results that impacted the bottom line.  And that brings us to the second point.

A true ethnography includes a rigorous process of data collection and analysis using the scientific method.  This insures that findings are based on a careful examination of the data, not opinions or sensationalism. For anyone who prides themselves on the quality of their work, analyzing  ethnographic data is not simply a matter of compiling anecdotal information. Analysis is systematic and relies on set of conceptual and theoretical tools. Being able to articulate these tools should be an central element of how we sell our services.  An ethnographer should be able to talk about their analytical process and provide details about how they go about making sense of the data they collect.  Should we bore the client with all the details? Probably not. But we should be able to succinctly explain the rationale behind how we gather and make sense of data. Again, this comes back to a simple point – it differentiates the practitioner and legitimizes the work. It articulates the quality of work and therefore the quality of the insights.

Listening, Not Preaching

Finally, and perhaps the most obvious, is to focus on the client’s needs.  Why are we in the room?  Taking the time to differentiate ourselves along lines of methodology, analysis and results is important but means nothing if what we are doing is simply talking about ourselves.  Every time we talk with an existing or potential client we are conducting a mini-ethnography of sorts.  Rather than selling our services we need to uncover what the client wants and needs – not just what they tell us they want and need, but what the subtext tells us. Selling anything has become increasingly difficult over the last decade.
Prospects have less time but decision makers are receiving more sales calls than ever before. Buyers are often better educated about various competing methodologies than ever before. Clients don’t need information from us as much as they need vendors to help them define their problems and uncover solutions.

A good ethnographer will work with stakeholders to plan a research project that is designed around your business objective. This includes having a willingness to challenge clients.  This isn’t about being confrontational, it’s about making sure the client gets the best research plan and insights possible. Being willing to do what is right rather than what is expedient is a significant selling point that we often overlook.  It differentiates the practitioner and legitimizes the work. It articulates the quality of work and therefore the quality of the insights. Honesty ultimately has its advantages, not necessarily today but over the long run. The more we can articulate our desire for a collaborative partnership rather than just a check, the better we position ourselves to say “hire me.”

 

 

 

 

Good Clients, Bad Clients

A while back I was having a conversation over drinks with an old advertising colleague that had made the transition from the vendor side of things to the client side. As we talked, the conversation turned to the client/vendor relationship and what was most important in producing positive business results, good clients or good firms?  As I thought about it over the next few days, it occurred to me that perhaps this binary approach to understanding was flawed. It occurred to me that the nature of any conflict is built into the process, not a reflection of two separate cultural points of view. Simply, the best firms, the firms we admire and talk about, all have a method for developing good clients. But before we can discuss the methods, we have to define a few things.

Good Clients, Bad Clients

The first question is what constitutes a good client? What is it that makes a client “bad”? One answer is that a “bad client” is one who makes it difficult to produce good work for them.  Building on that, and perhaps more important, a “bad client” is one who makes it difficult because he or she doesn’t want to learn.

A good client is someone who understands the design process. They value what thoughtful design can bring to their business. They may not understand the details, but they understand that just as they trust their accountant to do solid finance work, they trust the creative team to do what they do best.

So how do we convert “bad clients” to “good clients”? Of course none of us values what we don’t understand. Until there is a clear, shared understanding of what design means, there are going to be conflicts.  What this means is that a good client understands and values good creative, from research to execution.  And who’s job is it to foster that understanding? Ours.  Every difficult client is an opportunity to build a relationship, rather than a transaction, and to create future advocates. As with all relationships, be they new or old, it begins with understanding the other person’s point of view.

Dualistic Thinking

There are many ways of coming to understand a client’s point of view. Understanding the process of how and what we communicate is a first step. The research and creative teams must articulate and balance “objective” with “subjective” elements to create both a powerful marketing experience and a story that impacts the client audience. This means balancing science and art. Subjective creative leaps are made that bridge different ways of thinking about the world.

The problem is, many people see objective and subjective thinking as binary, often leading to conflict. We are taught to think in sequences and compartmentalized knowledge. We develop habits of thinking that work for us in a given context and embrace world views that will bolster our positions within a group. In other words, our “rational” behavior is often anything but rational. When seeking to understand one another, we try to identify the way people think. We label ourselves as more objective or subjective thinkers, and then begin to identify with that label as if it represented some sort of camp or tribe.

In a business setting, people often have a hard time understanding and valuing subjective thinking and design. They understand or revert to data and numbers but have a difficult time trusting subjective leaps. Their preference is for objective thinking because subjective judgments are inherently unpredictable. And to be fair, their jobs are about producing quantifiable results for their business. Design is decoration and secondary to the business.

There are also people who believe they enjoy a very subjective view of the world. Just as “objective” thinkers may struggle to embrace the subjective elements of the design process, “subjective” thinkers may have difficulty valuing an objective view. Whereas objective thinkers may have a hard time coming to terms with the open thinking of creative, subjective people can be difficult clients when they gloss over or dismiss the findings researchers or business people provide. These clients often believe they are designers and have a rough time following the logic of good creative rooted in a balance or art and science.

The Making of Good Clients

A good client, like a good designer, comes to an understanding that design is a balance between two ends of the spectrum – objectivity and subjectivity. These clients  understand that design is more than an ability to draw or write, it is a process of balancing art and business that is defined by knowledge, precision and craft that takes years of practice.

The key to getting a client to understand this is by providing the balanced view of and rational for creative in general and their creative in particular. Step one is breaking through the duality we have created between objective and subjective understanding. Great leaps forward inevitably live at the murky, often indescribable borders between intuition and data.

Regardless of what we have been led to believe, truth, perception and reality are all  shades of gray. The dichotomies we create are useful, indeed necessary, but they are not reality – they are tools for organizing our minds. But the world works as a complex system of meanings. The trick is knowing when to let our dichotomies go. First we gather data and facts and measurements. These give us structure and simplicity. Then we makes our leaps – we think inductively, build hypotheses, create and explore. Having looked at a problem from multiple angles and with a wide range of thinking, we come out the other side with a new view of thinking that is informed, holistic and powerful. This is when we realize that, for example, while a computer is indeed meant for computing, it is also a fashion accessory, a baby sitter on a flight and (like it or not) a paperweight.  And that radically opens up the range and power of marketing and revenue.

Know the Role You Play

So, while all this sounds like an ad for a new age philosophy, what does it mean in practical terms?  How realistic is it in practice? It is realistic if we take a few moments to think about how we view ourselves in the client/vendor relationship.  We  must become guides, teaching our clients that good creative requires holistic thinking. We must also teach this to our own creative teams.

Asking members of a creative team, be it the graphic artist, the writer or the design anthropologist, to guide and teach may appear to be asking too much. There is a lone-wolf attitude that many people in these disciplines embrace precisely because they are holistic thinkers. But being inherently holistic in your approach to world view doesn’t mean that you have either the desire or the skill to articulate it. Doing so takes work.  However, if they want to be taken seriously and have a positive influence on the client, they need to be able to defend why it is they do what they do.

The first thing to do with a client is to think and collaborate. Clients expect you to ask questions, lots of questions, about their business, their customers and the world. Ask about the industry, the business conditions, competitive landscape, future prospects and strategy, customer profiles, communications objectives, and brand strategy. Ask how the work will be used, how it will integrate with other elements of the company’s business strategy and who will use it. Be willing to question some assumptions the client may have. Ask all the questions to get the answers you need in order to create effective communications. They expect you to dazzle them, though they may not admit it, with creativity, excitement and intelligence.  Once you have answers, you can develop a map rather than working in a vacuum and use it to explain the steps you go through in the creative process.

Think about how you can help your clients solve their problems and be open about it.  Be smart but take what a client has to say to heart (in other words, be smart but don’t threaten).  Prove the value of good creative to business. Demonstrate that you are more than decoration, demonstrate that you are an invaluable asset. Know their business, but also know individual objectives. Helping a client achieve his or her goals within an organization turns them from buyers to advocates.

But keep in mind that teaching someone about design is not simply handing them guidelines or pontificating. It’s more akin to discussing philosophy or teaching through example than it is about dictating. Clients will come to recognize that your role is larger and far more important than the preconceived notion they may have.  When this clicks, clients go from bad or neutral to good. All of this will lead not only to a better client interaction, but better work as a whole.

What’s the Point?

As we asked at the beginning, what makes a good client and a good firm? Which is more important? Ideally, one creates the other. The best firms bring out the good in clients and good clients create an environment for creative teams to do their best work. Good firms and good clients co-create each other. The point is to break down the traditional, transactional nature of the relationship and become comfortable as guides. And a new type of relationship takes root, defined by mutual respect and value.

By Gavin