The High Cost of Bad Clients


John Durham, EVP at Carat Fusion and Freestyle (disclaimer: I now work for AMMO, which is in the same network as these companies), recently engaged his team in an interesting discussion: what makes a client a bad client?

It’s a fascinating topic, because clients are the very lifeblood of an agency. You can be as creative, strategic, and efficient as the day is long. You got no clients, you got no agency. But anyone who’s ever worked at an agency understands, at a very visceral level, the problem of bad clients. I know I do. There are companies I’ve worked with that have just chewed up and spat out some great agency people.

But Durham has a very pragmatic view of the issue. He sees the difference between good and bad clients not so much as a schism or split, but as a continuum — one built very firmly on trust and respect.

Diagnosing a Client’s Propensity for Goodness

Clients are the primary input into the agency. Their needs, their problems, their consumers. Their dollars. Everything. They provide the raw material of agency work. If you were a manufacturer, you’d go through a fairly diligent process of ensuring the raw materials you were receiving were of good quality. You’d pretty closely examine the steel, leather, plastic knobby feet, and whatnot.

What do agencies do about clients? Not a whole lot, in my experience. In fact, most agencies very quickly get wrapped up in the new business process. They don’t do any real diligence on the clients themselves. The question of a client’s innate goodness really doesn’t come up. But it’s actually fairly simple to do a quick look at the client’s history.

Durham suggests looking at the company’s Dun & Bradstreet rating. That’s easy. But also take a look at places like ClickZ’s Execs & Accounts to see if it’s swapped agencies a lot. Or do a quick search on the client name and “agency” or “interactive agency.” For example, “Nike interactive agency” turns up 18,700 results. A quick scan through the headlines will help you understand a little more about what kind of company you’re dealing with.

If you’re dealing with a retailer, another good way is simply to walk into the store and buy something. Or return something. Or call and complain about something. This, of course, won’t give you any insight into what your ultimate client contact will be like, but it will certainly help you understand the corporate culture she inhabits.

The other simple thing to do is really make sure you (and your team) spend time with the client, discussing the way you’re going to work together. Much new business discussion centers on how the agency works and what the client can expect. Schedule a meeting with the prospect to talk, not necessarily about the project at hand but about how you plan on working with them in total. How often they want calls, how polished presentations need to be, and even whether the client wants to exert some creative influence.

The Benefit of Being the Best Client in the Shop

A brief open email:


Dear Clients:

Here’s an insight: you want to be known as the best client at your chosen agency. Fact is, the clients known as the “best” attract the best people in the shop. It almost doesn’t matter what your product is. There’s an assumption that agency people only want to work on sexy brands and big projects. OK, that’s true to a point. But really, agency staff want to work on projects that allow them to do their job and enjoy support from their client contacts.

Core to this is respect for the process and people. Certainly there’s the image of the prima donna creative director who simply wants to do something neat and cool. Or execute some idea he’s had in his sketchbook since art school and really doesn’t care about client needs. But that’s the exception. Once you’ve chosen your agency, you can be pretty sure these people want very much to make you happy.

If you give them that respect, you’ll find not only is it returned, but everyone wants to work on your business. Suddenly, your work increases in quality, and everyone is happy.

What About You?

In advertising work, we deal with the thin line between ideas and execution. The relationship between the agency and the client is paramount. Durham brought up Steve Jobs and Lee Clow in our discussions: two very big egos that have been able to create fantastic work repeatedly.

I’m planning to continue this discussion on my blog under the heading “Being Good: The Client/Agency Relationship.” I very much welcome your comments, complaints and ongoing stories.


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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.