There are no good clients anymore: What one ad agency learned when it became its own client

The production department at an agency I used to work for had a sign overhead that said, “Good? Fast? Cheap? Pick two.” It was funny in a sad way.

But these days, it has become tragic. Clients want all three. All the time. And if you dare try to run a business (ie ask for more money) or respect your employees (ie ask for more time) or value a craft (ie try to make something great) clients will simply call upon any number of suitors who are all too willing to step into your role.

So what are we as advertising people to do? Short of getting our commercial real estate licenses or taking jobs at the bank, there is only one thing we can do... create our own clients.

And by creating our own clients, I don’t mean taking on pro bono accounts or advertising faux companies for our own jollies. I mean putting our “we’re smarter than you are” money where our mouths are – and making something.

That’s right, advertising peoples; to have great clients, we need to create great clients. And to create great clients, we need to make something more than billable hours. We need to leave the world of witty headlines and programmatic ad buys and snackable content and (insert ad buzzword of the day here) create bona fide companies.

At The Variable, we created Sunshine. A healthier drink option that lives in between sodas and energy drinks. We call it a “pick-me-up of good energy.” It was birthed out of our brains and brought kicking and screaming to the marketplace. Let me tell you, what seemed relatively easy on paper, flexed every one of our advertising muscles. From strategically identifying the opportunity, to creatively naming and designing it, to operationally figuring out how to get it made... it brought out the best in all of us.

And once we received product on hand, the real hardship started. How do we sell this stuff? How do we advertise it? Who wants to carry it?

The great thing about advertising is that we are all, collectively, a wildly inventive bunch of misfits. And that plays to our advantage when creating clients. We didn’t design Sunshine the typical way. We didn’t manufacture it the typical way. And we sure as hell weren’t going to sell it the typical way.

We thought of all kinds of alternate distribution strategies, from pyramid schemes to creating a website where you could send a customized Sunshine to anyone in the US for just $5. Why ever buy another greeting card, when you could give someone a drinkable greeting card that would actually make them feel better?

Oh the advertising we would make!

Of course, as with any good deed, creating your own client does not go without punishment. Our punishment came in the disgusting form of success. We created this client to do great advertising, not to actually figure out the nuts and bolts of operating a business in a completely different category. But the marketplace demanded otherwise. People really liked Sunshine. And they wanted to actually drink it, not just see great advertising about it. So the hours that we were hoping to spend dreaming up impossibly funny and innovative advertising campaigns were instead spent figuring out supply chain issues and distribution logistics.

Our new client launched three years ago, and we are yet to do the AMAZING ad campaign we actually created it for. We are too busy running the business to spend time advertising the business. And you know what? That has made us a far better advertising agency.

We no longer talk about thinking like entrepreneurs. We are entrepreneurs. And we no longer feign empathy with client-side issues. We live those same client-side issues. Perspective is a wonderful thing.

A few weeks ago, we bought an out-of-home board for Sunshine; the client that was created to allow for total creative freedom. The client that would put up out-of-home boards so provocative that cars would wreck upon seeing them! Sadly, that out-of-home board turned out to be the most overthought, uninteresting, most scrutinized piece of creative The Variable has ever produced.

Turns out, creating your own client isn’t a means to end, but an end in itself; the actual creation is the best “advertising” work you will ever do.

The moral of the story? With great client-creating powers comes great client-creating responsibilities. Some responsibilities we never foresaw, and some we are tackling along the way. As an ad agency, we’ve grown tremendously through this process: we’ve rolled up our sleeves and jumped in feet first and all the clichés... and we’re better for having done it. As a client, however, it seems we still have a lot to learn... and a tiny nagging desire to demand things be delivered good, fast and cheap.

Joe Parrish is partner and chief creative officer at The Variable

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Joe Parrish

Joe Parrish is partner and chief creative officer at The Variable.

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