Why clients don’t buy good work - and what you can do about it

Fucking clients

If it was possible to invest in words, I'd drop a couple of grand on the the term "fucking client!" I heard it several times a week in multiple agencies across two decades in the ad industry and I reckon it's good for the long-term.

The 'fucking client' was accused of multiple sins including being chickenshit, not knowing what's good for them, having zero understanding of technology and not being able to spot a good idea if it bit them on the arse.

I heard it so often, I came to believe it. And I uttered the phrase on a regular basis myself.

But I was wrong.

Oh! So that's what they do?

For the last seven years I've been working directly with marketers and other clients. It turns out they're not imbeciles after all. In fact, they turn out to be really smart people who have lots of other pressing things to think about than dealing with agencies. They've got deadlines to meet, targets to hit, reports to write, presentations to conduct and all sorts of other high pressure calendar-nuggets to juggle. Clients I've spoken to estimate that dealing with agencies is less than 20% of their job. So it's no surprise that they struggle to find the time and energy to keep on top of the latest trends, technology, platforms, tools and Cannes-winning work.

They're not ignorant about any of this because they want to be. They've just got more pressing things to deal with.

And because they don't have the knowledge in their head to give them the confidence to say 'yes', the natural answer to anything that falls outside their understanding is 'no'. Not because the idea is wrong. But because they don't know for sure that the idea is right.

Oops! We've misunderstood the audience

So, it can probably be said that any agency person that regularly utters the phrase "fucking client" has either misunderstood their immediate audience or - I'll admit there's a slim chance of this - they're right.

However, by limiting their response to a barrage of futile expletives, agencies are missing out on a massive opportunity. One that can get them more business, more interesting work and gain them the trust and loyalty of their clients.

If agencies want their clients to be equipped with the knowledge to request and approve better work, they need to give it to them. It's as simple as that. Agencies need to educate their clients.

Education is the only known cure for ignorance

What lies at the heart of this issue is a knowledge gap. And, if you want the situation to change, you need to bridge it.

However, it's best not to do it when you're trying to sell an idea to the client. Your lessons will be skewed to your agenda, have a narrow focus and are unlikely to reap you any long-term benefit. Client education should be a separate activity that opens up multiple opportunities in the long-term rather than a limited benefit in the short-term.

Sending an occasional email bulletin might get you some results. But if you're serious about this, you really need to go further. You need to go beyond trying to draw the client's attention to sexy boondoggles to drawing your own attention to their needs and how you can meet them.

The clients actually want this

I've not met a client who doesn't want great work. They want stuff that's going to gain them an advantage in the market and help them hit those unreasonable targets. But sometimes they feel that their agencies are more interested in their own agendas. This is an opportunity to show them that isn't true.

Put a day aside to teach them. Give them the knowledge they need. Show them how a new approach is likely to benefit their business. Inspire them and explore new ideas. Leave them with the information they need to take advantage of these new opportunities on their next brief.

If you're an agency that sees sense in this, I'd encourage you to go for it. If you're not sure how to do it, drop me a line. This is what I do (and here’s the proof).

If you're a client who sees sense in this, forward this article to your agencies. If they don’t take you up on it, you can always mutter "fucking agency" behind their back for a change.

Dave Birss is the chief thinker at RadCat and is editor of Open for Ideas – – an online magazine dedicated to demystifying creativity.

Dave Birss

I used to be an advertising Creative Director. Now I'm on a mission to demystify creativity. I do that by writing, speaking, broadcasting and consulting.

I’m the founder of RIGHTthinking.co - which helps businesses get to more effective ideas more effectively.

I’m the editor of OpenforIdeas.org - an online magazine that explores creativity and innovation in business.

I was the writer, director and presenter of the TV series, The Day Before Tomorrow.

I'm the author of A User Guide to the Creative Mind. And have a couple of other books in the pipeline.

You can often find me debunking creative myths on stage at conferences all over the world.

All by Dave