Like all things, there are two parts to the story, writes our guest author Ayyappan Raj, senior adman and founder of The Script Room.
First is actually an anecdote. There was this famous Tamil writer Sujatha (his real name is S. Rangarajan, but he used to write with his wife’s name) who, while talking about his fans, inadvertently explained a critical aspect of agency-client relationship.
He was once sitting in Woodlands Drive-In restaurant in Chennai, had ordered his favourite rava idli, and was waiting for it to arrive. A man walks up to him and strikes a conversation. He introduces himself as a fan and says he loves all of Sujatha’s work. Sujatha is kind of pleased and politely thanks him.
The fan continues to talk about how he really likes one particular novel and the way Sujatha ended the story. Sujatha nods in agreement. The fan goes on to talk about how, in another story, Sujatha made the boyfriend character a chartered accountant and how it helped to give it a right personality.
The guy then starts talking about another story, where the protagonist turns negative towards the middle and how it’s a fantastic thing to happen. Sujatha continues to listen. Then he says if the character had done the same either at the beginning or the end, it would’ve been a total disaster. Sujatha continues to listen. And the fan goes on for some more time, appreciating many other novels and plot twists, and eventually leaves as the food arrives.
Sujatha said he couldn’t eat the food after that. He felt an emotion which was complex, sort of unsettling. “I am the one who’s written the books. I am the one who’s created the characters. I am the one who’s spent sleepless nights coming up with the plot twist… and all you’ve done is just read them. How can you get on to the same plane and speak to me that way? I am not saying that I need to be put on a pedestal, but the manner in which you’re acknowledging my creative work, using your own personal intellectual logic, is brutally robbing the ownership from me. It objectifies my emotional output, which I find deeply disconcerting.”
Now let me share another anecdote/advice. An ex-client and a good friend once explained to be me the concept of ‘senior clients’. He said people who successfully run companies are most likely to be either ‘engineering geniuses’ or ‘finance gurus’.
He said, “While they may not be the masters of advertising and know each and every nuance of communication, they are the creators of the business and owners of the brand. Believe me, irrespective of the agency’s passion for the brand, the brand will always be more closer to them than anyone else.”
The client knows the product, the category, the market and also, in a sense, the consumer, and they are seeking external help to bridge the gap between the consumer and their brand. “Technically speaking, advertising is commercial art, a commissioned project. That’s all there is to it.”
Client-agency relationships are, indeed, complex. Definitely not an easy one. How does one place their bet, put their money on something that one can’t really see... How does one allow the other person to give input on something that they had created, something that’s almost personal... and to what extent? At what point does that input become intrusion? Where does one draw the line, from both sides? When does the equation deteriorate to ‘who knows better’ or worse?
A significant portion of the client-agency engagements have now moved from retainer/annual contracts to project models. This brings up questions on how to make things work and find greatness in short-term relationships… There’s absolutely no formula, process, or one method that can achieve this.
At the end of the day, it’s a people business. And, people on both sides determine the equation and, thereby, the outcome. Since I don’t want to leave it at this profound observation, here’s a short best practices guide to both the parties involved:
For friends and fraternity at the Client side:
1) Respect advertising. Regard it as important. Demonstrate how much you value it with your ‘time and attention’.
2) Do all due diligence, go through the work of agency and its team, meet and talk. The conversations need not be specific to the brief and need not be focused on the campaign. But listen to the team’s views on life, their recent work, what they like, what they don’t... have as many meetings to understand the people and personalities before signing up.
3) Do a thorough briefing. Answer all questions. Don’t hide behind ambiguities (those things generally come back and bite in the bum) just to avoid a difficult question. Tell the truth as much as possible. Don’t hold anything back. Be transparent. Don’t bullshit. The purpose of the brief is to simplify the task and not the other way around.
4) Give very clear directions. Commit yourself to what you say. Be willing to stick your neck out and see through the project - no guts, no glory.
5) Be willing to pay a premium. During my time at Lintas, I had a very logical argument with a client when he said they’re being fair by offering us the same fees as the other agency that they work with on other brands. I believed that it’s actually unfair, how can you pay the same money that you are paying someone who does average ads, to the other who’s doing path-breaking work? You can’t buy an Alto and BMW at the same price, there has to be some difference.
6) Acknowledge the significance of the role the ad filmmakers play in achieving the final output. They bring to closure all the time, effort, money that has been spent on the project. They give shape and form to the collective vision. They are the last mile. They are make-or-break.
7) Respond to creative stimulus intuitively and sincerely, with no insecurities, no point to prove, no junior-senior hierarchies. State exactly how you feel and ensure that everyone has understood the feedback. With great power comes great responsibility.
8) Flow. Remember this word every time you’re in a PPM or a jamming session. Go with the flow. There might be some niggling doubts that’ll keep cropping up in your mind from time to time, but don’t stop the flow. Allow the flow. Take a deep breath and tell yourself that I have chosen a good team and I trust them. It’s very likely that the agency or the filmmaker will naturally come to the same point...
9) A friend once shared a fantastic perspective. “Sometimes, even bad clients approve good ideas. And then having approved, they start scrubbing it clean... scrub scrub... scrub scrub… to a point where there’s no idea left.” ‘Knowing where to stop’ is a critical aspect of creative collaboration. Stay away from specifics. As tempting as it might be to throw your two cents, please hold back. It doesn’t help at all and, most often, damages the collective output.
10) Be wary of letting the juniors lead the meetings. It’s practically impossible for any filmmaker to provide logical, convincing argument to justify every angle and composition in every frame of the storyboard to an inexperienced brand manager. If the discussions end up becoming film-making tutorials, the quality of conversation will drop drastically and you tend to lose sight of the bigger picture.
11) Be accommodative of mistakes. There’s no higher demonstration of trust than that.
For friends and fraternity at the Agency side:
1) Respect the task. Regard it as important. Demonstrate how much you value it with your sincerity and efforts.
2) Ram Madhvani, in an earlier interview with the magazine ‘The Brief’, used a metaphor of ‘dog versus god’. Try to see your clients neither as god nor dog. Both approaches have proven to fail. Treating your clients like god removes objectivity and treating anyone like dog has never resulted in anything great.
3) Please understand it’s not very easy for a client to respond to a script that has just been presented. You have to first get the idea, understand/follow the script, and then to say exactly what you feel, and be objective, and offer constructive criticism… all at the same time! With some seven people intently listening to every word that you’re about to say…
4) Just because a person doesn’t understand your music reference, doesn’t make them dumb. Just because a person hasn’t seen a very famous ad film, doesn’t bring down their qualities as an intelligent being. Just because someone is worried about how their product will look in the ad, doesn’t make them stupid. Don’t give that purist, holier-than-thou bullshit. Don’t faff. Don’t gas.
5) Try to be more realistic in your approach. Be practical. A brand manager once told me, “At the end of the day, after you all finish your passionate speech on what the brand should be doing, what it should stand for and so on, you all will take an Uber and go back to your office. And we, the client, has to deal with the outcome of whatever decisions have been taken... brand might be a lofty, glorious, romantic notion for you, but it’s a damn laborious, real time, everyday entity for us.”
6) Always be sincere. Sincere to the task and the conversation. Only when you’re sincere will you be able to see things clearly.
7) Having said that, too much of a Gandhian outlook is also not a good thing. ‘Let my work speak for itself’ is not a great starting point. You’re in the communication business, please communicate.
8) Some of the most successful creative people are successful because they present scripts damn well. It’s your responsibility to make the client see the film correctly in their head. Remember this always, coming up with the idea is only half the job. Making the client get the idea, convincing them with logic and reason, working with a filmmaker to see it through… is the most crucial other half! And, that’s a lot of hard work.
9) Decision-making in large organisations is a complex process. Sometimes, everyone is together, and ideas/scripts get approved in one go. Sometimes, it’s the brand manager who’s written the brief and wants to see the creative before taking it to the bosses. At times, there might be one more level of CEO or founders.
Large organisations are used to a lot of power being centralised and are rarely autonomous. Appreciate the fact that it’s not the brand manager’s inability to give you a clear yes or no. It’s the system’s functioning that is stopping him/her.
10) You’re also likely to find many junior clients leading projects - new brands, newer categories tend to have young teams. And generally, the younger ones are the ones to have all the answers. If your desire is to know, there’s a lot you can learn.
11) Clients are also moving between jobs, and it’s possible that he/she is also trying to get a grip of the task and figure out the brief. Cut them some slack. Be willing to work with them and find answers together. While “screw all this, just tell me what to do” might sound like a fair ask, it may not necessarily work in all situations.
Having been in advertising for a long time and having worked with some of the best creatives and clients, I have understood one thing. Finally, it all boils down to trust. Some of the greatest pieces of work and partnerships have all been an outcome of solid trust. Client trusting the agency, agency trusting the client, and both trusting the filmmaker. At some point, one of them placed their lives in the hands of the other and great things happened.
(The author is a veteran adman and founder of the agency The Script Room.)
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