Charles Wigley
Oct 9, 2014

How to improve your clients: A step by step guide

As agencies, we spend a lot of time trying to understand our client's buyers. But what about our own, asks Charles Wigley, chairman of BBH Asia Pacific.

Charles Wigley
Charles Wigley

One of things that has always stuck in my mind from the writings of creative legend Paul Arden on our industry was his point about starting any process by finding out what your clients regard as being creative. 

Creativity is such a subjective thing that one person's brilliance is another person's dross. Yet how often does anyone spend proper time with their clients understanding what they really like? And then we are surprised when they don't like what we absolutely love two months down the line?

But taking a step even further back, is it helpful for us to try and understand—and categorise—the nature of the clients we are working with so we can think through specific ways to make them, and the work we produce for them, better?

After all we spend a lot of time trying to understand our client's buyers. But what about our own?

Below is a simple categorisation of client marketing organisations I have devised. It's a sort of ascent of marketing man or woman. It is obviously crude (and possibly a little rude—so apologies in advance if it offends anyone, that's not the intention) and definitely broad brush stroke. But at least it gives us a place to start. There is an implied quality improvement the more you can take your clients from left to right, although not necessarily sequentially.

Chaotic players -- Rational-process followers -- Emotional progressives -- Big-leap takers

Chaotic players are still very prevalent in Asia. Not just small local companies but often very big and successful ones. They are places that are very hierarchical and where marketing is not yet either strong or systematised in any real way. Everyone defers to the big boss and spends a lot of time double guessing them. There is a lot of playing the man and not the ball. The consumer doesn't get much of a look in.

Rational-process followers are the older school global FMCG companies and their local equivalents (often massive as well and often also staffed with people who have worked first in the global ones and carry the torch of process with them). Here all the answers lie in extended process and consumer input derived from research. Personal opinion doesn't count for too much.

Emotional progressives are the ones the advertising industry likes most because they are typically most like us. In fact they often are us, just in new jobs. They've read the same stuff as we have, attend the same conferences, like to think creatively, harbor a healthy skepticism about pre-testing and believe in fame, impact, big ideas, brand missions etc. They are often big, enlightened global companies with relatively premium brands at their heart.

Big-leap takers flirt with our industry, but quite often just go ahead and do it by themselves—or with individual creative suppliers on an ad hoc basis. Did an advertising agency suggest to Red Bull that Felix Baumgartner should jump from space? Unless someone tells me otherwise I suspect not. These are companies that instinctively believe in fame and massive publicity for their brands. It is their very own adrenaline rush. What would Richard Branson not have done in the 1990s to get into the newspapers?

It is easy to see how different agency types marry up against these different clients too: local agencies (or local divisions of multinational agencies) with chaotic players, the big, global networks with the rational-process followers, the global creative micro networks with the emotional progressives (my own agency, BBH, is a classic example of an agency that primarily operates in this space) and the new-age boutiques as well as individual production companies/creatives with the big-leap takers.

So having understood where your clients sit on this rudimentary spectrum, how do you make their work better?

Chaotic players are pyramidal companies. If you are not tied in at the top you are nowhere, however 'right' you may be. You'll just be stuck down the ladder with everyone else double guessing things. So the tactic has to be to build a strong relationship with the big boss. If that person has a vision or a clear belief system (once you can actually get to them you will find many do) then a well organised agency can often take a chaotic player and transform them into an emotional progressive with very strong outputs, entirely skipping the rational-process follower stage (these type of companies are never that keen on consumer testing anyway). Note though that your agency team has to be well organised however. If it has become as reactionary as the client team it marks then you will not crack it.

Rational-process followers will brook no argument as to approach and process in the normal run of things. They have a playbook and they like to stick to it. But you can still make progress if you can create a strong rational argument for 'separation out' from the normal process for a specific part of the business. Unilever provides us with two great examples. Firstly, Axe (Lynx in some markets) wouldn't be the brand it is now if Unilever hadn't created 'The Republic of Axe' within itself to denote the Axe marketing group. It was tougher to get into and required longer-term commitment than if you applied to work on other Unilever brands. They came to see themselves as the creative marketing elite of the company.

The other Unilever example is Dove. Looking at our categorisation it is clear that the team operates both as a rational-process follower and a big-leap taker (eg Dove Sketches). It is a twin-speed marketing group. The vast bulk of Dove advertising is fairly standard product-lead fare (and has no real relationship to The Campaign for Real Beauty), but it still encourages a strong stream of breakthrough work on the brand mission to generate fame and conversation. Coke is another huge organisation that is instituting different splits in its marketing budgets to allow experimentation into the machine.

Emotional believers should be on your wavelength anyway so its really a matter of upping the collaboration factor even more to see how far you can go as a client/agency team. Discussing what could really generate fame for your brand while staying true to its nature. The only danger here is that theses folks may get so excited that they go off and do it on their own, i.e. without you. This requires careful management. You may not be the sole creative contributor anymore, by a long stretch.

Big-leap takers may actually bring you in to be the boring, conservative ones and build campaign coherence around their initiatives. They are already sinking millions into Project X. They just need you to wrap your head around it and then promote the hell out of it. Indeed, more than anything else your job may be to be their anchor - reminding them of the fundamentals that still need to be covered. Indeed there is a chaotic element to this group that almost comes full circle back round to where we started with the chaotic players.

Of course the really powerful marketers combine elements of the last two categories. Consistently delivering big, emotionally led campaigns interspersed with huge activation spikes. Nike is a brilliant example of such an organisation (when isn't it?).

So there you have it. A pretty basic categorisation but it may have some merit. I'm interested in what others think. And indeed how would clients divide us all up?

Charles Wigley is chairman of BBH Asia Pacific

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