Mike Fromowitz
Sep 17, 2011

"Some clients really annoy me!”—Creative Director, 4A’s ad agency.

There must have been something extra put in the drinks last week. I spent a few informative hours at a birthday celebration with a group of twelve people that included several senior ad agency ...

There must have been something extra put in the drinks last week. I spent a few informative hours at a birthday celebration with a group of twelve people that included several senior ad agency creatives, one managing director, a strategic planner and an ad agency CFO. Given the direction of the conversation and the opportunity, they were considerably vocal about some of their client relationships.

Overall, they voiced disenchantment and concern. Some were brought to the point of anger citing that their clients showed “very little respect’ for the efforts of the agency and for the creative work. Others, showed “no respect at all”, noted one creative director.

I don’t believe it’s only the advertising industry that gets knocked. According to several of the agency people I talked to, they feel that very few clients hold their ad agencies in high regard. I found that very surprising and worrying. The managing director, a seasoned pro for a major international agency said that, “Many Asian clients tend to see advertising as an expense, not an investment. They are more concerned with price than they are the content. It’s a trader’s mentality—not a brand mentality.”

It made me wonder. Is this one of the reasons why Asian products and brands are not as well known around the world, or around the region for that matter?  Did the same hold true for other industries— architecture, visual arts, music, and design?

Take for example an award winning hair stylist I know. We got into a conversation and within a matter of minutes he was letting off steam. He started to rant on about some of his clients.

“You know what pisses me off about some of my clients?” he said. “Some of them tell me how to do my job! I can apply color. I can do haircuts. I can wrap a perm. I have done extensions for years. Do you think I need people telling me what to do… do you think I don’t know my craft?

“Then there are the customers that try to hurry me. Hello! Products take time to process, and there is only so much I can do!  That is why I try to keep everyone entertained. I don’t know if it’s the economy, but so many of my customers are bitching about the price! You get what you pay for but things cost me money.  Retail space costs money. There are salaries for my staff, and everything else it costs to open a business?  I price myself accordingly.  Not the highest.  And I am definitely not the lowest.  Sometimes I have promotions and sometimes I offer discounts. But I want to be paid fairly for what I do”.

Perhaps it is these tough economic times that tend to bring out the dark side in professionals. It’s no different for many in the advertising industry. The troubling stories I heard from the group of twelve didn’t fare too well for the ad industry or for marketers. Here are a few of the comments I culled from the conversation:

  • “Clients you've been accustomed to doing business with for years are now making unusual and often times silly demands on our agency. There’s no question that most jobs will require some requests that weren’t made up front. That’s unavoidable in many cases. However, when a client requests round after round of revisions, with new requests each time, he’s more trouble than he’s worth.”

  • “Clients can push an agency so low on fees that making a profit is out of the question.”

  • “Clients who question our rates in the middle of projects are the ones that really annoy me. The client who questions your rates is a client who shows signs of distrust. There is a nothing wrong with a client telling you they can't afford what you have quoted, but that is different from them telling you it shouldn't cost so much. Clients should understand you are quoting fairly and accurately (assuming you are) based on the scope of the project. Your cost coming in higher doesn't mean you are cheating them.”

  • “Clients are slow payers, and some don’t pay their fees and invoices for 90 to 120 days. Then their accounting department escalates the situation and challenges the invoices. This can take another 30-60 days. Some do not pay at all. In this electronic age, payment is as simple as a few clicks. It shouldn’t take more than a couple of weeks to make a payment. There are some big clients with millions or billions in their bank accounts and they hold the little guy to ransom by not paying their invoices on time.”

  • “What I seem to be getting more of on a daily basis is tersely worded emails that convey impatience and disrespect.”

  • “What really bugs me is the CEO overriding the marketing director’s decision on the creative execution, giving the agency a case of revision whiplash. If he doesn’t trust his marketing director why did he put him into that job in the first place?”

  • “Taking the agency's advice on strategy and creative work, then abruptly doing an about-face is what angers me.”

  • “I hate clients that (BLEEP) around with the agency. They really annoy me to no end. Especially those who ignore standard agency timelines and demand turnaround at an unreasonable pace. It always leads to several mistakes, loss of profit, and extra time to do the job. And in the end, the work suffers. So do the people who have to create the work.”

  • “My biggest grievance with some clients is when there is really not enough communication. I like a client that keeps communications short and sweet, but honestly,  there still needs to be enough communication to get the job done right. If the client doesn’t communicate clearly or sufficiently at the start, or fails to give you a proper brief, there is sure to be problems later.”

  • “The client has to follow through on what he says he will do in order for us to get the job done. And if he doesn’t, it can be very frustrating. A client who says he’s going to do something, but then is too busy or too forgetful to follow through can be a real pain in the backside. Then there are the ones who don’t return phone calls or emails — not a good sign either.”

  • “Many client Managing Directors or CEO’s don’t know the difference between a marketing officer and a salesman. They hire a salesman and then give him the marketing job because he is cheaper than hiring an expert who understands marketing and branding. That’s always a problem for the ad agency.”

I could go on with a much longer list. There were several more of these horror stories told on the night. But I know from history that there have always been good clients and bad clients. I’ve been dealing with both for over 25 years.

In Asia, as in most other markets, a good number of clients are apprehensive about increasing ad budgets given the possibility of world recession. They are growing anxious as they anticipate lower revenues, lost customers, shrinking market share, increased competition, and irate shareholders—all of which spreads like an epidemic from customer to client to agency.

Clients need to understand the care and feeding of an agency. You get what you give. Clients should know that this bad behavior hurts, more than helps their cause. Agencies that are treated with professional respect give more than they take.

When lines of communication are open, honest and fair, the ad agency ultimately produces better work. I believe some clients understand that. Notice I said “some”.

Ad industry practitioners will tell you that when the heat is on, best practices go out the window. This leads to short-term thinking, low morale on the agency side, frustration on the client side and poor results overall.

Personally, I have rarely had to deal with a really bad client. Maybe I have been one of the lucky ones. Or just maybe, the way clients view ad agencies today is different from the way they have dealt with agencies in the past. Or just maybe, the computer has helped to make clients think that most advertising and design is a commodity that you can buy anywhere, from anyone, off-the-shelf like a cheap suit.

No doubt, the present economic climate is causing a number of marketers to act like cads. Some will do anything to justify their roles and appear as responsible team players in these trying times by saving money in every possible area to the detriment of the quality of the work, to client and agency relationships,  and ultimately to the detriment of the brand they're responsible for growing and protecting.

Mike Fromowitz



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