What makes a great client?

Author, writer and ex-marketer

A Great Client

I have been unusually blessed by having had a large number of great clients.

I see a lot of them still, although some have emigrated, and one or two have died. I started in advertising in 1974, so I’ve probably met as many clients as I have agency folk. Which means I can spot the great ones very quickly.

The lady on the left was a great client. She’s no longer in marketing because Cassandra is a gifted writer, and is now writing fiction as a career. She is at least as talented as most agency creatives I’ve met, but is a good deal more modest. I met her ten years ago or so when she was working at Reckitt Benckiser. She’s half my age and twice as wise.

So what are the characteristics of a great client?

The first thing to say is it’s all relative. If you have five Hounds of Hell as clients and one who’s nice but a bit dim, he or she might be preferable to the other five, but is not necessarily a great client.

My top five characteristics of a great client are these:

  1. The client does not have any airs and graces. He, or she, knows he’s human and is fallible. And knows you are, too. This means that he doesn’t carry any bullshit, and will ensure that you don’t either. This produces friendly, pleasant, constructive plain speaking.
  2. The client has a very clear idea of what he wants to achieve for his company. Certainty of aim is as essential in business as it is in war. He may start with an open mind concerning what he wants to achieve, and will want to know your thoughts and ideas. He will involve his senior management, and get their support. Effectively managing his seniors will oil the process. Fairly soon, he will have clear goals, and a single-minded strategy to achieve them. You will be left in no doubt as to what your role in the grand plan is your. You will also be tasked to contribute ideas to achieve the goals.
  3. The client never forgets that you are human, and that work is never more important than the people who form his team. But, once you’ve signed up to the task, he will not look kindly on under-achievement and low commitment. You’re either part of the team or you are not.
  4. Great ideas, hard work and constructive achievement get public and loud praise. People who aim low and miss, are taken quietly to one side for a chat. The client never pretends an idea is his when it wasn’t (I’ve seen the opposite of this more times than I would have liked). The client acts as he says. He honours contracts, pays on time and expects you to work hard. If you have not come up with a strong enough idea, he will tell you and get you pointing in the right direction. And will then go out for a beer or glass of wine with you. If he’s been over-ruled by his bosses, he will explain why, and set out what you are now expected to do rather than trying to figure it out for yourself.
  5. He or she works for a confident company. This company is growing. It has customers who either like or love it, and the people who work there would jump out of the window for their boss. Nothing is impossible (Saatchi and Saatchi).

Of course, we all come up against some Cro-Magnon clients, but most of them are either out of their depth, in the wrong job or just plain dim-witted.

Or they are scared witless.

The frightened ones are often to be found working for a company which is going down like a Stuka in flames. In these circumstances, even the best clients have difficulty in being patient with the advertising agency‘s desire to shoot a confectionery commercial in Namibia.

Great clients flourish in great companies.

But, thinking back, the very small number of crap clients I’ve known would have been crap wherever they were working.