Friday, April 24, 2020

How to be a good client. And why.

About 20 years ago I was working on a campaign with a bunch of other people. Without going into too much detail, I had to write a website for a fake product and I had to make the website sound authentic but be a little off kilter.

The product was a Time Machine. A machine that could take you backwards in time and then back to the present.

It was one of those assignments—the type I get a lot of. They’re usually prefaced with a sheep-eyed look and someone saying to me at 12:15, “I’m sorry, George, we need this by 1:00.”

I went back to my table a little nervous. I had a lot to write and not a lot of time to write it. That’s when you have to trust your brains, your experience, your instincts and your self. You sit down at the ol’ Smith-Corona and you write.

Those who know me know I have something close to a photographic memory. I don’t remember everything—but I like to say that there’s a saying among pachyderms: “A George never forgets.” 

I can’t find a sample of what I wrote (though I believe it made a raft of annuals) but I remember I said to myself, “This is supposed to be credible but tongue in cheek, and I’m writing this for the Vice Chairman of the agency and the CCO—and for myself. I don’t really care if it’s a bit esoteric.”

My opening line was something like, “Perhaps it was the Bard who wrote ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, it’s only a day away.’”

Yes, I had combined Macbeth with the musical Annie. I believed it was inappropriate but funny. I wasn’t sure if I’d be yelled at or not. I wasn’t sure if anyone would get it. But I did it, thought about it and sent it through.

A few minutes later I got a call from the people I mentioned above. Essentially all they did was laugh.

Subsequently the copy was approved without a single word changed. I wasn’t there when it went to the client. I’m not sure if the client understood my faux pomposity. But I realized something via that copy.

Most often, as creative people, we create work in the service of our clients. Our job is to show them off—not to show off ourselves.

But more important, our job is to engage readers or viewers in our work and to make them feel understood and special. Sometimes that’s writing something not for everyone who reads your ad but for one or two or two dozen people who get it.

That’s not fetishizing work. That’s not being pretentious. That’s realizing, finally, that we don’t speak to millions, or thousands, or hundreds or tens of people at a time. We speak to one person at a time. And if our work really connects with someone on the level where they feel understood, where they feel like they’ve gotten a joke written in a sense just for them, you’ve scored a victory for advertising as a profession, your client and their brand, and yourself as a human.

Since the rise of the computer in our industry and the rise of big data and the rise of our ability to target people down to a rat-hole in their root cellar, we have lost our overarching sense of humanity. I know that's broad but take a look at five hours from my personal email's spam filter. In what universe is this targeted, helpful or even...human?

We think by saying, “Dear Dan, We know you have a mortgage, a wife, two kids and two college tuitions to pay. But did you ever think about the change in your life that a laser-guided micro-razor nose-hair trimmer could bring?” That might be “personal,” and “data-driven.” But it’s crap. Because it’s not using data to understand people, it’s using data to pretend you understand people.

My point in all this is fuzzy.

This post is called, “How to be a good client.”

A good client, a good boss, a good agency, a good marketer knows that even mass-media isn’t really mass. You can't be all things to all people. 

Communications should be honest, real and unusual. Not merely the blandest common denominator. Because people are not demographic swaths or target markets. People are people.

I always rebel when I hear something on the news where some reporter is interviewing someone from the “_________ community.” Here’s someone from the “Jewish community.” The “plumbing community.” The “golden retriever owners' community.” 

What does that even mean? Are there really such communities? I don’t think so. To my eyes, such collectives are merely groupings that are supposed to make us feel that someone’s done some examination into the commonalities of these groups.

Here’s the commonality that’s important.

We all like to be spoken to with honesty and warmth and understanding, as individuals.

If you allow honesty, warmth, individuality, quirk and a small soupcon of occasional irreverence into the work your agency presents to you, you’ll be a loved and successful client and the brands and products you represent will be loved and successful, too.

Conversely, if you try to be so broad that you please everyone, you will please no one.

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