Originally published at AW360 by Paul Charney.

Article takeaways: 

  • How agencies can better prepare their clients for riskier work
  • How to create and nurture better creative partnerships
  • How radical transparency can foster stronger relationships

As brands’ needs continue to evolve and shift, everyone keeps writing about the need for braver clients—complaining that anxious brands only market by the numbers, steamrolling creative agencies and disrespecting their ECDs. Too often, this leads to over-calculated, under-budgeted, poor output with fewer clients willing to roll the dice and take risks on ideas that truly stand out.

But let’s hold up. Is that really the only reason for clients not being brave? The numbers?

I have an alternative theory. Perhaps agencies are too focused on asking clients to be brave instead of making them feel brave.

We’ve all lived the scenario: an accomplished ECD locks eyes with a brand CMO and says, “I know this work might make you uncomfortable, and it’s not exactly the brief, and it seems impossible to pull off, and it’s a smidge over… ok twice your budget, but it will be beautiful and iconic work. It will inspire and change things for your brand, forever. It’s going to work. It’s why we have all those awards in the lobby.”

“You need to trust me.

I can hear you CMOs wincing already. Why? Because for every few times the ‘trust me’ convo has led to huge success, there are twenty other times the results have either been ok, not good, or so bad that CMOs have to start looking for new jobs. Those are terrible odds and to every good CMO, numbers matter.

As Tom Cruise in Risky Business says: “If there was any logic to our language, ‘trust’ would be a four-letter word.”

So, how do we avoid that ‘trust me’ conversation and help clients feel brave instead? I have a few suggestions:

Have a little empathy

For some reason that ‘trust me’ conversation always seems to be more about the agency’s needs and less about the client’s needs. But trust is a two-way street and clients are people, oftentimes with a lot of stress and anxiety. Sometimes they reveal it to the agency, oftentimes they don’t. If they don’t, this can be a real barrier to building real, shared trust and openness to new ideas.

This seems obvious but, as an agency, make sure you put in the time to get to know a client and don’t be afraid to ask them questions that are on the nose like “What are you most nervous about with this assignment?” and “What is your nightmare scenario?” These are questions that demonstrate you’re listening and understand there’s something at stake for them. Empathy is one of the foundational pillars of trust.

Invite them into the process 

This is a big and important one. Figure out a way to make collaboration with a client, less of a transactional relationship and more of a creative partnership. That means letting them in earlier and further into the creative process. This can happen in many ways, but the goal is to get them to add their knowledge of their brand and category into the creative thinking in ways that go beyond an email or brief.

Have them come to the agency for a brainstorm. Have them come over and put some stickies on rough ideas before you spend too much time going in a direction that doesn’t work for them. Or, better yet, explain early on why you think an idea is so awesome. Let them into your thought process before the relationship devolves.

Stop keeping secrets 

If you reveal your process and not obsess over protecting the mystery of how your team generates non-traditional ideas, the ideas won’t seem as non-traditional or risky. Remember, it’s not about selling the dark arts of creativity. That’s old and played out. Shine a bright light on your creative process. Make it public. Show them the step-by-step way you broke down the strategy and how that strategy became multiple executions.

Really digest their numbers

If the client has compelling data, which good clients should, run with it and incorporate it into everyone’s thinking. Help the client look at the potential meaning of those numbers in new ways.

Despite the creative industry pushback on data, numbers can lead to non-traditional thinking. For example, if the numbers say that older audiences only respond to messaging about their kids, this should open you up to really unique and unpredictable truths about that data. And it takes the pressure off of your team if every creative decision refers back to the client’s own data points.

Evaluate ideas using the client’s own words

This is a simple one, but often gets overlooked. Make sure to take copious notes in your early meetings with the clients, asking them questions that are simple, but give them a chance to give you anchors to help them evaluate the work later on. For example, early on ask them “How do you know if the project is a success?” and “What does success look like?” Direct questions can help everyone align on whether the goal is increased sales, to make their brand to be more famous, or for millennials to give a shit about them.

Now, bring those goals back when you’re sharing ideas with the client, literally posting their words on a board as they see your ideas and let them evaluate those ideas based on their past comments, looking at each concept through a lens they created. In this way, you are reminding the client of what is important to them.

There are a lot of ways to avoid telling clients to trust you as the only path to doing exciting work. The key is to create a process where the work doesn’t ask clients to do something risky but instead gets them energized to fix their business problems.