When bad clients happen to good agencies

30 Nov

It’s an unwritten rule of our business that we keep a lid on bad experiences we have with our clients. One, to protect our client’s reputation and two, to protect our own.

Ad agencies can be painted with a very black brush indeed if they can’t be trusted to keep their mouths shut. There’s lot of confidential information flying around within agency walls and it needs to stay there.

But sometimes you have to open up just a little bit to let the little letters …wtf….sneak out.

Clients that don’t pay.

We’ve had several. They engage you in a massive job, praise the work upon completion, use it…then disappear after the invoices go out. No amount of surprise tactics can bring these truculent school children around. I’ve recently discovered that calling from the Copeland phone is a bad tactic: caller ID. They never answer. So I call from my cell first thing in the morning:

“Hi! It’s Doug from Copeland. Sorry to catch you so early but I wanted to talk about the $15,0000 you owe us from 2009 before we drop the lawsuit this afternoon! How’s your day going?”

Their predictable tactic? Trash the work we did. Ugh.

Clients that don’t respond.

We recently did a naming job for a small business. They told me they were “not impressed” with the first dozen names. So back to the writing pad, come up with some new ones, due diligence etc and voila, another list of neat names. Not impressed. Ok. We will nail this! Back for a third go around bringing some help in from the creative department. Third set goes to the client. They never even replied. Ever.

OK, you don’t like the work. It sometimes happen. Tell us. Tell us you think we’re a useless, hopeless company with no brains. Tell us your 6-year old son came up with better names. But just tell us. We’re already swallowing all those hours and working for free. Have the courtesy.

Can’t wait to see one of our names outside the store.

Clients that lord it over the agency.

You may be a terrific person. Please show it when working with us. We’re a pretty neat group of people. We like each other and we generally LOVE our clients. We are not beneath you in life’s station. We’re working hard for you.

Your private master/slave fantasies are no doubt engrossing. Please leave them outside our working relationship. Thank you.

I wanted to close this by acknowledging some of the truly fantastic clients we get the good chance to work with. And we have many.

So a special shout-out to the Copeland Clients of the Month for November:

Len Wansbrough, Artisan Park

Andrea Timlick, BC Ferries


10 Responses to “When bad clients happen to good agencies”

  1. variedthinking November 30, 2010 at 7:33 am #

    Your client that had you try to think of a good name for his business three times, either does’nt have a imagination and probably can not read that well and should learn to use the friggin’ dictionary if they can

    It’s low life like that in business that really piss me of and they are out there, oh god are they. These sorts of companies I’ve worked for and the boss usually the biggest asshole you have ever met and costumer service stinks like a pig farm.

    I hope you made it well known that this individual was not to be touched with a ten foot pole and that if you did approach do it with caution and use a clothes pin clamped over your nose and cash up front.

  2. Amy November 30, 2010 at 8:15 am #

    At the insurance agency I work for, we have “fired” a number of clients because of their inability to pay or inability to co-operate. When we realize that a client is costing us more in time and frustration than they are worth, we are smart enough to let them go. It definitely makes you appreciate your good clients all the more.

  3. mike fromowitz November 30, 2010 at 9:15 am #

    Interesting blog Doug. The timing on this one is perfect as i just completed this following article on the subject:

    “Some clients really piss me off!”—Creative Director.
    November 24, 2010

    There must have been something in the water people were drinking last week. I spent a few informative hours with several of creative directors (CDs), who, given the opportunity, were considerably vocal about some of their client relationships. 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”.

    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. One CD informed me that, “Many of my clients tend to see advertising as an expense, not an investment. They are more concerned with price than they are the content.”

    Perhaps the same holds true for architects, film directors, and writers. Take for example the stylist I went to last week for a haircut. 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 customers.

    “You know what (bleep) me off about some of my customers?” he said, using the same adjective as a creative director friend only days earlier. “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.  Why do you think I need you to tell me what to 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! OK.  You get what you pay for but things cost me money.  Retail space costs money. There’s salary for my staff. What about my food, gas and everything else it costs to open a business?  I shop prices and 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 civilized professionals. But the troubling stories I heard don’t fare well for the ad industry or for marketers. Here are a few of those comments:
    “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 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. Hell! Some don’t pay you at all after you’ve completed the job. They tell you they didn’t like the work you did. Ok. So why the (bleep) did you approve it and run it? 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 in their bank accounts and they hold the little supplier 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.”

    “Some clients really piss me off. Especially those who ignore standard agency time lines 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.”

    “Many company CEO’s don’t know the difference between a marketing officer and a salesman. They hire the salesman to do 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.”

    There are several more of these war stories. But I know from history that there have always been good clients and bad clients. After all, I’ve been dealing with both for over 25 years. Here in Canada as in most other markets, clients are dealing with symptoms of lower revenues, lost customers, shrinking market share, irate shareholders, scared senior management and an overall sense of fear—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”. Talking to several people in the ad industry (CDs and upper-management types), over these last few weeks, most will tell you that “when the heat is on, best practices go out to the window.” That leads to short-term thinking, low morale on the agency side, frustration on the client side and poor results overall.

    Here are a few other highlights from my discussions.

    “There’s the problem of too much work for too little pay. For low-paying project based jobs where there is no fee, you shouldn’t expect a huge amount of work. Incredibly, many clients do. Eventually you realize that for the amount they are paying you, if the job took more than a few hours, it wasn’t worth it.”

    “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.”

    Over the years, I have noticed that most bad clients seem to fall into certain common patterns. Keep in mind that none of these bad client types are specific to any one client that I’ve ever worked with.

    Personally, I have rarely ever 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. Hm! I think that’s more true today than ever before.

    No doubt, this economy has caused some 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–and ultimately to the detriment of the brand they’re responsible for growing and protecting.

    It’s sad that the biggest casualty in all this will be the relationships between people that made the business relationships work well. So much of that is being destroyed. One wonders what things will look like when the recovery kicks in, when things are back to normal, and the balance in relationships potentially returns. Certainly we’ll have less trust toward clients, and that will be reflected in the terms and nature of agreements and business relationships.

    Mike Fromowitz
    Creative Director, Partner and Chief Brand Officer
    Mantra Partners Inc. (Canada, USA, Asia)
    (A friend of Copeland Communications in Victoria B.C.)
    Blog: mantramike.blogspot.com

  4. variedthinking November 30, 2010 at 9:46 am #

    Well written and well said, but I doubt it will faze your clients.

  5. dougbrowncreative November 30, 2010 at 10:32 am #

    > variedthinking, I’m not out to hurt this client’s business reputation. My experience tells me that people who operate this like will bring harm upon themselves eventually.

    > Good point Amy. We fired a client this year, an overseas client actually, because we didn’t find a value match. (Polite way of saying they ground us down for peanuts.) We are all businesses here trying our best to succeed, make some money and enhance our reputation.

    > Mike, you just beat out Reg Krake from Vancouver for the longest response ever. Nice one! I’ve experienced a lot of the frustrations you speak about, and we’re not talking demanding clients here. We mean the ones that treat us as inferior people, who try to sabotage our business, who lack basic courtesy. We’re about to have a brainstorm with one of our Client of the Month winners, Andrea Timlick from BC Ferries, and people volunteer to be in the meeting. Our eyes and ears are always attuned to ways we can make her look good in her job. That’s what the deadbeat clients miss out on.

    An insightful blog – thanks for sharing it.

  6. margriet aasman November 30, 2010 at 10:45 am #

    I have dealt with a few unsatisfied clients in the past. I am always compelled to do what it takes to make them happy even when we’ve bent over backwards to meet what we thought were their highest priorities. What I find very hard to take, is that even though clients are free to discuss our relationship in public, we can’t. They can say we suck at what we do, don’t listen, do bad work, when we worked so hard for them and did everything they asked for. There is no forum, no place, to tell our story that won’t make us look like whiners. We’re the bad guys. So, we pay (redo the job) to make these clients happy and hope they will say nice things about us.

  7. dougbrowncreative November 30, 2010 at 10:55 am #

    Definitely hurts to hear such stories Margriet. All I can say is that not everyone who works with agencies SHOULD be working with agencies. The idea is not to screw us down and hold us back. It’s to turn us loose. That’s when we excel. Really good clients know that. Good clients are good people. Not every business hires good people.

  8. designingrenee November 30, 2010 at 11:18 am #

    How disappointing and exhausting when your energy and creativity is dismissed or even abused. It seems like your good clients more than make up for it, though.

  9. Reg December 6, 2010 at 4:37 pm #

    Catching up after having been out of the country/offline for a few weeks — so, uh, glad to know the mantle of longest post has been handed over. Thanks for reminding me, Doug….

    Good posts, good writing, good to catch up.

  10. dougbrowncreative December 6, 2010 at 4:50 pm #

    Reg you have been whomped. Comprehensively and decisively. I know you’re not one to back down from a challenge though. And your pride is on the line here. 🙂

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