Art & Commerce: Cold Sweat

Virtually from birth, we creatives are led to believe that great work should somehow make clients feel uncomfortable. Make them sweat. Suffer a few heart palpitations. The client’s initial reaction should be a queasy feeling or a sudden nervous twitch. If arm pit stains don’t spread like a brush fire, then we haven’t done our job. The work is too safe.

But in my nearly two decades as a copywriter, creative director and, now, agency partner, I’ve found just the opposite is true.

Great work is most often readily apparent to the client. It takes precious little arm-twisting. No plunging down the throat. No “Trust us on this one.” In fact, smart, insightful work usually sells itself.

That’s because the client can find little room for rebuttal. The idea is clearly relevant. Strategi cally, it’s a bullet between the eyes. Creatively, it hammers on emotions like Professor Longhair banging on an upright piano.

Now here’s the best part: This fresh, imaginative thinking, which is so easily recognized by our Windsor-knotted, medium-starched client, is also applauded by the judges at The One Show, Communication Arts and all those other competitions that keep us lying awake at night.

I wish I could say I’ve always abided by this simple formula for creative success. But I must confess, I have sinned. There have been times when I’ve walked into a meeting toting a piece of foamcore (or three) that I knew would be hard for my client to swallow—even with the help of my clunky-heeled Kenneth Cole boots. Selfishly I thought, “Yeah, maybe it’s not quite right for them, but damn is it funny.”

At times I’ve found a way to coerce clients into buying into my scheme. I’ve convinced them it’s what they need to do. To generate some talk. Turn some heads. Create some ripples. Get noticed.

In every case it’s been a move I’ve lived to regret. Somewhere along the way it always returned, teeth bared, and bit me squarely on the ass, not to let go, rendering me so helpless that not even the jaws of life would grant me relief.

And this I have also learned: Once trust is broken, a client’s appetite for inspired creative crumbles with it.

Is every client capable of greeting fresh, imaginative work with open arms? Absolutely not. First, you need a client who is seeking good creative and willing to overlook the overthinking that will surely accompany the hall tests. A client who feels great creative is essential to building a brand. And while those words may spill readily off their lips, remember, “great creative” is quite subjective. When a client mentions how great the dancing aardvark is in that local car dealer spot, quietly zip up your portfolio and slowly back away from the table.

Let’s say you do find a smart, willing and able client. The next step is to find a tone of voice they’re comfortable with, not one that fits like a studded collar on Katie Couric.

Last, and most important, you have to deliver. The work has to hit every note. Because, like it or not, clients who welcome great work also recognize an imposter.