What to Get a Client, Creative Partner or Co-Worker for the Holidays

Ad execs unwrap the industry's gift-giving etiquette

The holiday season is here again, and with it comes the usual gift-giving anxiety.

Do you go with the classic bottle of high-end alcohol, or is it time to break out of your comfort zone and gift something handcrafted? Are there new taboos that your company might unknowingly commit? After all, no company wants to be the one to give a bad—or worse, forgettable—gift to a client, creative partner or co-worker.

So I did a deeper dive to find out how etiquette has evolved and discovered some changes, albeit subtle, to the advertising industry's holiday gifting game.

Whether it's inter-office gifting or bestowing presents upon clients and colleagues, one key factor you should think about this year is personalization. Of course, this is nothing new—personalization has always been the challenge that everyone is aware of but few are very good at. Still, after discussing the current holiday gifting protocol with friends at various companies, it appears it's not the size or price tag but the personalization of a gift that resonates the most.

Adam Fine

"It's hard to get everyone the perfect gift, and I also don't have the bankroll to get everyone I know a brand new Apple Watch," says Jason Sperling, executive creative director at Santa Monica, Calif.-based agency RPA. "So, I choose things I think they'll love, based on if I'd love them—a pair of socks with an action shot of Larry Bird on them, coasters that make the Star Trek transporter materialization and dematerialization sounds, or gift cards to Kenny Rogers Roasters."

Getting more personal means looking past our more rigid gift traditions—i.e., the usual gift card or bottle of wine—and using the expectation of a gift exchange as a way to inspire creativity or add a touch of humanity to the process. This includes giving gifts that require a more hands-on approach.

Luis Aguiluz, senior manager of global digital brand design for audio brand Sonos, notes fondly: "People are sending out DIY gifts with instructions to bring out the 'maker' in all of us."

Along with transforming us into inventors, gift givers should consider making charitable donations in people's names—aka, the George Costanza technique, though obviously with an actual charity. RPA's Sperling, though, warns about the charity route.

"Let me do the donating or pick the charity, dammit," he says. "It's not fair that you get that feel good feeling of giving to someone in need … and all I get is a typewritten note saying you did it."

This raises another point. When choosing a gift, it's best to leave your ego at the door. Every present should be about the sentiment behind the gift, not about peacocking or overt trendhopping.

"It's easy to walk into SoHo and stop at one of 100 stores to buy a gift that will be useless in a year," says Devin Brook, managing partner at integrated creative company Brand New School. "And there's something disingenuous about gifting whatever is the newest model of iPad, especially when you know it'll probably just be given to their kids to play Angry Birds. It shows a lack of thought, and ultimately comes off as lazy."

Aguiluz adds that it comes down to one key factor: "A major part of the gifting etiquette is to be mindful not to try and one-up previous years or other gift givers. The idea is to keep it simple and professional, but thoughtful."

But with personalization at a premium and time running out, how do you choose who gets a gift? In our fairly insular industries of advertising and marketing, should gifts be exchanged equally among agencies, production companies and brands? Should the gifts flow from vendors to clients, thanking them for their business, or from clients to vendors, thanking them for a job well done?

Brook says a strict rule for gifting need not apply. "If brands gave gifts to agencies, and agencies to production companies, then we'd likely spend the entire year preparing for the holidays," he says. "Each office has its own ethos, and that's what should guide any gift-giving etiquette—there doesn't need to be a norm."

In short, gift from the heart, but don't feel pressured to send gifts to everyone.

In the end, it's up to each company to decide what works best for them when it comes to choosing the perfect gifts. But always remember: When it comes to holiday gifts, generosity, charity and goodwill are really what's on display here, not necessarily your budget or curation skills.

Whether you're handing out hoverboards (on second thought), offering juice cleanses (a recent trend Sperling has noticed) or crafting your own personal item for a pal, it's the thought and meaning behind your holiday gesture that ultimately wins out—as it always should. 

—Adam Fine is the founder and CEO of Trust, a marketing and PR company specializing in partnerships with ad agencies, tech companies, content studios and other small to midsize brands.