The Client Is Often (but Not Always) Right, and 11 Other Rules to Work By

Including only do business with people you respect

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I was recently asked if I have a set of guiding professional principles. Sort of to my surprise, I do! They're a direct consequence of my journey in advertising and beyond. So here's a bit about that journey, followed by the resulting Rules to Work By.


Jae Goodman Illustration: Alex Fine

My early career was pure luck. While still in school I worked for legendary concert promoter Bill Graham and legendary ski filmmaker Warren Miller. I learned a lot—like most rock stars don't act like rock stars, and extreme skiers do it for love because there is no money.

After school, I stumbled into advertising. I learned client service at RPA, brand stewardship at Ogilvy & Mather and commitment to creativity at Wieden + Kennedy.

After Wieden, I rode the San Francisco dot-com bubble, rubble and rebound. Again, I learned a lot. What I learned most was that if I was going to be able to help brands drive culture, then a traditional ad agency might not be the best place to do it. So I left.

Like generations of starry-eyed creatives before me, I arrived in Hollywood with big ideas and a bigger lump in my throat. This town and the hypercollaborative, hypersupportive company I had joined, Creative Artists Agency, are built to drive ideas into culture. If I couldn't build brand ideas right alongside the great TV, movies, music, art and more coming through CAA, I couldn't do it anywhere.

As my 101-year-old grandmother put it, "Oy vey. I hope you know what you're doing."

In this moment of panic, I asked myself a few simple, if circular, questions: What do I know that I know? What have I learned from the great collaborators, mentors, clients and agencies that defined the first decade of my career?

What are my rules to work by?

I wrote down my rules and promptly lost them for a few years. Then, Todd Hunter—my first CAA assistant, who is now a quadruple Cannes Grand Prix winner and on the Forbes 30 Under 30—found them in the bottom of a drawer and said, "Hey, we are actually following these. We should share them."

These rules may not be for everyone. They certainly are neither comprehensive nor perfect, and some of them aren't even "rules," but they seem to be working for us and for our clients.

Here are the Rules to Work By:

1. Only create, approve, produce and defend work in which you personally believe. Better to be fired now for proposing what you believe is right than get paid to do what you believe is wrong.

2. Only work with clients and co-workers you like and respect, and who like and respect you. (On respect: Respect others, respect yourself, respect the client, respect the work.)

3. The client is not always right. If you go out of your way to agree with your clients, then you are not bringing them anything they haven't already thought of themselves. This means you're redundant. This means you're not bringing them new ideas. They pay you for ideas. You're fired.

4. But often, the client is right! And the client always has the final word. Keep an open mind. Don't be afraid to change your mind. Just don't do it too often.

5. Always open the meeting with an irrefutable truth. Find something to agree on before challenging colleagues and clients with a new way of thinking.

6. Clients don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. (In an industry obsessed with information, intelligence, insight, pithy responses and witty repartee, sometimes the most important part of our jobs is remembering that the person we call "the client" is a person.)

7. 1, 2, 3, dead. If they say no to the idea three times, the fourth time they will say no to you.

8. Great work comes from … truth.

9. We're not artists; we're solution providers.

10. Win in the market, not in the meeting. (This one will save you a lot of emails exclaiming "Great meeting!" and occasionally allow you to send one that says "Great results!")

11. Email is not a substitute for personal interaction.

12. It's a collaborative business.

Today these rules sit framed on my desk, facing inward toward me, not outward toward guests. They're scribbled on paper, not written in stone, but I do try very hard to follow them.

I am not suggesting that you follow them. I might, however, suggest that you take a moment to ask yourself what you know you know, what you've learned so far and, therefore, what are your rules to work by? I bet you'll be surprised by your answers, and your results.

Jae Goodman is the chief creative officer and co-head of CAA Marketing in Los Angeles. You can find him on Twitter @goodmanjae.