Hurts So Good

Pain is stubbing your toe on the tub. Good pain is rewriting a brief that isn’t yielding great work. Pain is a paper cut. Good pain is sending your creative teams back again, even though they think they’ve nailed it. Pain is falling down an open manhole. Good pain is arguing with the client one more time about the size of the logo.

Pain is not good for anything except a sadomasochists convention. Good pain has a payoff. It has real worth. Unfortunately, too many people shy away from it.

Good pain is not accepting the status quo. It’s cleaning up your own backyard, no matter how it got that way. Good pain is tough conversations. It’s changing how things have always been done, because there is a better approach. Good pain is using your built-in compass and actually acting upon it. It’s the belief that healthy debate advances the ball more than consensus. If a client says, “Our advertising agency is a pain to work with, but ultimately they’re worth it,” then some good pain just occurred.

Good pain is a two-way street. The agency brings perseverance and craftsmanship, and the client shows open-mindedness and courage. Good pain happens behind the scenes. It’s not always what you see—it’s often what you don’t see. Sometimes it might be a fight just to keep white space white. The “Think Small” Volkswagen ad comes to mind. I don’t know what went on in that Doyle Dane Bernbach boardroom, but I imagine it was not an easy sell.

Good pain isn’t particularly fun. But the best agencies find a way to embrace it. Because they know that on the other side of good pain is inspired work. It’s about keeping simple ideas simple. It’s about pushing yourself and others out of comfort zones and into exciting new places. It’s about throwing away a good idea in hopes of coming up with a better one.

The best clients also sign up for good pain because they see the merit of an agency that will challenge them. They want an agency that has passion, backbone and resiliency. Good-pain clients set the bar high and keep sending the agency back until they hit it.

The origins of good pain probably date all the way back to the sit-up. How many people actually enjoy doing sit-ups? Nine people, maybe. But how many people would enjoy hearing, “Look at the flat abs on Nancy”? More than nine, I assure you. The point is that there is no shortcut to results. You can’t avoid the unavoidable.

Every agency has pain. Every client has pain. In fact, the first step in building a strong client-agency relationship is acknowledging where it hurts. Here are some clues that client-agency pain is on the way:

You are making too much money. It’s painful to ask for more money—it’s really painful to ask for less. But sometimes, what an agency earns is out of whack with the value it’s providing. Sooner or later a client will become wise to this. It’s better to come clean before they go looking elsewhere.

The client has a broken business model. A great ad won’t fix it. Even a print ad from Dean Buckhorn and Bob Barrie won’t fix inventory problems, the store environment or poor customer service. Good pain means addressing the real issues.

The client loves somebody for the wrong reasons. Sometimes a client falls in love with an agency person who never says no. It’s not easy to tell the client that Mr. Lovable is wrong for their business, but it has to be done.

The client has an idea. And it’s good. The instinct may be to push back. But part of good pain is having the humility and open-mindedness to embrace the best thinking, no matter the source.

You have a poor presenter. Just because a person is the most senior does not mean that person should present to the client. Seniority has nothing to do with it. Good pain means putting the best people in the best positions.

The agency is not loving and living the product. How can a client be expected to follow if the agency is not leading the way? The agency cannot lead until it demonstrates a keen understanding of the client’s business. The agency cannot lead until it truly connects with the product or brand. Good pain is holding the agency accountable for knowing more than the advertising business.

What the client wants is not what the client needs. Just because your client loves Super Bowl commercials doesn’t mean you should recommend one. The client may be knowledgeable and experienced in one area, but the breakthrough marketing solution may come from someplace else. Good pain means exploring all the ways to reach your consumers.

If a client confrontation seems a little scary, you might want to warm up with some practice at home. For example, recently I denied my 3-year-old daughter a cookie before dinner. I was prepared for a little crying, but I was committed to good pain. Who am I kidding? There’s no way I’m going to win that battle of wills. That’s the other thing about good pain: You need to know your limitations.