Manifesto: The Client Isn’t Always Right

In all the talk about the agency of the future, there’s oddly little talk about the client of the future. If the former is dysfunctional, the latter is probably dysfunctional as well. After all, it was the latter who hired the former.

If the agency folk need to adapt to a changing media and marketplace, perhaps the clients should too. His or her skill sets, outlook, education, taste, and market savvy—just like the folks at ad agencies—are probably more suited to a simpler time than to the demands of a suddenly polymorphous media world.

When advertising was merely interruptive—a function of reach, frequency, and compatibility with the content it interrupted—just crunching the numbers might have been acceptable. But it’s much less OK when the content becomes the essence of brand sensibility, strategy, and message.

Now, brands are more and more a function of content, and brand marketers have to be able to think like content programmers—that is, making content for the people who are consuming it. They have to be as sophisticated at producing content as any magazine editor or studio executive. Their mandate: to build an audience partial to the brand, an environment that supports its message and identity, and to provide utility, information, and the ability to interact and buy.

A movie studio executive, for instance, caters to different demographics, seasons, and trends. A typical slate of films any given year includes a summer tentpole, a chick flick, comedy, action, an art-house Academy Award contender, and so on. Content has to be thought of from the audience’s perspective as well as from the brand’s perspective.

Sounds simple enough, but we all know it’s the client who often frustrates this. The reasons are obvious: Many clients, while the ultimate decision makers, really have little experience in the demands and subtleties of programming. Their skill set is almost invariably much more about limiting exposure and risk than in pursuing exactly the breakout connection that makes content, and indeed a brand, live. All CMOs of the future—actually, right now, today—need to be media people. Not product people.

A good programmer—a chief programming officer, perhaps—is who I see as our future client, or who I would want as the head of marketing for my own company, especially if I were selling something that was all meta, differentiated only by its ads and the content it lives beside (or in).

This is not a call for foolishness or even, gasp, experimentation, but a call to recognize that while most clients simply do not have either the background, chops, or organizational structure to maximize his or her brand message, there’s a whole lot to be gained for those who do. Great brands—like audiences—are earned, not bought.

Fredrik Carlström is a film producer, and CEO and executive creative director of Great Works Americas.