Saying No

Most of what I know about dealing with clients I learned from Dick Morris, the political guru.

One day years ago Morris and I were listening to a lieutenant governor explain what he thought his election ads should look like when Dick unceremoniously interrupted. “Look, here’s the deal,” he told our client, the second most powerful man in the state. “You guys write the fucking checks, we’ll write the fucking ads.”

Dick don’t play.

Never before or since have I met a man with such confidence in his abilities. And even though in his case it came with equal helpings of ego and manic hubris, you have to admit, we could use a few Dicks in the advertising business right now.

It’s hard to say when we stopped acting like we knew what we were doing. All I can say for sure is, it didn’t used to be this way.

It wasn’t that long ago when we’d walk into a meeting and show the client a campaign. Notice, I said “a” campaign, with maybe a backup in your pocket on the off chance they didn’t buy the first one. We believed in that campaign and sold it as hard as we could. And we usually walked out with agreement on everything but the size of the logo.

Today you wouldn’t dream of going in with one measly campaign. A typical presentation is five campaigns half a dozen executions deep. Or we paper the walls with our aptly named “tissues,” filled with every half-baked idea that popped out of the oven.

Now, imagine if your highly paid lawyer came to visit you in jail, handed you five different closing arguments and asked you to pick one. You’d sue him on grounds of incompetence and hire someone else.

Look at us. We’ve got clients in the studio, picking the music apart. Half a dozen more in the offline. Clients at the transfer, for God’s sake. Why? Because these days, agencies just can’t seem to say no.

I don’t mean to sound like a fogey, but I miss the old-school types. The ones who weren’t afraid to look the client square in the eye and say, “We’ll be happy to show you the rough cut when it’s finished. And wait till you see what they did with the color.”

And that was that. Any ruffled feathers were smoothed out later with equal parts gin and vermouth. Those were the bad boys of advertising, the gutsy guys who raised us. Today we’re raising sheep.

Shops are running scared. We’re losing our confidence, turning more and more control over to clients. This is not only bad for us, it’s bad for them. It turns us into vendors and them into creative directors, a job they aren’t trained to do. It puts left brains to work solving right-brain problems. It turns the business upside down.

I know, I know. Advertising is tough these days. It’s hard to keep old clients, much less get new ones. But listen to this:

Dick Morris and I lost that lieutenant governor’s re-election race. But a few months later, in talking about the campaign, the client told me, “You know what? I don’t care what anybody says. Dick Morris made the right decisions all the way through. I’d hire him again in a heartbeat.”

Amazing what a little confidence can do.