Take a Walk on the Client Side

It’s hard to sell a client new ideas — especially digital ones. While I’m sure selling traditional ideas isn’t easy either, at least the medium is consistent.

In the digital world, things change so quickly that anything innovative can be vastly, categorically different from one thing to the next. And while new ideas are hard enough to pull off on a regular basis on the creative/agency side, it’s important to remember that it can sometimes be an even taller order for clients.
I talked to a few friends in the industry to get a sense of how they felt. Bo Hellberg at Tribal DDB Paris advises that just thinking about how your clients approach their work could make a difference.

“Many of us that talk, deal and think of innovation every day get a bit ‘speed blind,’ and don’t always think of the client cojones necessary to make non-standard happen,” Hellberg said.

So, maybe take a step back and think about how clients spend their days. They’re probably not immersing themselves in the latest rad stuff on the Internet, nor are they spending a lot of time talking about cool ideas. Instead, they’re worried about their own priorities at their day jobs, like P&L, stock prices and having to deal with both retailers and consumers.

While marketing might be everyone’s job at the agency at which you work, your client is probably in the vast minority of people focusing on it brand-side.

Faris Yakob from MDC talked to me about the interdepartmental struggles clients have.

“Ideas that don’t fit neatly inside ‘advertising’ boxes,” he said, “may require [those] clients who reside within marketing to orchestrate a program across innumerable departments, which brings its own set of complications.”

This can sometimes work to an agency’s advantage, as working on a marketing project for non-marketing people can be a fun change. (But more often than not, it’s just more work.)

One of the biggest barriers in bringing new ideas to clients is metrics. That is, what if you’re proposing an idea where there are no measurements?

The obvious dilemma — because the new thing you’re proposing is different than the old thing, a client can’t compare numbers — has an obvious solution. MDC’s Marc Lucas lays it out clearly when he says we need to build up some history.

“Clients don’t have enough case studies to know what investment in ‘untried’ channels will return,” Lucas said. “Somewhere in an MBA textbook is a formula that tells a client what to spend and what to expect from TV — that doesn’t exist yet for some of the things we’re doing.”

Social media makes metrics a little bit easier, of course: improve your Facebook/Twitter/whatever followers and you’re doing better. But this doesn’t always help. Nik Roope from Poke U.K. thinks that the agency itself should sometimes provide the long-term metrics.

“In our experience, the only way to comfort clients as they leap into the void is through iterative risk taking with a consistent record of success, a complex, Pavlovian cause-and-effect equation that over time makes risk taste sweet because the reward is rarely far behind,” explained Roope. “Unfortunately, though, this process takes a lot longer, so our very best work seems to happen some time into a client engagement.”

This make sense; after a few years or a decade of successful, innovative work, you can be in a position where you have a positive track record of doing new things, and that can be enough to push through good work.

But sometimes pushing a new idea is just about having a good defense, as Mark Figliulo of TBWA said: “Someone on the client side has to love the idea enough to fight for it and protect it from within.”