6 Rules to Making Inspiring Creative, Learned From Great Clients

They’ll push you to make memorable ads

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In my entire career, I can’t recall one instance of a client saying, “We’d like you to create average work. That’s all this brand needs.”

Nobody wants average work. But creating advertising that transforms brands is not a process for the faint of heart. It takes soul-searching, hard questions, candor, collaboration and daring. No wonder so few ideas and even fewer relationships make it to the other end.

And yet some clients do it with regularity. What do they do differently? As I look at the lessons I’ve learned from the best clients I’ve worked with, I’ve identified six rules that set them apart.

They own the idea

Susan Credle, my creative partner, and I share this fundamental belief: great work and iconic campaigns are the brainchildren of individual clients, not organizations. I call this person “the owner of the idea.”

Typically, it’s the CMO, but anyone in a client organization who has the determination and belief to sell and protect the idea can play this role.

The owner of the idea accepts specific responsibilities to protect its fragility. They become the single point person, limit meetings to critical stakeholders and restrict contributions in those meetings to a select few. They filter everyone’s input, take ownership of shepherding the idea from inception to audience delivery and never delegate those responsibilities until the idea is secure.

They are human 

Great work comes from great people, and better clients attract better people. They do this in ways that can best be described as human.

Great clients are on a mission to create iconic work that produces lasting, meaningful brands.

They are ambitious and empathetic. They are thoughtful and decisive. They are generous and hold high standards. They care relentlessly about the work and even more about the people behind it. They are grateful and open. And they never make it about them.

Following these simple tenets is infectious. It gets people with world-class talent to bleed for you.

These clients wear their passion for their brands on their sleeves and desire for great work in their hearts. They seek and welcome feedback, and their drive to do great things inspires us at every step of the journey.

They trust creativity

Creativity is the most valuable resource for any modern business, but unlocking its power demands courage, patience and especially trust. Those attributes are table stakes for the best clients.

They recognize that creativity requires risk. Ideas need time to develop. People who think laterally need room to do so, and the ability to express an idea gets richer and deeper with time and reflection. Such a creative process does not create a predictable, straightforward procedure, which creates challenges for clients that are looking for exactly that.

Great clients are unwavering in their commitment to the idea, usually without empirical evidence to support their faith. And when uncertainty and risk emerge, clients recognize those variables as a good sign that the idea before them just became worth trusting.

They read Gideon Amichay

Gideon Amichay wrote the book No, No, No, No, No, Yes. His premise is that great ideas will be met with a no five times before it becomes a yes.

Great clients are on a mission to create iconic work that produces lasting, meaningful brands. When others say it’s not possible or it’s never been done before, they fight tooth and nail to make it happen.

Creative perseverance yields great work despite tremendous obstacles. Some of the most noteworthy work involves challenges so immense that most people would shy away from the idea. But in one recent such project, “Whopper Detour,” the client refused to take no for an answer—from anyone. Not the agency, not his organization, not his tech partners. The client was thoughtful, listened to everyone and expanded the timeline to deliver the idea the right way and pushed past the no’s to get to the yes. Just last month, the work took home one of the highest honors in the industry, a Cannes Lions titanium Grand Prix.

They don’t BS 

Great clients say what they mean. If they need a piece of short-term tactical work for their sales team, they don’t say they need a ground-breaking creative idea.

If they want a true platform creative idea but don’t know how to go about it, they ask their agency for help. Being truthful and candid doesn’t make them look weak; it makes them look strong. And their candor and transparency encourages us to trust them.

If they don’t feel the chemistry is right with someone on their team, they sensitively raise the issue and remain open to the possibility that they might have overlooked the special something that makes them an invaluable team member.

And finally, if there’s a lack of diversity in the room, they let it be known. Diversity drives creativity, and great clients (and great agencies) demand it.

They give constructive feedback

Great clients give constructive feedback every day.

The method I was taught is “Green Hat, Orange Hat, Red Hat.” Imagine a colored hat hovering over your head as you speak.

  1. The green hat is positive reinforcement, which is 50% of speaking time.

“What I liked was…”

“…what I appreciated was the time that’s clearly gone into this project and…”

  1. The orange hat are questions generated by the presentation., which is 20%–40% of speaking time.

“What I saw makes me think we should explore…”

“From what I saw, I wonder if we can do…”

  1. The red hat are challenges, provocations and concerns, which is 10%–30% of speaking time.

“Here are two or three things I would like us to look at differently…”

“This didn’t work for me because X. Let’s discuss the best way forward.”

Whichever technique they use, great clients leave every meeting having inspired, questioned and challenged the creative team. They move things forward without leaving anything unsaid or leaving anyone behind.

Those who do build what we describe as “never finished” brands are brands that work continuously to drive business and society forward. These clients change the world. If you’re fortunate enough to work with them, hold onto them for dear life. I know I do.