About « clients »

I loved this article by Aaron Starkman on how to be a decent partner in a marketing agency.

His first advice hit me right in the feels.

Don’t refer to human beings as “clients.”

“Client” is a dirty word. No good comes from saying it internally. These human beings have names attached to them. It’s usually something like Chris, Margaret, Asif or Jackie. When discussing brand partners internally, you could say: “Robin really needs our help on something.” Or you could say: “Client is mandating that we do X, Y and Z.” The former statement encourages the team to help someone who really needs it. The other unnecessarily vilifies them and encourages resentment and annoying trash talk within your agency. And that almost never gets you to a great solution fast.

That's the number one thing that struck me when I started working in a marketing agency, after spending 5 years in other kinds of organizations. Marketing agency folks tend to spend way too much time theorizing about « their clients ».

The way they use the word is ridiculous. The client is just someone who's running a business, selling stuff and he/she needs services from you. But most of the time, most of the economic value is captured by his/her business selling stuff to consumers; and you're like 1/10 of the equation.

So don't get caught up in the game, the whole agency-client world we've created is just advertising people dramatizing their own industry.

It makes it almost romantic.

You come back at night and you tell your epic stories you had while fighting with « the client ». It feels like a bedtime story ad veterans tell youngsters to keep them on the edge and motivated. It's like having a common enemy makes the group stronger.

But all of this is like thinking the Earth is the center of the universe. It's just not healthy.

It's an unbalanced relationship because marketing services are 1/10 of what's on « your » client's mind. So while you spend 40h/week wondering what they think, and vilifying their intentions, they're up to other things; they have a business to run. You should be running your business too, by the way. The concept of customer obsession is not customer psychoanalysis.

And when you join your friends at night that don't work in advertising. They have no idea what you're talking about when you say « ah, this client is so bad ». It doesn't mean anything. It's just advertising lingo that keeps people uninterested in your work. And it doesn't spark good discussions. Try « X company is challenging to work with, they're growing fast because since they acquired Y and have a very particular org structure that makes producing Z for them hard. »

Aw, welcome to the real world. Feels good.

Finally, I find it alarming when people say « I'd like to work client-side ». There's no client-side. Client-side of what? You have non-profits, B2C businesses, and B2B businesses. Some sell products, some sell services. The world does not revolve around the relationship between an organization and its marketing partner.

  • Maybe you'd like to join a non-profit to see what fundraising is like.
  • Maybe you'd like to join another services company to learn new processes/skills.
  • Maybe you'd like to join an e-commerce company to learn about online sales.
  • Maybe you'd like to join a product company to learn about inventories and distribution.

But this is not « client-side », it's just another kind of business.

Clients. No good comes from saying it internally.