Marketing Clients Need to be Collaborative

I’ve had a lot of clients in my career. I’ve actually tried to count them out; I’m almost 100 and I know I’m missing some. And not to brag, but quite a few of them are Fortune 500, which gives me a very clear sense of scope and scale.

Every single one of those clients, without exception, need one thing in common: support. You don’t go to a marketing agency if you don’t need support, because you can probably do it in-house. But for those who engage a marketing agency, it’s because you need skills you can’t afford, or because you would rather minimize your marketing group in favour of other areas.

One thing I’ve learned across every single one of those clients? The ones who want to collaborate on a solution are, by far, the best to work with. Every single one of those clients recognized that there are challenges they can’t solve on their own, but they want to be a part of the end goal, working with professionals who want their clients to succeed.

And that’s an important point. We’re not in this for our own selfish gain. Barring personal investment in our client’s companies, we will never get rich by making our clients successful. (And with smaller companies, you bet your life that we’re not in it for the padded wallet.) We’re there because we want to help organizations succeed in what they provide, be it a product or service, be it private or public. We want to see our work be not just of use, but be considered valuable.

Where we struggle is when we have clients who, frankly, just want someone to bend over and take their instructions. I’m not apologizing if that sounds gross or inappropriate, because that’s exactly what it feels like when our recommendations – which are not formed of unicorn farts and faery snot – are tossed aside or ignored, or worse, completely rewritten in a way that is completely against what we recommended.

And yet, that’s how marketing works: recommendations are given, demands are made, and in the end, “the client is always right”.

Except, they’re not. More often than not, the client is only opinionated. (Sometimes, very much so.) The problem is that it’s very difficult to convince another person that they’re cherished ideas are, frankly, crap. That’s not a criticism of their intelligence or their abilities, it’s just that they haven’t the experience or knowledge to set a clear path. Hence, wrong.

With some clients, you can have the practical conversation that gets them from “wrong” to “listening”, and that’s where collaboration starts. Once you’ve at that phase, you can open dialogue that exposes ideas and concepts and alternatives. It doesn’t always end in the right result – sometimes, an opinion will remain – but you can at least feel like your points were heard and debated.

It’s when you can’t even get to that point that marketing really sucks. No-one wants to be the grunt churning out the work that was demanded because … well, where’s the input? Where’s the conversation? It’s just a demand. And no-one, I don’t care what industry you’re in, what job you do, no-one likes being put upon.

I’ve had a couple of clients like this recently, who are quite content to make demands and to hell with our opinions. And let me tell you, that’s one hell of a way to annihilate support and insight and any empathy whatsoever for your business. You want the worst work possible? By all means, please, just dictate something and refuse any form of feedback. Even better, cut us off from engaging with you and just say “you’re the experts, you just make it happen”.

There is nothing more insulting – or dangerous – than telling a marketing person that they’re an expert and they’re on the hook for all decisions. We don’t work that way.

We need our clients engaged with what we do because, no, we don’t know your business as well as you do, we don’t know your challenges, we don’t know the things that are keeping you up at night. But we can understand them, if you tell us, if you give us insights to the challenges, if you bring the needs to the table and ask us what we think. We might not get the right result the first time, or even the tenth time, but that’s part of marketing: refinement.

No campaign, ever, started perfect. Some took dramatic risks, make no mistake, but it is a very rare situation where a marketing agency starts with nothing, creates something useable, and gets a positive uptake. You wonder why large companies spend millions of dollars on marketing? Because there’s a lot of footwork that takes place to get a concept, let alone an execution.

Marketing doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We need input, we need validation, we need challenge. All of it combines with our experience and knowledge to deliver a useable idea. We will never deliver success without it.

Well, other than with a few boatloads of money, anyway…

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