How to Not Lose a Client Over Good Design

“Working for an ad agency would be great, if it weren’t for the clients”. If you, too, work for an ad agency, you might as well admit to having said something like this (or at least thought it). If you are a client reading this, maybe even one of mine, brace yourself for some insights into your agency’s dark side. Where creatives and project managers aren’t smiling and are reluctant to do your bidding.

My inspiration for this post comes from a current project, one that fills me and my colleagues with particular pride. Because we did everything right and the result is one of the best creative executions I have ever been part of. Yet, it will never see the light of day. The client killed it. 3 weeks before launch and 3 months after the kick-off.

This is what happened: We were chosen to re-launch a website. We did our due diligence: market research, customer research, client workshops. Creative brief and re-brief. We developed a creative idea, which was approved by the client. Based on that we offered three different creative approaches from which the client picked one, telling us how much they liked the idea and the unique approach. Everyone was happy.

ScribblesWith the creative idea and several examples for image/copy combinations that the client had seen as a solid base, we continued to create more of those combinations. They were going to be placed on the homepage stage and several other key pages of the website. It was teamwork at its best. Creative director and copywriter in synch, with a 3rd, challenging, set of eyes from another colleague. We were in love with our work.

We were in love with our work, but the client wasn’t commited

We started to receive client feedback that was not all positive and pretty vague: “Too high on the needs pyramid”, “Not technoid enough”. So we adjusted. Changed the copy, chose new motifs, made new sketches. Lots of active dialogue with the client. Reminding them, that they liked the uniqueness of the approach, when they started mentioning competitor websites and how “they are doing it” (which wasn’t anything like the stuff we were doing).

Meanwhile the group of decision makers and input givers at the client’s end grew significantly. More personal tastes had to be accommodated, bigger feedback loops had to be taken. Though the results weren’t nearly as bad, the whole process reminded me a little bit of this comic by The Oatmeal: “How a web design goes straight to hell“.

The idea and the approach started to be watered down, while we were worn down (after at least five rounds of changes). Finally, the client wrote their own copy, came up with their own image ideas. This is what then went into consumer testing. And the results were ugly.

Unfriendly emails were written to big email cc lists. Everyone was frustrated. The whole approach was cancelled.

After 12 years in the industry I have come to learn to not take things like this personally. In the end, the client pays the bill. If they don’t want the website that would finally have sent us to Cannes, it is their good right to choose something we and our peers will find less exciting. They will have a website that meets all consumer needs and which will look similar to what their competitors have – it will be industry standard. The client is happy and we are, too, because they are and we have accomplished our task. The website won’t be special, it will not show up in any “best-of” lists and it won’t win any awards. Which is fine, as long as it works, right?

And yet, I keep wondering two things:

  1. Could we have been more sensitive to the client’s reluctance early on? Were we too much in love with our own idea and didn’t listen closely enough to their arguments, discarding them as being uninspired and uncreative? In other words, should we – ourselves – have killed or at least adjusted our approach earlier? Making it less frustrating (and financially painful) in the long run?
  2. Is there something we could have said to make them love us? Like a lonely woman that has been ditched by her lover, I go over my pleading words and wonder if there is any argument that I didn’t make, any phrasing that would have been more convincing, any chance I missed to explain why they are giving up on the perfect fit. Or simply: “What would Don Draper have said…?”

As a creative who is enthusiastic and passionate about her work, there has been a point in almost all projects where I needed to decide: Continue to push my great idea (or even just the usability argument about the green button vs. the red) or give in?

I would love to hear your experiences and – if you are a client – your expectations on when to stop pushing.

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