A long time ago, I heard a colleague voice a theme for the first time that I still hear frequently today. Essentially it was along these lines--“I just love this business. It is my clients that I cannot stand.” We all get older and I hope a bit more mature. When clients were impossible I always reminded myself that they indirectly paid for tuition bills, vacations, and 401k contributions. Yet, in recent years, the complaining seems a bit louder and more strident. Are the criticisms valid? I asked several people at some small and mid-sized shops as well as a few alumni of mega-shops. The answers below were really interesting:
1) Medium sized agency president--“The clients are just plain scared. I remember you e-mailing to me that the average lifespan of a marketing director in a U.S. company was about 24 months. That struck me as crazy until I did some digging. I have seen various reports and asked around a lot. The range seems to be 18-30 months in my unscientific sample. To me, that explains a lot. These men and women come off as tough. Bull@#$%! They are simply afraid. Their superiors, of all types of firms, want tangible results and they want them now. If you are not successful on a project, they put you on notice as they are in trouble as well. It is our short term oriented American business culture that is wrong--not these clients. They come off as hard as nails but they are as scared as our junior account team.”
2) Small agency operations chief--”when we started years ago we were both “gung-ho” about the industry. Where are those kids today? I cannot find them although I must admit they probably do not want to live in our small city. The current team’s total lack of zeal is obvious to our client base. An 80 year old business owner, long since retired, sat in on a client presentation recently. He looked me in the eye and said you need to hire kids who were like you 30 years ago. I would if I could; where are they?”
3) A retiree of a publicly traded mega-shop--“Years ago, advertising was where smart and ambitious people wanted to work. Now, Silicon Valley and investment banking scarf the sharpies up. Our pay cannot compete and the best of breed do not want to wait years to be rewarded financially.”
4) A senior marketing executive at a major agency--“If you are honest, you know that the best ideas, the innovation, bubbles up from smart people client-side. A superstar will recognize this and leave the agency business and go where the real thinking is taking place. Am I harsh? Maybe a bit. But the questions that I get from 30 year old clients are deeper than any I get within our shop."
5) Media Director at a very successful agency--“Digital media increasingly is giving you measurable results. Conventional media is still pretty murky. The young clients want accountability. We seem evasive after unsuccessful campaigns. There is often no 2nd chance with them."
6)) Account Director at Mid-Sized--“The problem is simple. With cut fees, we have to do more with less. Our young people have a job but are not in love with the game. They get beat up at meetings and are defensive. There is no time to train them properly and I cannot be at every meeting.”
7) Mid-Sized #2--“The kids we hire do not live and breathe the business. I send them articles to read about their client’s category and they ask me if they can read it on company time. One told me that he will never take work home. And, sadly, he is our 2nd best person! Another one said, “I don’t read.” There is not enough interest in the business. Your contact who said we no longer attract the best really nailed it. I am exhausted and getting old. It should not be like this.”
So, are the crabby clients monsters? It seems a bit more so than in the past. Yet, the landscape has totally changed. Ratings continue to get smaller in TV and cable so forecasting is difficult. The clients are uneasy. On paper, the economy seems to be crawling upward but few feel content, secure or optimistic. It is hard to establish relationships when client turnover is high as well as on your own staff. And, the people who leave are often the best.
We all have learned how to deal with difficult people. With the digital age upon us and conventional media in retreat, we need to relearn and rethink how and with whom we operate and rework the client-agency relationship.
If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org