“Your Agency Hates You”: 5 Tips on Being a Better Client from the Former CMO of Heineken

Oh, clients. We’ve all had wonderful ones who clearly articulate their needs and provide constructive criticism. And we’ve all had difficult ones who don’t know what they want, but think that all-out criticism will make whatever they want magically happen. Overall, I’d say it’s inevitable for SOME tension to exist between an ad agency and its clients. The ad agency/client relationship is just that–a relationship. Like most relationships, there are misunderstandings, breakdowns in communication, conflicting perspectives and opinions, and on and on. The key to working well together is respect–taking the time to hear people out, having empathy for pressures both sides are feeling, and remembering that we’re all on the same team, working toward the same goals.

Lesya Lysyj is a former CMO for Heinekin USA and the former North American president for Weight Watchers North America. She’s also held marketing roles at Mondelez International and Cadbury. Point being, she’s worked with a lot of agencies. She’s been The Client on numerous occasions. And she has a wonderful point of view, as expressed in this essay for Ad Age: “Your Agency Hates You and You Don’t Even Know It.”

She writes:

“We’ve all been there. You have briefed your agency, waited for what seems like forever, and finally it is the day when you will see this amazing work that will propel your brand to greatness. What follows is a big blur and the next thing you know, you are saying in not so many words, ‘All of this is crap, go back and give me some more ideas.’ No matter how charming you are and how nicely you said it … I can pretty much guarantee they hate you. And by the way, it’s probably your fault, not theirs.”

She goes on to give 5 glorious ways to be a better client:

1. Tell your shop your problems
You have asked for their help for a reason, so why would you pretend you know the answer? They are problem solvers. And creative problem solvers, which you probably are not. In my experience many brand people feel they are failing if they don’t have all the answers. In the boardroom you need to look like you know your shit. But with your agency team, you should be honest. And what the heck, why not be totally crazy and actually ask what they think?

2. Let your shop help you define the brief
You know that no matter what you give the agency, it changes when the the creative team is briefed, right? So don’t worry about the template, the boxes and all the window dressing. Just get to the seven to 10 words that the creative team is going to create from. Sometimes a creative brief is right on strategy but not going to net good ideas. Look the creatives in the eye like you’re Larry David and make sure they actually like it. The brief for the now famous “Gorilla” ad for Cadbury chocolate (which grew the business by 8%, by the way) was “Make me feel how I do when I’m eating Cadbury chocolate.” And it wasn’t even on paper.

No, guys. No.
No, guys. No.

3. Get to know your creatives personally
Let’s admit it: Creatives are way cooler than we are. They can wear shorts to a creative presentation. They probably are part owners of a craft brewing company. You live in the suburbs and take your kid to soccer practice. Don’t tell me that doesn’t play into the dynamic of not wanting to tell the cool kids who never talked to you in high school that you don’t like their idea. I absolutely love interacting with creatives. I find them genuine, funny and super talented at something I could never do. If you can get past being intimidated, you might find the same.

4. Tell them what you actually think in the meeting
Make sure you find a way to give creatives clear direction. I repeat: Clear direction. This means pick a couple of horses early in the race and don’t make them go back and work on everything. Figure out if there is a grain of a good idea that may have been executed wrong. If you don’t have this intuitive sense yourself (you may not — that’s why we don’t work at agencies), find someone on your team who does and listen to them. I have several times been in a situation where the most junior person liked an execution that no one else did, and it ended up being the winner.

Oh, and for God’s sakes, give them your gut reaction. React, laugh, grimace, anything. Do not give them a prepared polite response. If you say “I loved No. 3, hated No. 2 and think No. 1 has potential, they will come over and kiss you. If you don’t know, say it and say why. Someone once told me the best clients are the ones who, if you walk into the room, you wouldn’t know who was the agency and who was the client. Strive for that.

Not helpful.
Not helpful.

5. Pick your battles
Once when I started a new assignment, I learned that one of the media plans had 45 changes made to it within the previous six months. Another agency partner told me that someone on my team sent the agency back 40 times for a few lines of copy for a Facebook post. Forty times. Probably enough to quit the whole industry, right?

These are GREAT tips–and I’m flattered she thinks Creatives are so cool (we’re really not that cool). These tips capture what I think makes a great client–someone who knows her stuff (but also knows that she doesn’t know everything), someone who trusts the agency she hires, someone who isn’t afraid to fail, someone who can see the big picture, put herself in other people’s shoes, and [insert other relevant clichés] . All in all, clients want good work and ad agencies want to give them good work. As long as both sides keep that in mind and let that drive each stage of a project, the resulting work will be–you guessed it–good.

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