On the Campaign couch: My client drives me insane
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch: My client drives me insane

How do I get along with a client who drives me insane?

Dear Jeremy, my agency just won my dream account but the client drives me insane. Do you have any advice for getting along, and how can I make sure my irritation doesn't put a damper on my work for the brand?

If anyone still believes that the client/agency relationship can be a "partnership", they should study this question.

Clients who find that their agencies drive them insane don’t write to agony uncles. They fire their agencies and hire new ones. Job done.

A partnership implies a relationship based on equality: of authority, of risk, of tolerance. No client/agency relationship, despite what’s said over Christmas drinks, has ever enjoyed equality in any of these aspects.

Some agencies talk big. They claim to resign accounts rather than agree to creative compromise – and sometimes they actually do. But they must know, somewhere in their troubled souls, that to resign an account is to chuck in the towel: to concede defeat. Simply by being agencies, agencies tacitly accept far more than 50% of the responsibility for maintaining an amicable working relationship.

Of course it’s not fair: but then no principal/supplier relationship is ever going to be fair. Try talking to dairy farmers about supermarkets. The best clients never refer to their inherent dominance. They don’t have to. But some clients abuse it: often the more junior ones.

Resenting their lowly status back at the ranch, they become playground bullies when in meetings with agencies. Yet they still need to be managed. The most under-recognised agency skill is the skill of the senior account handler. They go under-recognised because their highest achievement is the prevention of drama.

Client briefs are clear. Good work is routinely delivered on time and regularly accepted. Differences of opinion are openly expressed and calmly resolved. When senior account handlers are told how lucky they are to have such amenable clients, they cross their fingers behind their backs and buy another round.

And so to your question. You face a simple decision. Are you capable of becoming such a skilled ambassador; of taking the punches, mediating the fractious, smiling at intransigence, maintaining standards in the face of ignorance – while diverting any gratitude to those who less deserve it? If so, start now. If not, find someone who is.

Should I invest in software that measures my staff’s productivity? Or would it do more harm than good?

Measurement demands the counting of units. What units will this software count, I wonder? Hours? Words? Pages? Meetings? Emails? Miles travelled?

Only if your staff are employed to make objects will units be helpful in the measurement of their productivity. There are no useful units in the measurement of creativity: it needs to be assessed by a perceptive human being. And that, I imagine, is what you’re paid for?

My start-up client wants me to take an equity stake in their business instead of paying fees. Should I tell them where to go or join their happy band?

This is not the real partnership it may seem. Your client’s not offering you a half-share; just an equity stake. You’d be forgoing income and accepting risk while having no more direct influence on the management of the business than if you were simply a lowly supplier (which, of course, you’ll continue to be).

That’s hardly an enticing deal. On one condition, however, I think you should take it: not because there’s an outside chance of finding yourself with 0.1% of several billion dollars but because of what you’d learn.

The condition: you must be absolutely certain that you can service the business over a period of years on absolutely no income – and without cutting corners, starving other clients or milking your own people.

The reason clients complain that agencies never treat their clients’ money as if it was their own is because they don’t. Take up this offer and you will. You’ll be just that little bit closer to knowing what it’s like to be a client who, when faced with an unconventional recommendation costing £15m, is exhorted by the risk-exempt agency to be brave.

Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, Bridge House, 69 London Road, Twickenham, TW1 3SP