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Working with Clients: It’s Not Tennis


INFLUENCER: The client is your teammate, reminds TBWA\Helsinki's Ville Ohtonen

Working with Clients: It’s Not Tennis

“The client has sent their comments...” might well be the six most notorious words in our industry.

After weeks of background work, data analysis, planning, benchmarking, ideating, concepting, bright eureka moments (and those dark hours of impostor syndrome), starting all over again (for the tenth time) – and then finally landing on a piece of work, which felt a genuine delight to present… “The client has sent their comments...” and suddenly you feel like your head is on the guillotine and the executioner is pulling on his gloves.

You’re afraid your beautiful, unique, market-changing and award-winning idea will get mutilated, disfigured, toned down and flattened into something immemorable, mundane and conventional. And that’s the best case scenario.

“The client has sent their comments...” can lead to outrage, laughter, cry and disbelief – how can THEY always spoil OUR great ideas?

Co-operating with the client often resembles a game of tennis: We deliver our finest serve, but the opponent returns it. With a leap, we strike the ball back to the client’s side, they respond – and the game goes on, until one or the other manages to win the ball. Unfortunately, the original idea endures these numerous hits a lot worse than a furry tennis ball.

However, this metaphor of 'us' and 'them' as opponents is not only immature, it’s also highly counterproductive and consuming. It prevents us from creating better work.

We need to realise that our industry is not tennis. In fact, advertising is not like any individual sport. It’s a team sport, just like football.

I’ve played football for 32 years, and I still suck at it. Luckily for me, most of my teammates are way better footballers than I am. For instance, our central midfielder, JP, used to play three divisions higher than I ever have, with players far superior to me. Other fullbacks must have given him thousands of passes, which are way better than mine will ever be.

Still, JP never complains about my lousy passing. He knows I don’t do it on purpose. He knows I’m doing the best I can, albeit with a very limited skillset. And most of all, JP knows, I’m trying to win the match for the same team, our team. I’m playing with him, not against him.

When it comes to creativity, our clients are admittedly 'from a lower division' than us (they’d hardly pay us if this wasn’t the case). Just as we are from a division several levels below theirs, when it comes to their area of expertise.

But despite our different skill sets and roles, the client is playing for the same team as us, fighting to get the same result, to score in the same goal. Our clients are our teammates, not our opponents. We just have different strengths and weaknesses.

Sometimes the client’s passes to us are so bad, that it feels like they are deliberately trying to damage our playing. And just as often, it’s the other way around – we understand the client’s tactics so badly, that we move into a position no pass could ever reach. But these incidents are not proof of 'being each other’s opponents', but rather of different type of talent (and lack of it).

Everyone who has ever played team sports knows that getting frustrated, rebelling or complaining about your teammate will only wear you down and prevent you from doing what you should: win the match together. You can either focus on complaining about your team or on helping your team win, but you can’t do both.

Just like football, advertising can only be 'played' as a team – a team including the client. You needn’t love the client, nor admire their skills, but if you don’t accept them as a part of your team, you’re hurting your chances to win.

P.S. In football, you call your teammates by name (“Pass Mike! Maria, shoot!”) but refer to the opponents by position or role (“Follow that striker! Dribble the defender!”). Since the client is your teammate, shouldn’t you stop referring to them as 'clients' and start calling them by their names? 

I assure you, once the comments start coming from Anne, Ellen or Steven, they’ll feel a tad more digestible than the ones coming from the notorious 'client'.

Ville Ohtonen is creative director, partner at TBWA\Helsinki

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TBWA\Helsinki, Thu, 26 Sep 2019 12:11:33 GMT