It's Not The Client's Fault, It’s Your Fault

Advertising is in crisis.

Those of us who have worked in the business for longer than the life-span of a mayfly struggle to remember a time when it was more enfeebled.

There is a paucity of great work, or even good work. Agencies seem largely to have lost the respect and trust of clients. And a culture of fear, jobsworthness, and corporate safe-playing runs through most agencies.

Agencies will happily drop their trousers, and fees, if a client so much as blinks in their direction. Agencies that also seem happy to be commoditised by intermediaries, and who will endlessly pitch and pitch, and pitch, for free, at the mere sniff of a sniff of some new business.

When you start talking to agency people about why this is, pretty soon clients start getting all the blame;

“They don't listen to us”
“They want to write/art direct/direct the ads”
“They ruined a great ad with a shit shot”
“They made us work the weekend”
“They made us pitch”
“They made us re-pitch”
“They put together a pitch-list of six agencies”
“They made us drop our fees”
“They wouldn't pay for decent production”

You get the idea.

And it's true that there is a lot of this behaviour about.

Clients are doing that kind of stuff, and it is affecting the business negatively.

But. And it's a huge but. Why? 

The simple answer is, if you work in an ad agency, it’s probably your fault.

A wise man once said “You get the clients you deserve”.

It doesn't mean that you attract a certain kind of client.

It means that you train clients to believe that it is acceptable to behave in a certain way, with your own actions, and reactions.

Once agencies allow, or encourage, clients to do something, the client thinks it's acceptable. It is that simple.

When many agencies behave in a certain way, clients can expect every agency to behave that way. And if they don't, the client will just go to an agency that will.

It's no coincidence that hundreds of agencies will free pitch – and that clients see free pitching as a natural part of the advertising process.

It's no coincidence that hundreds of agencies will drop fees to eye-wateringly low levels to win or keep a client – and that clients believe they can squeeze agencies until they bleed, fee-wise.

And the fact is, right now there are many, many clients who have never known any different. And blame them as you might, it's not their fault. They have no other frame of reference. They assume that this is how advertising works, that it's how it has always worked. 

Clients only do the things that ad people see as negative to the work and the business, because agencies have led clients to believe that it is acceptable to do so.

Every time your agency drops its fees, free pitches, re-pitches, joins a stupid RFI or procurement procedure, makes people work through the night, or the weekend, says yes to something they think is rubbish, accepts a detrimental change to an edit, lets the client art direct the ad, write the ad, every time your agency says yes when it should really say no, you are part of the problem.

The only way that ad agencies will get better clients, is for agencies to accept only behaviour from clients that they think is helpful to the process.

It's hard to see that happening as agencies grow in size, and the day-to-day is separated further from the money-counters.

It's hard to see that happening when agencies prize growth over quality, while the over-riding priority is winning, keeping and retaining clients at all costs.

It means growing some balls and actually doing things in the way that you think they should be done.

While the majority of agencies are happy to drop their trousers, clients will continue to see the dropping of trousers as a normal part of working with ad agencies.


  1. Where there's blame, there's a claim.

    Call Advertising Accidents Direct on...

    *runs off to register advertising accidents direct url*

  2. When you decide to open a Sell! Sell! office in the states, let me know. I'm in.

  3. Well said, Sell! Sell!.

    If you were in need of some sort of life saving surgery, you'd run a mile from the guy who offered to do it for free.

    And then imagine that surgeon presenting you with a bunch of different surgery options and asking you to pick the one you liked most.

    Fuck that.

  4. Acutally, I'd favor a surgeon that gives me options and tells me their implications - making the oh so "magic" process more transparent. I'd also choose an architect that explains me his choices and that listens to my feedback over a crazy artist that forgot that I'm paying him for doing the job for me anytime. I think agencies should get off the high horse. This isn't magic - and we are doing nothing too crazy here.
    We are (hopefully) and should be doing a terrific job at explaining our choices to clients and leading them with us - not trying to WOW them out of nowhere with something they didn't see coming at all.
    If you, the agency, want to surprise your client with your brilliance - ask yourself if it's more important to you to "surprise" or to show "brilliance".

  5. I'm confused by this Tobias guy ^^
    Who said anything about 'surprise'? Are you sure you posted your comment on the right post?

  6. A great blog post that need more air time.

    I think that at the heart of it, agencies need to grow some balls too. They don't have to be that big or impressive. Just big enough to have a conversation. That can't hurt can it? Conversations can be persuasive and that is the business we are in, right?

    No need to get upset with a well meaning client. just explain your side of the story and that they hired you to solve a problem for a reason. That reason being they couldn't solve it. The right solution is very valuable to them and they need to remember that.

  7. How do you expect agencies to "train" their clients in acceptable behaviour when they shit themselves at the thought of losing a client? Those who will try to do so will be seen as "difficult to work with". Story of my life.

  8. @Anonymous Spot on. In this business saying what you think (or even know) might just get you fired.

  9. 'He who has overcome his fears will truly be free' - Aristotle

  10. Any thoughts on how a 'Yes' agency can transition to a 'No'. Can it be done? Could you change the clients way of thinking when they've had the 'Ye's for so long.

  11. Grow a pair and stop saying yes to everything?

  12. I have been in an agency where the work was seen as indispensable and otherworldly. That relationship worked well, but more importantly, the results were clearly outstanding. The work was good because it got great results. More sales/foot traffic/whatever. They gave us their problems. We solved them.

    I've been in agencies (plural) where the client said, "I need a brochure for this." There's no trust there. The agency isn't a problem-solver. It's a production house.

    This relationship doesn't have to be built on yes or no. The segue between those two extremes is hard work: give them what they're asking for, but ask them questions and then show them your solution. Do so for a reasonable amount of time and, if you have a good client, they'll come around. If not, farm it out to a production shop, mark it up, and go bag a client who understands.

    Remember: you get what you show. If you show wholly-expected milquetoast (stolen word) bullshit, guess what your client will expect from you?

  13. How can you say advertising's in crisis.

    An ECD wrote a headline for Mini the other day with 'beef' and 'horse' in it. Both!

    Beat that! You can't.

    Don't worry. It's still 1988 so everything is OKAY.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.