Advice from an Art Director

“My father (an ad guy) once told me. ‘There are no bad clients…only bad writers and bad art directors.’ After being in this business for a few years, I’ve decided that maybe he was only half right. I base the following opinions on the lessons I’ve learned from the good people I’ve known in the last three years. And in particular, my dad and the three guys I work for.

There are bad clients…quite a lot of them. But there are also bad writers and bad art directors…and quite a lot of them, too. So, what’s the difference?

A bad client is like a patient who goes to the doctor in search of a cure for what ails him or her, and ends up telling the doctor how to do the examination, what the prognosis is, and what the cure should be.

But that’s the nature of advertising. It’s like the ignorant museum goer who, when confronted with a work of utter simplicity, blurts out ‘My kid could do that!’ Unfortunately, none of those alleged prodigies ever becomes an artist. Instead, they all end up getting MBAs and becoming ‘clients’.

And since they’re really frustrated artists, longing for a creative outlet, it becomes their lot in life to frustrate the frustrated artists who work for them: the advertising writers and art directors. (This line of reasoning doesn’t hold true for all ‘bad’ clients. There are many who simply think of ‘creatives’ as necessary evils. They’re the ones who are  always saying ‘I’m not the creative guy around here, but if you ask me…’ etc, etc.)

And thus the cycle goes. The ‘bad’ clients are always thinking they know what’s good for them, while the ‘good’ creatives tear their hair out lamenting the “bad’ clients.

A good client goes to the doctor in search of aid and trusts the doctors professional judgment. Because the best medicine is usually hard to swallow, this type of client/doctor model is rare indeed.

So what can copywriters and art directors do to foster a sense of trust? It’s simple. Trust the clients. We’re the doctors, but they know where it hurts, how bad it hurts, and how the hurt is affecting their business. Also be sensitive to the fact that you may look about 12 years old to some clients. Respect their experience. If the client thinks you’re arrogant, then you’ve set the groundwork for a miserable relationship. You won’t sell the good work. And even if you do, nobody will feel very good about it. 

Since the best ideas always seem to be a risk departure for clients, it’s up to us to make those ideas seem like the natural outcome of a creative process between client and agency. (Make the medicine taste good.) Involve clients early on and let them own the idea; then it’s their baby too, and they’ll have a harder time killing it.

As soon as you get an assignment, find out who it is you’ll be presenting to and begin a dialog. Don’t let the account person be responsible for how the client sees your work. Work with the client, not for the client.

If you try all of this and you’re still not selling your ideas, either your ideas are lousy or your client has other problems within his/her own structure that supersede ‘caring’ about the ‘quality’ of the advertising. Then you’re in trouble. (Try to do public service stuff whenever possible.

OK. Enough about clients. What makes a good creative? The characteristics are much simpler.

NEVER, EVER SAY DIE. If you work in a big agency and you’re trying not to be a hack, then chances are you’re not producing the most work. If that’s the case, try to get your unproduced stuff comped up as slickly as possible, and send It out. If you have a ton of bad, produced ads and you tell someone like Rich Silverstein, ‘I had to do this stuff,’ but you never bothered to explore how you would have done it better, then you have no proof that you’re any better than the worst thing in your book.

If your book is all comps but they’re all great, original ideas and layouts, with or without experience you’ll be valuable to somebody who’s great, too. Our agency recently hired a guy right out of school over all the experienced art directors they looked at. Out of 100 books, maybe three were great. His was a little better than that. Vision is a lot more valuable to a visionary agency than experience.”

— Jeremy Postaer