What it's like to be 'the client', working on the less glamorous side of our world of creative adoration.
My name’s Phil and I’m a client.
There I’ve admitted it.
Being ‘the client’ has been a big part of my career and I’ve been fortunate to work on some pretty recognisable pieces of communications work with some brilliant agency partners delivering strong business results.
The latter part is the crux of what I’m there to do and it’s worth coughing this up front. I’ve never really sought the limelight, never cared much for awards but focussed my attention on being at the heart of delivering what I’ve been tasked to do and wherever possible trying to over-deliver.
The early days of my career saw my first interaction with the glamourous bright lights of London agency land with BMP DDB. I was working for the slightly less than glamorous Meat & Livestock Commission – a business charged with delivering increased consumption of British meat post BSE. I was privileged to learn the ropes with an agency at the top of their game, brilliant at planning as well as creatively driven by the legendary John Webster. Being coached how to work early on as a partner to an agency rather than a master / servant relationship was a key insight to how I’ve always approached whoever the retained agency is wherever I have landed.
Those early days as a young client working with incredibly smart people gave me a great inside track on how to get the best out of myself, the brief, the agency and ultimately the work. I looked, I listened, I got my hands dirty, I loved the creativity, I loved the chance to be doing something I enjoyed but best of all I loved seeing the work I was involved in making a commercial difference.
And that is where I suspect some clients differ.
I’ve always trusted my agencies to be the experts in what they deliver, irrespective of discipline. In many ways, being a marketing client is like being a conductor of an orchestra. My job if you follow that logic is to make the most tuneful piece of music I possibly can, getting the timing spot on but most importantly generating an impactful musical piece that is noticed and loved by the many. Marketing is actually inherently simple; you need to cut through and you need to persuade.
Sounds simple? Maybe. The truth of the matter is that in the world of marketing the communications element may only take up a limited portion of my time. I’ve typically been charged with all manner of objectives on my to-do list and I share this insight as a matter of fact. From responsibility for the brand P&L to the development of the brand strategy, from working with the sales team to master the sales forecast to working with the factory to ensure on-time delivery, from the development of new products to discontinuing underperforming brands, to evaluating brand performance to the return on investment of the current communication. You catch my drift. It’s pretty busy. And varied.
But what does this all mean? For me it’s about getting the best out of everybody’s talents to deliver the best possible results results.
I appreciate there is no hard and fast checklist for success but there are definitely a few things in my head that I’m always on the lookout for when I’m working with agencies.
Chemistry is key.
Finding partners who understand your business, brand and challenges is critical. Extra marks for those that are interested in current business performance. I’ve seen great client/agency relationships flourish because both parties have been truly transparent with each other – identifying what’s working, what’s not and seeking to consciously improve particularly with the latter.
I’m a massive fan of a great agency planner.
They can sprinkle stardust in a way others can’t. I’ve been lucky to work with some amazing planners with brains the size of planets who have helped elevate the brief to a level where the creative teams sink their teeth into something game changing. Spending the time to craft the brief is key and I truly believe investing time and energy in the up-front strategic part of any brief response will ultimately pay dividends.
I promise to try and create an inspiring environment for briefing.
No PowerPoint in a faceless meeting room in suburbia if I can help it. I’ve briefed agencies in fields in Northamptonshire, factories in Hertfordshire and boozers in London. When briefing for the campaign that developed into Knitted by Nana’s, the brief took place in the Shreddies factory creating the opportunity for the creative team to observe every aspect of the process. Within 10 minutes of visiting, one of the team noted that ‘Shreddies look like they were being knitted’ and a creative platform that has grown and run successfully for multiple years was born.
I personally really appreciate direct access to the creative teams.
I know it can feel unnerving for agencies and suits in particular but honestly I think experienced clients really value the dialogue it creates. Instead of the ‘unveiling of the train station plaque’ creative sessions and the tumbleweed moments that I’ve seen happen, the most effective processes have allowed me and my teams to engage face to face. The value of tissue sessions where collective engagement allows for direct dialogue has kept work on track and most definitely helped manage internal expectations in my businesses.
I’m on the lookout for work which makes me feel slightly uncomfortable (in a good way) as that likely indicates potential in market impact. I remember the first time I saw some new Bombardier work which literally made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It will sometimes take a leap of faith and bravery but I’m happy to champion work if I can see the commercial impact it may deliver.
Research should be a friend and not an enemy.
In my world, being able to demonstrate evidence of potential impact and effectiveness can help justify the investment decisions being made. I like agencies that really engage with insight. Internally there will always be scrutiny on big ticket investment and research is a massively powerful aid to helping secure internal support. I’ve seen research optimise work on so many occasions and those agencies that attend research, listen and act upon it to my mind have always been significantly more successful.
At the end of the day I trust in my agency partners to work with the right experts in all disciplines to deliver the best possible work. From the director to the producer to the editor and beyond. For a period of time we’re all on the same team working against my business objective and creating an environment for success is key.
Working with incredibly talented people is a real pleasure and a real highlight for me as a client. I know it isn’t always easy but when work is really effective it benefits us all and that has got to be something we should all sign up to as clients, agencies, production houses and beyond.
Phil Toms is Director of the consultancy 47 Marketing. He has worked in marketing for nearly 20 years, most recently as the Marketing Director for Charles Wells brewery.