Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Clients, I'm loving 'em!

Published in Nov-Dec 2015

Why clients who reject work are in fact the best a true creative could hope for.
Illustrations by Creative Unit.
Illustrations by Creative Unit.

Let’s get one thing straight. I’m a creative guy. It means that for the first half of my career I saw clients as an obstruction to the creative process.

I would write a completely brilliant TV script and they would shoot holes in it.

I wanted to create advertising that would cut through the clutter and be memorable. They seemed to want the exact opposite. One client admitted as much when I showed him a print campaign we had created for his childcare brand.

“Oh dear,” he said, after looking at the work.

Not the desired response you want as a creative.

“Something wrong?” I asked.

“Will this campaign win awards?”

“That’s not the point. It’s a campaign that will get mums to love the brand.”

“I think it will win awards. And do you know what will happen then? They will feature it in the company newspaper. Then the people who have left me alone all these years will be all over our little division like a rash. Look, I’m only 18 months off retirement. Do me a favour, take my million pounds and spend it on something that looks nice but which no-one will notice.”

It took a decade at least before I began to be grateful to clients. For slowing the creative process down. They wanted tweaks, they wanted research, they wanted a safety net.

They wanted to be SURE.

Creative people lose all coherent judgement about their own work. They are too close to it to be objective. All too often, what I thought was brilliant turned out to be ill-considered, strategically off-target or just tasteless. But, fortunately, none of it ever got to run.

A hearty thank you to all those clients I ever worked with who turned my first suggestions down.

The best ones used my mad, bad and dangerous ideas as the framework for discussion.

They wanted exactly what I wanted. Brilliantly effective work. And often, what emerged from those discussions was a better idea. Not just a campaign that was memorable but which was relevant and branded too.

Not a single one of the awards I won was for a campaign that fell fully-formed onto the page. Every gong came as the direct result of client pushback. The very people I thought were obstructive were the people being most supportive.

The creative process is a bit like AC/DC electrical current. The flow goes forwards, then backwards, forwards, then backwards. There is at work a permanent state of conflict.

The very best clients understand their role in this permanent state of tension.

They goad, challenge and provoke. And thus they inspire.

How they find the time for it, I don’t know. A couple of years ago I persuaded the marketing department of a big multinational FMCG company to keep diaries of how they spent their days.

It turned out that on average every marketer spent 45% of their time on admin. And of that admin time, 70% was spent on reporting upwards. In other words, the average marketer had about 20 hours a week in which to do the job.

No pressure, then.

Now, as the editor of Directory ( I try to showcase the world’s most innovative marketing communications. Every quarter I have to select just 40 campaigns from the hundreds submitted to us. This is tough. At least 100 are potential award-winners. I am often amazed how seldom the client is actually mentioned in the credits. Yet this is the person who actually bought the work. Who paid for it.

So this is a tribute to them. The men and women who write the cheques. Who put their own careers on the line every time they sign off on an idea. Who come in five different guises.

The boffin
This is the client who is left-brained, who loves numbers, who obsesses with data. I love these guys because they know that data really can throw up insights, which do utterly change the creative approach. And because the approach is new and interesting, it leads to breakthrough work. For example, Sainsbury’s in the UK. They discovered that if the housewife spent just 1.32p more per basket, the whole business would be transformed. As indeed it was, adding £2.5 billion to the bottom line when AMV BBDO came up with the ‘Try something new’ campaign. I don’t know who the marketer behind it was but Sainsbury’s CEO, Justin King, was happy to take many of the plaudits. This is the launch commercial:

The explorer
Here’s a fascinating thing. Brands often position themselves alongside each other rather than at opposite ends of the spectrum.

I used to work on Maxwell House coffee. The marketing director was obsessed with Nescafé, so much so that every time we advertised Maxwell House, sales of Nescafé went up. The explorer looks beyond the category for ideas. Looks beyond the agency for ideas. People like Sean Gogarty at Unilever. When he took over managing Comfort Fabric Care, he took his team off to Ireland to work with Sandy Dunlop (, who had pioneered brand arch-typing. It looked wayward. But the brand team came back with a completely new emotion-driven approach to fabric care. This led to the ‘Cloth People’ campaign, Unilever’s first genuinely global advertising idea. Here’s one of the TV ads from India:

The innovator
Here is a client who forces the pace of change in a rapidly changing world. Innovation creates news. It helps the brand seem up-to-the-minute and relevant. It keeps it one step ahead of the competition. Step forward Sean O’Donnell, Head of Marketing, DB Breweries in New Zealand. To give men a justification for drinking beer, he gave the nod to Brewtroleum. The idea was to take all the waste yeast from the brewing process and turn it into biofuel. Motorists in Auckland can drive into a DB Breweries branded petrol station and fill their cars up with environmentally-friendly ethanol. The advertising urges men to drink DB to help ‘save the planet’. This campaign has only just launched so I have no numbers for you. But this is a client not afraid to be radically different.

The warrior
All markets are red in tooth and claw. Because we live in a world of choice, brands compete to survive, let alone to thrive. In the personal computer market alone, just think of the brands that have died. Amstrad, Apricot, Commodore, Lotus, Sinclair; there are dozens that have come and gone. Meanwhile, Apple has become the number one brand in the world. This is thanks to the ultimate marketing warrior of them all, Steve Jobs. The world’s most distinctive brands have been managed by individuals. People who never handed over the responsibility to a committee. Think Phil Knight at Nike. Richard Branson at Virgin. The warrior wants to compete, wants double-digit growth, and demands total commitment from the team. Take a look at the seminal Apple commercial 1984. All these years later, the warrior spirit of Jobs is there in every single frame !

The sage
This is the marketer who remembers what Bill Bernbach said 50 years ago. “It may well be that creativity is the last unfair advantage we are legally allowed to have over our competitors.” The sage knows (s)he doesn’t know it all. And doesn’t just listen to the advice of her agencies but actually acts on it. She takes the long view rather than demanding short term results. She wants big ideas that are supported by real insights into human behaviour. She is clear in her directions, positive in her analysis and steadfast in holding her position. Little wonder then that she doesn’t stay a client for long. She moves into general management and runs the company. Steve Easterbrook at McDonald’s. Scott Keogh at Audi America. Ben van Beurden at Shell. Several of my own former clients have moved to the chair at the top of the table. I did my best work for these people.

Because, despite what some young creatives think, good clients are as important a part of the creative team as either the writer or the art director. And not just because they bring the money.

Patrick Collister is Head of Design, Google NACE.

Illustrations by Creative Unit.