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What to do when (you believe) the client is wrong

Hugh Kennedy, Partner, EVP Planning, Healthcare Practice Lead. Hugh joined PJA in 1992 and still loves coming to work. He also writes The Secret Life of the Life Scientist, a blog about marketing to those who discover. Hugh has three Swiss Mountain Dogs, two children, and one husband.

We’re in the thick of the fall season right now, which means a huge push of work that clients either want to see completed or signed by the the time everyone scatters for the holidays (one of our client’s marketing departments literally goes dark for the last two weeks of December). Add to this sales […]

We’re in the thick of the fall season right now, which means a huge push of work that clients either want to see completed or signed by the the time everyone scatters for the holidays (one of our client’s marketing departments literally goes dark for the last two weeks of December). Add to this sales meetings preparation, closing out marketing budgets, and budget planning for 2008, and the atmosphere is often superheated. Not the best environment in which to make logical, even-handed decisions about marketing programs.

All of which explains why I love Elaine Fogel for writing the Marketing Profs piece “How to Influence Marketing Decisions When Your Boss or Client is Dead Wrong” (if you’re not a Marketing Profs subscriber, you can sign up for a two-day free trial to read the piece). Is there anyone in marketing who hasn’t walked out to their car gnashing their teeth at the short-sightedness or politically half-baked reasoning a client (or a boss) has taken in landing on a direction? We once had a client who wouldn’t let us share a PowerPoint presentation with his CMO because a few of the slides had 4 bullet points, and he only focused on slides with 3 or 5 bullets.

What I like about Fogel’s approach are her realism and her optimism.

Fogel doesn’t structure the article this way, but I like Top Ten lists [make that 12; see below], and have amended one or two tips here. A great checklist, in any case.

When the client (or your boss) is Dead Wrong, you can:
1. Anticipate and play out the objections before you even present (and presumably, get the Dead Wrong answer).
2. Stick to facts: if anything can be reduced to subjective opinion by a client or boss who’s light on marketing expertise, be ready with case studies, facts, and ROI data.
3. Tie the work to the brand. If we’re shepherds of our clients’ brands, make the case for how the work evolves and improves upon their brand.
4. Show some secondary reading. Send articles and studies. Quote them in the presentation. And if Jack Welch or Warren Buffett said anything about it, include it in your set-up. Not to sound flip, but acknowledged experts are experts for a reason.
5. Go beyond meetings. Meetings are often misused to share information rather than their intended purpose, to make decisions. That’s why people dislike them. So embellish the meeting with a lunch or breakfast. Get to know your client personally. The difference can be amazing in how easily the conversations go afterward.
6. Build a support network. Yes, selling up through layers can be painful, but when the client looks to their lieutenants and they support your choice, it’s always an easier ride.
7. Train the client. Especially in BtoB, you can’t expect the client to be a marketing expert. They’re spending enough time keeping up with the technology. And you’re there to be the marketing voice. So do a lunch-and-learn. We’ve done dozens of these, and they always make a difference. They also can accelerate the movement of a project from concept to launch.
8. Make friends everywhere. Everyone in a corporation wants to be heard from, whether it’s the executive assistant or the CEO. You may not use all the input, but being genuinely interested is part of selling through an idea. And it’s contagious.
9. Be positive. If the client wants to focus on the shortfalls, turn the conversation around to focus on what we’ve learned to make something better. Corporate environments can be stress machines, and it’s always easier to break negative than positive.
10. Get trained. Your client is probably on training for at least 3 weeks to a month a year, whether it’s product-specific or presentation-specific. As to the latter point, you can’t get the idea across if you can’t make a case because the thought of presenting makes you want to hurl. Here’s just one practitioner of the fine art of speaking who offers training in making a great impression.

[and here are two more great suggestions from DJ Howatt]:

11. Take a reality check. Consider for a moment that your client might be right. Agencies can often equal the client’s understanding of the market, but rarely exceed it. Sometimes their intuition is worthy of your respect.
12. Re-focus the conversation by focusing on the business outcome. Clients sometimes suspect agencies are looking for a new Clio entry rather than keeping their ROI in mind. So use business outcomes as the lingua franca to address any shortfalls you see in their thinking or in your own work.

Will things get emotional? Inevitably. Is anger justified? Never, but that’s okay. As long as you remember that anger is a secondary, residual emotion, masking either fear or sadness. And if anger does come your way, just let it roll off. As my expensive friend likes to say, with his signature sarcasm, “If someone wants to go to Angryland, don’t take the trip.”

And it’s Fall, right? Our travel schedules are full enough these days.

2 Responses to What to do when (you believe) the client is wrong

  1. Elaine Fogel

    Great list here, Hugh! Thanks for referring to my MarketingProfs article. It’s always nice to know we’re not alone in our experiences and can share valuable tips.

  2. DJHowatt

    Hugh,
    It’s a terrific list. I’d suggest two more:
    #11 As a reality check, consider for a moment that your client might be right. This is implied by your parentheses in your blog’s heading. The agency will rarely understand the market and the market’s culture as well as the client. Non-marketing clients may not be able to describe their issues, but their intuition can often be pretty accurate.
    #12 Always talk in terms of business outcomes. Indeed, always create with business outcomes firmly in mind. There are two dynamics in play. One is that the client or his/her peers is often suspicious that the agency is “just looking for a trophy.” The other is that your client needs to be prepared to explain or defend his or her approval. Business outcomes are the lingua franca for both of these dynamics.

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