The importance of ‘no’.
The design agency / client relationship, managed well is rewarding, respectful and productive. An alliance where both parties understand the values and importance of the participating entities. Most clients (and agencies) instinctively get this. Others are trained to extract the best out of a creative partnerships or through experience have realised trusting a creative partner reaps greater rewards.
CEO’s, MD’s and proprietors undoubtedly have had to make business decisions through instinct in their career. Judgment, evaluation and gut. And given the situation they’re in, they’re likely to have been pretty good at it. The best ones have quietly deployed the talent at their disposal to build successful organisations. But, that’s not always the case. On occasion another side emerges where there may be inexperience within a steering group.
Our culture lionises creativity. We’re told any daub of paint on any sheet of paper by anyone is art. We’re all blessed with inner, artistic callings of almost equal merit. And, it’s only a question of teasing out these God given virtues or channelling these expressions into the right project. Thankfully, only a small minority of people go for that in a professional sphere. In fairness, it’s not really their fault given how our society is so enduringly supportive of the creatively untrained, unqualified and unskilled. What lacks in creative talent can be more than made up for in hubris is dyed in the wool of a few. Much more common though is the pragmatic approach which goes along the lines of, ‘if you’re going to pay for a professional creative team you might as well let them get on and do it to their best ability’.
Client / supplier relationships, have to be managed and kept in check on both sides. From a brand design agency perspective there is one particular pitfall that has to be carefully monitored. Tail wagging dog. Clients need to be involved to an extent in a creative programme. It’s their organisation, they’re more deeply engaged in it daily and know the history, politics, attitudes, beliefs and values better than the agency – at least at the beginning.
To make a success of a branding programme, agencies need to listen and listen well. After this point relationship management is critical. Some clients are happy to let the agency get on, others want to be more ‘hands on’. In the case of more direct involvement, the agency needs to be strong. When clients propose interventions that may be potentially damaging the agency need to be comfortable saying ‘no’.
Known well to designers is the pragmatic but often disturbing agency strategy ‘we’ll let the client have this one so we can get everything else through.’ Seen as; ‘a small compromise for the greater good’. The importance of ‘no’ can be important here. Some small client suggestions can work out fine, sometimes they can be worked around but when they affect the long term vision, ‘no’ is necessary. Human nature dictates that once client interventions are accepted it encourages ever more unwelcome suggestions along the track. Agencies must lucidly and succinctly express why a particular direction is being pursued and associated benefits. What sort of feedback and client changes are welcomed needs to be made clear.
A joke doing the rounds many years ago in agency circles went along the lines of, ‘How many designers does it take to change a lightbulb?’ Answer: None, just don’t change it; don’t change a damn thing’. Of course, agencies need to keep in mind they’re providing services to clients and not be petty or pre-madonna-ish about their discipline. Conversely, clients are expected to understand their involvement in the process should be akin to a lawyer / client or doctor / patient relationship. Articulate the problem, give as much information as possible and know when to stand back.
Many clients may not have been through a branding programme before, or at least not many. Moreover, they may not be sufficiently self-aware to see what is plain to outsiders. The onus is on the agency to outline the correct process and appropriate amount of client involvement. Client’s need to know the boundaries and it’s down to the agency to make this explicit. The responsibility lies with agencies to set out the parameters from the start and be able to say ‘no’ when necessary. They may not be thanked for it initially but in the long-run it leads to a better outcome. For success, ‘no’, as much as ‘yes’, is as important in a successful creative relationship.
Ice House Design have stood by these principles for well over two decades which in turn has created trusting and prosperous relationships with its clients.
This is the tenth piece in our THINK ON / Brand series, short point of view pieces on all subjects relating to brand. To see more in our series click here.