Spotted in Japan: Graniph
Tripping Over the Waterfall

Beyond Reason: Getting Clients to Care About Your Concepts

Feel. Think. Ignore.

It's a blustery fall day, and you're set to meet with a new, exciting technology client. You sit down at the table, trade business cards, and sip away at your cup of chai tea, preparing for a download on the strategy that will help underpin your creative brief. However, much to your surprise, the client pulls out a thick stack of papers and begins describing all the great product features that will wow customers and make it easy to sell their Widget9000. You put down your pencil and stop taking notes. The client frowns. "This is the kind of information you were looking for, right?"

We spend a great deal of time listening to our clients rattle off these kinds of lists. Maybe we should spend more time explaining why, if they put that kind of information in front of their customers, they probably won't care.

Customers care, then they find reasons to support how they feel. The kind of client I noted above wants a reason for customers to care, which is then supported by how they feel. The latter seems less nebulous, less squishy... but it isn't quite how customers (a.k.a. humans) view marketing materials.

This disconnect has massive implications. It not only means that you'll have to shovel through the details to find a jewel of insight, the centerpiece of your creative strategy. It means that you'll probably have to surmount a rationalistic mindset when you present your concepts.

The great thing about being a designer is that we spend our time creating artifacts that fill the gap between the left and the right brain, the head and the heart -- usually with an emphasis on the heart. We have to visualize who we're speaking to, evoking their responses as we concept and refine our ideas. In this fashion, it's easier for us to make the leap to a feeling we need to sell a product or an idea. We aren't married to the interally-focused view many marketers carry about their corporations products or services.

The great thing is, many clients totally grok your work when it gets unveiled in the big reveal meeting. Savvy clients "get" creative work when they understand their audience on an emotional and a rational level -- they're "one of them" or have spent enough time observing their everyday behavior to grok their thoughts and dreams. Remember that scene at the end of Season 1 of Mad Men, where they're talking about the Kodak Carousel? When you connect a client with the electric current of true human emotion grounded in a key business insight, you feel like a million bucks.

And then, there are the clients that can't connect right away with how the correct audience feels. We've all experienced this kind of brick wall in a concept presentation, and there are only a few ways to chip it away. We need to gird for battle, but instead of arming ourselves with our aesthetic opinions and gut feelings, we need to transmit the attitudes of our target audience through how we speak, act, and frame the work. We need to visibly portray the leap from the gut to the mind.

This can be accomplished on a sliding scale of effort, from easy to time-consuming. If you can plan for it in your budget, it's always worth the time investment, because it not only frames the quality of your creative work, but it also helps articulate to your client how well you understand their target audience. Plus, if you manage any designers, these activities can help them form a visual and spoken vocabulary for what may only be their glimmers of intuition.

Easy: Whenever possible, always present in person. Body language, tone, and demeanor sell your work just as much as strategy. They say that 90% of what you say is in how you say it, and the same applies to how you sell creative -- maybe more. I always try to have every major client meeting in person, no matter what. Too much feeling regarding your audience's mindset gets lost.

Easy: Don't be afraid to be (professionally) excited about the work and emote. Just don't show ego. I've had creative directors practically dance out Web site layouts and shout radio spots in order to convey the emotional tone and content that are only roughly portrayed in that initial design concept. Unless this really isn't your style, it will get you farther with most clients. Even if you're on a conference call, if you emote with your whole body, it will come across in your voice and help smooth over the distance.

Somewhat Easy: Collect existing material from design research and present as competitive analysis. If you've done a cogent job of researching your audience, compiling a quick top-level skim of it with some boards or PDFs comprised of photos, text, textures, and other artifacts can help convey the mood or feeling that your audience expects. You should factor this into your estimate as a deliverable, especially on big branding projects. Just don't call it a mood board...

Time-Consuming: Show your clients how their customers really feel about their products or services before you show your work. At my day job, we've done creative presentations where we've done "man on the street" guerilla interviews about our client's products, edited them together, and unfurled them in front of our clients to show them the real mindset of their audiences. Showing creative work after that kind of level-setting exercise can be a slam dunk or land a new client if you have to pitch the business. However, most design teams don't have the bandwidth for that kind of time investment, so a good fallback plan is to run a quick online survey out to people that you know, canvass blogs and Twitter, and create a cheat sheet of quotes that best corroborate the sentiment of your audience. If presented in a deferential way, these materials can soften a client and make them consider a broader range of ideas.

Time-Consuming: Test the work against an informal group made up of your target audience. I'd only go down this path if things were so dire that you were risking blowing your client relationship or failing hard on a crucial bit of thinking. You want clients to pay you to do this, as they need to be open to the results. But if you have nothing to lose, please make sure the people in the group fill out some sort of survey that can be at least partially quantified. Then use this information as a lever in the concept presentation to ease your client into second-guessing their own gut reactions and opening up further discussion.


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