Tripping Over the Waterfall
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Please read the following client email and see how it makes you feel:

After we sign the contract, can we just cut right to the concepts? Can I see something after the weekend? Won't we save some money if we cut a corner here or there? I mean, I don't really know what I want, but I'll know it when I see it. We should just have something to shoot at.

I made only a little of that paragraph up, and it was making me naueseous. When clients speak like this, there are so many alarm bells going off in your head it's hard to think of how to react.

Let's tear these oft-spoken sentences apart and see how we should respond.

After we sign the contract, can we just cut right to the concepts?

Short answer: No creative brief = No creative work starts. This should be an ironclad rule in your practice, with no exceptions unless you're so pressed for time, you need to start ideating. Otherwise, you're running the risk that each round of creative is merely an aid to iterate your client's business thinking instead of the quality of your creative work. It's our job to educate these clients about why they need to work with our process, using the time-tested frameworks that we provide to springboard themselves from a business insight to a big idea.

Can I see something after the weekend?

Never offer up your time outside of business hours unless it's the most extraordinary opportunity. If you give ground to a new client about your operating hours, even with caveats, you've set a dangerous expectation. Unless you like working on the weekends and evenings, that is...

Won't we save money if we cut a corner here or there?

Price is a primary driver when it comes to brand perception as well as purchasing consideration. That's why the word "discount", the last refuge of the desperate marketer, should never enter the designer's lexicon except at great peril. With little understanding of how designers make money -- except in billable hours and flat-rate costs in an estimate -- some clients will attempt to game designers in order to squeeze the most "efficiency" out of their contracts. But this is purely an illusion. When you snip hours out of your contract, you generally end up working them anyway, just to fulfill the ideal process you'd articulated in the initial contract.

A good analogy I've used with some clients is for them to consider a designer in the same mind as a professional services firm, such as a lawyer or a doctor. I can't recall the last time I called up a lawyer and asked to engage his services for a Supreme Court case, then asked for a deep discount on his Amicus Curiae brief in order to find some cost savings. It just doesn't make sense. If a designer is providing strategic insight and business value, then treat them with the same respect as a consultant. As the saying goes: You a pay a consultant to tell you about the problems you already knew about. Swap "consultant" for "designer," and you get the added value of us actually working in tandem with the client to solve the problem.

I mean, I don't really know what I want, but I'll know it when I see it.

A good way to hedge a client in is to start talking about results. They have to be realistic and concrete. It's not good enough anymore to say, "We want the best-in-class Web site in our industry with tons of awards from CommArts."

Let's get a little more realistic and tangible: "Your new Web site will aim to lift overall unique users by 20%, increase your brand awareness by 5% among women under 30 -- they're your sweet spot, right? -- and increase sell-through of your product so we can clear out all of your stock for the season." Include more than just demographics. Give first names to your customers. When showing work to this type of client, you can refer your design choices back to these discrete criteria. If you write out the kinds of things that should be measured and talk informatively about your audience -- even pulling out a persona or two, if needs be -- then you're halfway towards framing the creative work and your client should be nodding along in tacit agreement.

Another sneaky trick is to observe your client as closely as your target audience, just to get a read on their taste. How your client dresses, what their office looks like, what their coworkers say about them: all of these psychological clues are part of the information you'll need to square with the creative. I'm not suggesting you create the work solely for the client contact. There just might be some places of alignment you haven't considered.

Incidentally, the "I'll know it" line gets me every time. A great concept needs to be eased into, like a jacuzzi. If you jump straight into the hot water, you're going to think that you're burning and probably jump right back out.

We should just have something to shoot at.

The first thing we should always shoot at is the brief, not the creative work. If a client isn't willing to pin themselves to a key understanding about their business needs, supported by real research, then how can you start pinning your design work up for critique in a truly judicious manner?

When we have a solid scope of work, detailed expectations of whom is responsible for what, an articulation of your project lifecycle (with key milestones in place, owned by each stakeholder), and a tight description of what the shape of the end product should be -- then we'll talk creative concepts.

Besides, it's clients like these that always end up caring about the most minute details. You need the time to ask the tough questions, at great length and depth. Those details become terribly important when you dive into the concepting process. And if there aren't any little details when you talk with your client... even more sirens and alarms should be going off in your head.


With all of this said: Don't ever assume that if a client says any of these statements, they're looking to take you for a ride. The opposite may be the case -- they need your help in guiding them to a great marketing solution, with elegance, grace, and professionalism. But be mindful that there is only so much you can accomplish, and you can't keep throwing away time and money at something where you reap no reward. Do you really want to be at the dance with someone who keeps stepping on your toes, doesn't keep time to the music, and gets thrown out for being wildly intoxicated?

I heard a great quote when I was at a marketing event last week: "Clients end up with the agencies that they deserve."

Translation: Your standards and practices are the only things that allow you to discern the difference between great opportunity and great disappointment, for both you and your client.


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