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It's Not Your Fault


There comes a time in the life of every designer when things go wrong on a project or in a client relationship. Horribly wrong. The kind of epic fail written about by Greek storytellers, passed down from generation to generation, then recorded to paper to give voice to Awfulness That Shall Never Be Forgotten EVER. Fear gives way to more fear. Your heart pulses in your ears. Adrenaline drowns out words being spoken (or hollered) at you. The knowledge of things going awry makes you physically aware of your body in a way similar to, say, jumping out of a plane. Careening downwards, a constellation of past efforts glitters behind you in the darkness, while your future career in design looms closer and closer, like the factories and empty fields that pock-mark much of northern New Jersey.

Now that I've got a few major failures under my belt, and enough distance from them to have sifted through the wreckage for a few tiny wisps of insight, I've realized that in some of those awful situations, I hadn't done anything wrong at all. It was entirely out of my direct control. I'm talking specifically about ongoing politics within a client organization—the kind of politics, no matter how strong of a relationship that you hold with your day-to-day contacts, no matter how many dinners and baseball games and late-night shenanigans at the hotel bar, you just can't suss out the bitter end until the room's been turned sideways and you're hanging from the chandelier for dear life.

A long time ago, I was on a team at an agency that was blindsided by our (well-known) technology client, whom had thrown their account into review after we'd spent many months delivering solidly on marketing projects with great results. We hadn't had to pitch our way into the relationship, so it was a huge surprise to have to cling onto it with a few weeks of spec work.

To add salt to the wound: our direct client said that the quality of our work wasn't the reason the review had come to pass, that this was handed down from on high by his boss's boss, and so forth. It was outside our grasp and control, it was too late to change the course of writ history, and our direct client contact wasn't going to risk giving us any more information about why we were now in this situation—that is, without risking his own career with a behind-the-scenes whisper.

Despite the situation and the odds, we put in a massive amount of effort leading up to the pitch, resulting in a half-dozen well-conceived concepts, which were quite well received at the time but did not yield us a continuation of our relationship. The entire team was upset, with good reason. We were all fearful of what we may have done that had gone unmentioned by our (seemingly happy) client throughout the past year of work. Unhappy and still shocked, we moved on to work on new projects, always wondering what we may have done that caused a rift to form in the first place.

Fast forward a year and a half. Leafing through one of the top industry magazines, which was featuring the top awards for that year's crop of creative work, I stared in abject horror at a set of designs that we'd pitched to that client. Instead of our names on the work, it had been attributed to the agency that had won the pitch. Sharing the magazine with my co-worker, whom had come up with the original concept that was now considered one of the top three projects of the year, we were dumbstruck.

In discussions with the agency's senior management, there was little we could do about the situation after the fact, not without dragging everyone deep into the dirt. But from the circumstances, we could extrapolate the sad truth and our much-needed closure: our direct client had been very happy with our work, but politically had been forced to engage with another firm, which had probably—to their deep-seated chagrin—been forced to execute our ideas.*

That situation clarified for me that in any business situation where designers meet clients, it's as much about understanding and managing politics as it is about delivering great design work. Navigating politics is part and parcel of any large-scale design engagement, and it's always important to have your antennae raised and gleaning any whispers of dissatisfaction, which can then be probed, acknowledged, and addressed before causing antipathy.**

It's taken me many years since then to reach the point where I'm blindsided by previously unseen politics and won't take it personally. We've been conditioned to feel a sense of deep-seated worry every time that a client says, "We're not happy with this because of [insert reason]." But if that reason was completely unforeseeable, no matter how much experience and political savvy you have as a designer, then there is nothing more you could have done.

So let it go. You don't have to be guilty. You don't have to worry about the same thing happening over and over again.

It's not your fault.


* I'm being very abstract describing the circumstances and client in this post, intentionally so. But this situation isn't probably far off from what has happened to a few other designers out there in the world, especially when it comes to agency account reviews.

** In my first professional design job, I remember being shouted at by my boss because I felt that the headline she wanted me to typeset was grammatically incorrect—and not in a pleasing, colloquial sort of way. I set it how I wanted it, she saw it, she went and (in)corrected it, then I corrected it again. She was fuming and wouldn't talk with me for hours, and when I brought it up, she blew up. (I looked it up when I got home that night. I was right.) This was a trivial failure built upon a miscommunication that I was as much a part of as my boss... and perhaps it was a deserved response from her. (Though shouting is rarely appropriate, in my humble opinion.) There were no politics there, though. We talked it out, right in the room. Letting politics linger for any period of time can only lead to risking the chance of moving from a vendor to a partner relationship.


Graham Pilling

I'm a big fan of your blog, being as I am one of those strange folks who is both a designer and a project manager (and actually has a love for both).

Pardon my ignorance (as I don't have much experience with agency pitches) but isn't it typical to have something contractual in place to protect the design work your are pitching to a client?

It seems to me that the client (whether pressured by internal politics or not) stole your ideas/designs, and that the other design agency acted unprofessionally by producing work based on designs that clearly did not originate with the client.

David Sherwin

Hi Graham,

Thanks for your comment. I'll try to do my best to answer your question.

In an agency pitch, it depends on the rules set up by the client's procurement department and/or their search consultant. They can vary.

In the best-case scenario, each participant is paid a token fee that offsets at least a substantial portion of the incurred costs for each agency participating, in return for the rights to the work when the pitch is over. (In other words, it's treated as paid work.)

In other cases, the agencies involved in the pitch don't have explicit rights protection, so it must be negotiated. Each concept shared with a client includes bold copyright lines across every page, the work is brought in and shown only in person, and the work is taken from the client's premises afterwards so the client has to engage with them to gain access to the mechanicals/digital files to carry forward into full execution.

Sadly, even with these precautions and copyright in place, ideas are stolen, and the cost of pursuing what's right (protecting the work) is measured to be too expensive to one's reputation. This is the dirtier side of doing pitchwork—that privately or publicly pursuing a grievance is professional suicide—and one of the many reasons why I try to abstain from pitchwork at all costs. See here for further thoughts:

I've also been on the other side of the fence, where I've been on a team that won a pitch, and then in the kickoff meeting, the client has said, "I know I'm not supposed to show you this," and riffled through a set of concepts from another agency that they were contractually not allowed to show, but that they kept trying to describe to us to help shape a specific part of our ongoing project. In such situations, I've wanted to say, "You're right, you shouldn't have shown it to me." But at that point in my career, I didn't have the guts.

Graham Pilling

Many thanks for the candid and detailed answer David - very helpful!

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