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The Art of Telling Clients They're Wrong

Evan Maier

My WayWatching this past week's episode of Mad Men(and for those of you who haven't seen it, I'll try to keep this post as spoiler-free as possible), I couldn't help but ponder the often delicate relationship shared by creatives and their clients.  In short, Don and his team experienced understandable frustration in meeting a tricky client's overly idealistic demands (how's that for a generic recap?).  Watching him take a, some might say, undeserved lashing, I couldn't help but feel defensive of Don.  If you work in a creative role, or really any career field that requires a niche skill-set, and are forced to meet client demands, I'm sure you too, dear reader, can empathize with Don's woes (well, his professional woes, anyway) of being asked for the moon (in his case literally, but most likely in your case, figuratively) and working gingerly to let those asking know, in so many words, it ain't gonna happen.  So how best to help a client see they are off-base without blanketing the room in a suffocating smog of arrogance?  Read on!

Most people who work in an agency setting will, at some point, experience a time when a client asks for something that simply can't be done.  It stands within reason that those in charge of important brands and companies are, to a certain degree, big thinkers and risk takers.  We don't get anywhere in life, after all, by merely sitting on our hands.  But it's important to remind these clients that while it's good to dream, sometimes the task at hand isn't to realize every dream, but to go after the ones that make the most sense in the short term.

Of course, you can't just come out and respond with "no" to a large-minded client request.  Instead, remind them of the realities of the project and what can be executed in the short term.  Sure, a complete brand overhaul probably isn't going to happen in a weeks' time, but smaller steps, like reworking key messaging or discussing a new logo or key image is much more realistic.  With each of these smaller discussions, you control how much everyone involved can talk about those details for "down the road."  The key to dealing with un-executable client demands is reminding them that every small step you take together moves them closer to the high-level, end result.

An even worse reality is being asked to do something you won't do.  Whether it's a request that shrugs your industry's standards or being asked to involve yourself in something to which you are ideologically opposed, there are countless situations in which professionalism requires that you bite your increasingly furious tongue in the face of the client.

Rather than throwing a temper tantrum and slamming ultimatums on the table, remember that you are merely a piece of a larger organization that counts on you for representation.  If you're being asked to "think outside the box," remember that even the most cut-and-dried methods sometimes need refreshing.  Without requests for "something different," we'd never progress.  So see what you can turn out.  If it's crap, then toss it and revert to the tried and true, but if it works, then congratulations, pioneer!  The key is to keep things tasteful and relatable (you're reinventing the wheel, not the road it travels on).  If the task conflicts with your personal ideology, there's no reason why you shouldn't bring it to your superior and request to be taken off of the project.  But if the request raises ethical or moral dilemmas, you should probably have a talk with your sales team.  Professionalism is never a reason to cede to unethical practices or lawlessness.

Despite the aforementioned, it's important to remember what clients do bring to the table.  Alongside entrusting you with their brand image (and paying you for it), clients offer a level of challenge that brings out the best in all of us.  Without that challenge and expectation, our work would inevitably be sloppy, absent-minded, and second rate - apathetic results for an apathetic audience.  So think of clients as both a gift and a burden.  And don't take things so personally.  It might not be what Don Draper did do, but it's certainly what he should do.