I’ll never truly understand the appeal of working with an agency that’s willing to promise you the world and then present what they do like it’s some never before seen magic trick…
There was a scene in the TV show Mad Men back when I was a student, which made me smile. The billionaire hotelier Conrad Hilton is speaking with the flawed heartthrob, family man, and hotshot Sixties Ad Executive Don Draper. They’re in a meeting – specifically, a cold pitch meeting outlining new work for the hotel’s next ad campaign. The artwork’s drawn, the copy polished, and the agency’s professional recommendation around the USP being Hilton’s ability to take Americans across the world surrounded by home comforts is neatly presented.
Conrad, who until that point has sat nodding in appreciation, spits out the phrase – “Don, when I say I want the moon, I expect the moon.” Don claps back, ‘Right now, that’s not an actual destination…”. Hilton responds, “That’s not the point; I said I wanted Hilton on the moon – I couldn’t have been more clear about it.”
In that one scripted moment, a tiny slice of Pop Culture perfectly reflected the working lives of thousands of practitioners across the creative industries.
On the surface, the remark does a great job of humbling the show’s anti-hero for the sake of an overriding dramatic arc. Unfortunately, however, similar examples of this dated, “show me what you’ve got and I’ll see if I like it”, attitude are dotted everywhere in our society, particularly within the creative sector.
For me, that scene exposed a question that now frequently crops up around how the professional services inside our industry are viewed by those who sit outside it, often as clients. There is a recognisable imbalance in the power dynamic that no one is really sure needs to be there. Yet, it’s everywhere, from the brain fart TV of Dragons Den and The Apprentice, where Britain’s finest run around ‘doing business‘, on to the often over-glamorised hustler side gigs in online influencer marketplaces. Everyone’s on the take, right – I guess we all better start flexing now to show how serious we all are, no pushovers here, etc.
Our industry is particularly guilty of embracing this dynamic. Where work is often project-based, and competition gets wrapped up as superficial posturing and logo carousels. While there’s an argument we’ve collectively brought this upon ourselves, the past decade hasn’t helped. With austerity and fallout from the pandemic compounded by another recession, it’s no surprise so many companies race to the bottom on price in an attempt to ‘win’ work. As a result, the considerable shift away from establishing a good ‘fit’ was inevitable for most SMEs.
However, that could be starting to change. Expectations are shifting, and leaning into that shift is how Makilo finds and builds proactive working relationships with our clients.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that being surprised is high on the list of ‘things clients hate’. I’m talking two months, with little to no communication, followed by an invitation to be blindsided by a presentation of ‘The Big Reveal’. They hate that.
Not knowing what to expect or putting the provider or client organisations in that position seems crazy. The lack of time to find a good fit between companies gets stranger the more you think about it. I feel that the pace with which creative and, specifically, digital creative moves has created an unusual atmosphere around the idea of ‘value’ within our industry’s client/provider relationship — hurting both parties often through resentment built on a lack of communication. ‘The Big Reveal’ is the red flag for which both parties should always be on the lookout, irrespective of when mention of it crops up. We decided to treat it as such and confront it years ago, and we’ve never looked back.
A desire for either party to push the ‘need’ for a Big Reveal during the engagement should be a huge warning sign. Delivering effective creative is about knowing and understanding the intended audience, not hitting a soft spot for the particular stakeholder sitting in front of you.
First of all, at Makilo, we are designers/developers/account managers; we consider ourselves practitioners rather than performers, so we don’t believe that a good ‘audition’ should get us the gig. Generally, our prospects don’t want to be sold to; they want to buy and, at the same time, feel as though they are making the right choice when doing so – if that’s buying into us and what we can do, fantastic! But that means an open and transparent attitude from us within their purchasing cycle becomes critical.
Part of that is telling them how we work; it might not be for everyone, but being selective earlier on benefits both parties in the long run. Early in that conversation, we mention how we won’t be doing a Big Reveal style presentation, not because we can’t, but because we feel they’re disruptive — explaining why often helps to establish if our agency is a good fit straight away. Reveals are awkward, not because of the content but because of the type of conventions they foster. No matter how prepared everyone is, they always feel like they are about ‘swaying’ and one party trying to convince the other. It might be about the validity of an idea like it was for Don. It could even be the idea of working together in the first place. Either way, the format fosters resistance. Tension that’s great for TV but terrible for productivity. Instead, set out the reason for favouring frequent conversations and why they are worth prioritising. Why stepping away from the pitch and assessing what’s being discussed at that moment can better serve both parties.
Some clients naturally fill in the gaps when the option to talk openly isn’t available. Frequently the tropes of popular culture or how they think they should act take hold. However, with transparency between the professional service provider and the client, you can easily drive the engagement together based on mutual understanding and a sense of clarity around expectations.
The goal is a shift in mindset towards, “Ahhh, of course, that makes so much sense!” and away from the big reveal thought process of, “Oh, I love it – let’s repeat this incredibly stressful process you just put us through that could have massively screwed up again in the future.”
An open, conversational environment is vital; after that, for Makilo, at least, it’s first working on the strategy with a client that’s most important. Next, we agree on what we want to achieve together, how to go about it, and what the outcome should be. We then recall that strategy throughout the project – how does the design respond to it, and does the development reinforce it?
On top of that, we talk about the ‘freedom to execute’; clients and practitioners both appreciate knowing the boundaries, so as soon as the strategy is in place and we’ve got the project up and running, dictating execution gets very unhelpful. We focus on a ‘Less but Better’ approach to avoid slipping into that Big Reveal mindset. Speed and volume can often work against strategic aims. Suppliers need to have the confidence to say, “We’re the professionals”, and in reality, that means we’re working to narrow the client’s options towards the correct approach/strategy based on what’s already been discussed. Throwing a multitude of possibilities at people hoping they can recommend something or rank their opinions, is just another form of pitching in the wrong way to the wrong audience.
One of the main benefits we bring to a client is an alternative or outside perspective, a point of view not burdened with bias by internal agendas – we can advocate for the end users – it’s for those people we should be putting on a show. So we’ll save our performance and the Big Reveal for them.
Look out for our next article about the idea of ‘Solutions’. Who should offer them, how they get administered and if you need one?