When Clients Won’t Listen

I was at lunch one day with a buddy who posed a question I stopped asking a long time ago: “Why is radio in Birmingham so bad?” The broad answer is, “Because radio is bad everywhere.” That said, this is not a Bash-The-Radio column. There are plenty of good people working in commercial radio. And there for a lot of businesses for which radio is still an excellent advertising investment.

However, as an artistic medium, I have long used radio as the Cautionary Tale for ad agencies who fall into the habit of always doing exactly what their clients ask. And here’s why:

Research proves research works! Or maybe not.
Once upon a time, before the suits in Research started controlling playlists, commercial radio stations had DJ’s who actually knew—and cared about—music. Yes, there was, in fact, a time when commercial radio DJ’s actually had the authority to play what they wanted people to hear. And a lot of what they played was stuff that took some getting used to. Yes, there was, in fact, a time when commercial radio listeners were actually willing to give challenging new music a chance.

Radio was cool when stations routinely played cool stuff people had never heard before. Which is why research killed Cool: People don’t know what they don’t know—and very few of us are willing to invest the time and effort needed to investigate stuff they don’t already know.

A downward spiral of Dumb
So when you ask listeners what they want to hear, all they can tell you is what they already know—which usually isn’t that much. And the longer any station’s playlists are based only on what people already know, the dumber those playlists get—which is why, inevitably, those same listeners will eventually hate you.

It happens in my industry, too.
Which is also why clients inevitably end-up hating ad agencies who do only what they’re told to do. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this complaint from prospective clients working with other shops: “I don’t what we pay them for. We give them the ideas, we write the copy, and all they do is lay it out and take the 15% commission.” The problem: Either the client has a dumb agency, or the agency has a dumb client. Or both. Regardless, nobody’s best interests are being served.

What about you?
How you deal with a client  or customer who absolutely-positively won’t listen to your best advice? If you can afford to fire them, do. In most cases, for the sake of your reputation, you can’t afford not to.

But every now and then, that simply isn’t possible—without, for instance, people you employ losing their jobs. In cases like that (to paraphrase one of Birmingham’s ad legends—who preferred to comment off the record), do what they say. Make absolutely-positively certain they’ll never forget you tried to give them your best professional advice. And take the money.

After all, they’re going to pay somebody to follow orders. It might as well be you instead of the guys down the street. At the same time, know that the relationship isn’t going to last—so start looking for their replacement on your client roster immediately.

This article originally appeared in the Birmingham Business Journal


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