Now We’re Talking

A senior designer dials into a Teams meeting with a client. It is Wednesday afternoon and gloomy-looking in London.

She turns her camera on and tilts the screen up, then down, to achieve the perfect angle. While she waits, she rehearses her rationale for the logo, the typography, the muted colour palette. “This is a world of soft creams, khakis, browns and olives.”

The client, she’s learned, has a reputation for being particular, but she wills herself to be calm. Confident. She has every reason to be, with all the effort she’s put in. And yet, in a few minutes’ time, once the client joins the call and the usual pleasantries have been exchanged, something will happen to this confidence — something which happens every time she presents to any client: she will race through the deck at breakneck speed, stumbling over her words as she goes. She will forget to hold for thoughts, to take questions, to take a breath, until the thank you slide, at which point her lengthy speech will come to a rather lame end.

“That’s… about it,” she will say, then exhale as quietly as she can.

Creative people get nervous

If you work in a creative agency, you know the feeling. And you know what comes next. The designer — let’s call her Elle — will begin doubting the choices she’s made, even before the client has passed judgment on them. Or worse, she will stubbornly defend these choices to account for her wounded pride. In her mind, the phrase “I don’t think this colour palette is right for our brand” twists and contorts itself to become: “I don’t think you’re a very good designer. In fact, I think you’re bad. Microsoft Paint bad.”

That’s because designers put so much of themselves into their work. As do writers, strategists, videographers, web developers and account managers. We’re all creative in our own way, and the reason we get nervous in front of clients is because we care about the final product. At the same time, we struggle to be truly vulnerable in meetings like Elle’s, because over the years we’ve been led to believe, by society, that the customer is always right and the client is king. And that’s no way to maintain a healthy professional relationship.

Part of the problem is the word itself. We can’t help but associate vulnerability with weakness — with exposing ourselves to judgment and ridicule. (Not to mention loss of faith and, eventually, business.) It doesn’t help that the shift to analytics-driven marketing and technology-enabled growth has fundamentally altered our DNA. We’re more afraid than we’ve ever been, and that fear keeps us from speaking our minds. It affects the quality of our work. It compels us to overpromise, and put in longer hours to ensure we don’t underdeliver.

Agency folk, be honest: don’t you love to feel challenged? Don’t you fear pitching like a trip to the dentist? Don’t you wish clients would try to be as cognisant of your needs as you are of theirs?

Well, that’s exactly how they feel.

Clients get nervous too

In a recent survey, Big Black Door asked C-suite leaders to name the best qualities of their relationships with agencies, and mutual understanding came out on top. 40% of respondents appreciate a team that listens without interrupting, supports without pretending. 35% believe that open and honest communication is key, and 26% want to feel just as challenged as we do.

Clients are looking for partners, not one-off problem solvers. That’s the key takeaway here. The golden nugget. You can be the agency who responds to a brief and cashes a cheque, or you can be the partner who helps write the brief, invites the client backstage and welcomes their input.

“The black box era of creativity is over,” says Alexei Orlov, Global CEO of Rapp. “Clients want to be involved in the end product. Often, they want the consumer, or other critical stakeholders, to be involved as well. Agencies have to open up the process and let clients in.”

Understanding creates trust

We can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard a client say I’m not a strategist or I’m not a copywriter. “I don’t know the first thing about design,” they confess hesitantly before providing feedback, and our reply is always the same: “We don’t know the first thing about launching a data centre, or leading a conservation effort, or hosting a country music festival. But you do.”

From that moment on, you can feel the energy in the room shift. You can practically see the heavy weights falling from a client’s shoulders, the stress leaving their brows. You’ve just removed the biggest obstacle from their path, the fear of not being creative enough — “good enough” — and now the road to vulnerability is clear.

Trust creates vulnerability

But what does it actually mean to be “vulnerable” with a client? If it’s not weakness, is it strength? Is it outspokenness?

You’ve probably heard of Brené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston, who studies human connection — our ability to empathise, belong and love. Brené’s TED Talk went viral in 2010 when she identified the paradox which exists at the heart of vulnerability. “It’s the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I want you to see in me.”

In her research, Brené found that the reason so many of us struggle to be vulnerable is because we’re too preoccupied with being perfect. We tell ourselves we’re not thin enough in front of the mirror, popular enough on the social scene, or talented enough at work. And then, to compensate for these feelings of inadequacy, we hide. We make excuses. We point fingers. We blame the brief (it’s unclear), the timeframes (they’re unrealistic), the client (he’s particular). Blame is our exit strategy, says Brené. It’s how we dodge pain and discomfort.

To be vulnerable, then, is to acknowledge these patterns, to be hyper aware of them. But Rome wasn’t built in a day. It takes the average person one month to a year to kick a habit, which is why it’s important that we give our clients — no, our partners — room to breathe. They’ll get there in the end. We’ll get there, together. We’ll learn to lower our defences, brick by brick, and embrace uncertainty for the good of the relationship.

Be upfront… up front

In the meantime, it’s amazing how far a statement like “we don’t have all the answers all the time” can take you. It reminds us, as professionals, of the many things we have in common as people. We’re as curious as cats. Better yet, as locksmiths. We have a biological need to open doors that were previously closed — and if we make mistakes, it’s only because we’re not prepared for what’s on the other side. But we’re adaptable, too. Every creative director was once a nervous junior, and every chairman remembers their first job out of uni. Their very first chair.

So what if you’ve never used Photoshop? Who cares if you don’t know what it feels like to present to the board? The things that really matter, in a business relationship — in all relationships, really — are the moments in between. The stuff we share after the work has been spoken for. The stories we relay, and relate to.

Here’s one.

A senior designer dials into a Teams meeting with a client. It is Wednesday afternoon and gloomy-looking in London. She turns her camera on and tilts the screen up, then down, to achieve the perfect angle. While she waits, she rehearses her rationale for the logo, the typography, the muted colour palette. The client, she’s learned, has a lot on her plate at the minute, but that’s to be expected when you’re setting up a business from scratch, right? All the documents, the red tape? Our designer makes a mental note to ask how it’s going, which she does — after the usual pleasantries have been exchanged, after the feedback on the work has been given — and the two of them, agency representative and client representative, spend the last ten minutes of the call joking and laughing and comparing lawyers to taxis: how they’re never around when you need them.

To watch Brene Brown’s TED Talk on the power of vulnerability, click here.

To read Big Black Door’s report on their client survey, click here.

And for the full interview with Rapp’s Global CEO, Alexei Orlov, click here.

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