by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Guy Who Has Worked With Clients Of All Types In Agencies Of All Sizes…
Finding the right client is like dating:
- You have to escape your comfort zone and make small talk with lots of strangers.
- Most prospective clients simply aren’t a match or a catch: some are all talk no action (or no money), some expect too much, and some will make you want to give it all up and take a vow of business celibacy.
- Once you get past the chit-chat, good client relationships develop over drinks and dinner, but even if they start with wine and roses, they can end in ashes and acrimony — particularly if another agency gets involved. (Cheaters!)
- On the shiny flipside, if all the rom-com magic works, you’ll find The One and collaborate happily ever after.
As with dating, finding The One can take years. Fortunately, unlike dating, professional work is polygamous. You can have all the partners you can handle — indeed, you should aim for multiples in case of break-ups, and you should aim for variety to provide a change of pace and stimulation, as Don Draper might say.
(Now, some clients demand exclusivity, but that’s essentially becoming an employee without benefits.)
Polygamy means you don’t need any client to be perfect. That works fine for creative agencies and professionals just starting out — you need jobs NOW and can’t wait. Just make sure you land these 3 kinds of clients within your first year:
1. The Prestige Client
This client is a major brand even your parents would know. They could be a Fortune 500 corporation, a branch of the government, a university or other major nonprofit, or a celebrity.
- Upsides: Having them on your roster indicates that you’re trustworthy and your work is high quality; hence, these clients elevate your professional brand. In addition, the prestige client’s size and stability usually guarantees payment.
- Downsides: Since you’re starting out, they may expect you to work for a discount or even free for the “privilege” of working with them. They certainly have the negotiating power to beat down your price request. The larger ones can also be terribly bureaucratic, taking their sweet time for approvals and even payment. Creatively, they may prefer conservative and clichéd work with little risk, or they may order you around so that you start feeling more like a production tool than a creative pro.
- Recommendations: First, make sure you get their written permission to claim them as a client, including in a press release and on your website. If they insist on keeping your relationship confidential, forget about it. The whole point of the prestige client is show and tell. Now assign your best account people, including the principals of your agency, to manage them. In terms of work, always present your best ideas to them, but ultimately do what they want. Just remember to save those original ideas to show other prospective clients what you “would have done.” Once you complete the project, thank them, and request more money and creativity for future projects. If they demur, bid them a fare thee well. Hopefully, you already used this relationship with a prestigious client to land another one.
2. The Creative Client
By far the hardest to find and land, the creative client encourages you to do the imaginative work you fantasized about back in school while you were watching Mad Men and salivating over Nike ads. Most come from business-to-consumer industries, and tend to be driven by large personalities, not committees. So think charismatic CEO’s and NON-TECH entrepreneurs (most tech companies numbingly think their products don’t need creativity to sell, and that means hell for creative professionals). They may even be a small charity that you’ll help pro bono in exchange for creative freedom.
- Upsides: You’ll create work that looks great in your portfolio, that might go viral, and even win awards. That leads to more clients and bigger paychecks, and attracts top talent to work with you. Above all, you’ll love your job.
- Downsides: They don’t necessarily pay well. In fact, in some cases, their appetite might exceed their budget, so they’ll excitedly buy your ideas then underfund the execution, resulting in work you can’t show anyone. Even worse, they might get excited and see themselves as creative geniuses — especially if they’re in a creative industry themselves, such as movies or fashion — and suddenly you’re back to doing production.
- Recommendations: Don’t blow this opportunity by submitting half-baked ideas or doing mediocre work. At the same time, don’t get self-indulgent: your responsibility is to grow their business, not use their money to create the short film with the celebrity you always dreamed of. So while eyeing creativity trophies, keep your client’s business goals in mind (such as sales) and look to measure your impact. Now if they overstep their bounds and stop letting you be creative, recategorize them as cash-flow clients — and charge them more.
3. The Cash-Flow Client
This client helps you pay the bills… and that’s pretty much it. Unless you started with lots of funding, that may be all that matters. Pure cash-flow clients are not prestigious and they don’t appreciate creativity. Indeed, they may have an “idea” — one so banal you need three venti lattes just to listen to it — and just want you to execute it. They could come from any industry, but most likely hail from conservative ones like banking, education, and business-to-business services. Most mom-and-pop clients fall into this category: these small businesses aren’t lucrative, but they’re easier to land, so you may need several them for the sole purpose of covering your rent.
- Upsides: You stay in business and don’t have to take a side job making those venti lattes. In fact, think of these clients as paying you to practice presentations and account management. Cash-flow clients also enable you to take on low-paying creativity and prestige clients; to hire other people to do non-creative work like accounting; and to afford a slick suit, office, and dinners that impress better prospective clients.
- Downsides: Working for pure cash-flow clients feels like, well, work. Your best talent may leave in boredom and frustration. Even worse, you won’t have any work that wins awards or helps you land future clients. They may even drive you from the business altogether for something more exciting, like making venti lattes.
- Recommendations: Cash-flow clients are inevitable — even big agencies have them. Just don’t emotionally invest in them. The time and energy spent will not pay off; instead, you’ll just get burned out. Rather, quickly diagnose whether this client is good for money only, then delegate the work. (In big agencies, the cash-flow clients are punted down to junior creatives or freelancers, particularly if the work doesn’t involve television.) As long as you didn’t promise to do the work personally, there’s nothing illegal or even unethical about delegating dull work. Save your energy for creativity clients or a side-project that shows off your talent.
Whenever you meet a prospective client, quickly evaluate which categories they fall into. If they fall into “none of the above,” the choice is easy: run away. A relationship with anyone who’s not prestigious, pays poorly, and doesn’t let you be your creative self is an abusive one. They’ll leave you too drained to pitch the good clients — which may be a moot point, since you won’t have any killer work to attract the good ones in the first place. Never let desperation force you to settle. Ditch ’em and keep looking.
With any luck, you’ll find a client (or company) that combines at least two categories: money + creativity, money + prestige, or creativity + prestige. Of course, your perfect client combines all three… but you’ll need to be very lucky (or connected) to find them when you’re just starting out. You usually need a glowing record of successes first. So keep working and keep looking.
One other note: all these categories apply to employers as well. If you’re not an entrepreneur and are simply looking to build your creative career, you still need prestige, creativity, and cash. All three may not be available in your current job, but don’t fret — that’s normal. Just learn what you can from your employer, have creative side projects (like that movie or novel) to fill in the gaps, and, of course, keep looking.
Quoth Steve Jobs (a tech entrepreneur who actually celebrated creativity), “The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”