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During Saatchi & Saatchi’s heyday, Maurice Saatchi confronted an audience of industry colleagues, company employees, directors and shareholders and told them of a new way to buy and sell shares in the stock market. He said, when the CEO’s involvement in his company’s advertising is high, buy the shares. When his involvement is low, sell them.

While playing the stock market is best reserved for experts, what Maurice Saatchi touched upon over two decades ago still rings true today: One of the determining factors in producing great work is the character and level of engagement from clients. These are the persons or groups to whom we dedicate our people, offices, resources, creed, caste and religion. In other words, our lives. So if the role of the client is central to our success, what can we ask of clients when taking on new business that helps set criteria to meet two objectives: a) produce our best work; and b) live with a relationship that can ideally hedge us from our daily intake of shrieks and yawns.

Great Work: Naturally, the first question to ask is whether we can do great work? Is the client open to creativity? Do they trust fresh ideas? Do they believe in originality? Are they willing to give enough response and resources for us to go beyond the predictable and the mundane? Do they, in fact, have creative courage? It’s easy to agree to the above in principle, but in action creative courage means guarding the agency from revisions, indecisions and the tyranny of reason that can often plague new and powerful ideas. A simpler way to avoid this is to avoid working for clients in multi-layered organisations where the work travels through endless series of approvals. At each level of approval, the work tends to get weaker and weaker (unless it’s being policed by a brand custodian) and this can be frustrating for a creative person.

Great Results: The second question is related to results. Is the client willing to share secrets? Is there enough transparency for the agency to meaningfully develop lasting and strategic solutions? And follow-up on them for the future? Is the client someone who knows his brand, who wants to and believes in making a difference? Or does he dismiss advertising as a cosmetic necessity where advertising to himself (or his spouse) makes for sufficient consumer response? It’s important to measure results. Often clients don’t reveal how well the advertising played the market (for reasons best known to them) and leave their agency counterparts working with one eye blind. If we can identity such clients earlier in the relationship, we can assign them one-eyed creatives before it gets too dark.

Great Profits: Let’s not even think about the third question until the first two are adequately addressed; that is, can we make a profit? The client understands that we both assume responsibility of helping each other to profit in the relationship. And it begins with perspective. It is critical for agencies to help their clients see that they are not an extension of their marketing departments. That we are not sitting on the same side of the table as is commonly believed. Clients love to throw such lines at us — often out of ignorance. When you clarify that you are, in fact, an extension of the consumers’ perspective in the client’s marketing department that your role actually begins to take shape. The former blurs the line between service and servility; the latter brings focus to our role more accurately.

Great Fun: And finally, can we have fun? The human side. Do we like you? Do you like us? When we show up for a meeting, are we treated with respect? Will we enjoy the experience? Will we want it to last? When things go wrong, will we find ways to fix and forget them or will we file them in the cold-storage of our relationship archives only to prove a point later?

Clients must earn the right to be called Clients. And to earn their highest accolade, their business, we must do what we’ve always done in advertising. Promise big; deliver bigger. The active management of clientele is vital to the creative process. Done well, it can lend a special and enviable flavour to agency life where a culture of an exchange of great ideas is harnessed by greater ideas. For an industry that believes that nothing is impossible, why should we or our clients want anything less?

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