There Are NOT Seven Reasons Why Clients Hire You

Blair and David work on clarifying things by coming up with only six reasons why businesses hire creative firms.


BLAIR ENNS: David, the title you've chosen for today's episode is really lame.

DAVID C. BAKER: And you're telling everybody this why? Because I can just pay our producer to edit this bullshit out of here, but go ahead, tell the crowd why this is important.

BLAIR: First before we went live, I misread it. There are not seven reasons why clients hate you and you said "Hire you."

DAVID: Right.

BLAIR: So, the title is, there are not seven reasons why clients hire you, what does that mean?

DAVID: They're six. I'm just trying to build some-

BLAIR: I rest my case.

DAVID: Okay. I'm trying too hard. What's your title for it smart man?

BLAIR: I don't know. Now, I'm on the spot.

DAVID: Yeah. So, there are six reasons why clients hire you.

BLAIR: I would just call it why clients hate you. Hire you, okay. Between you and I, mostly you, we've come up with six reasons. And we think these are the only six reasons why clients ever hire you is that correct?

DAVID: Yeah. And that's why the title. I came up with five and you added one, so obviously, we might be missing some. But we really, at the moment anyway, we cannot think of any other reason why a client would hire you, which is really a clarifying kind of a thought. There's one buried in here that I find really fascinating that I learned recently from a client. So, if you think about, "Okay, why are clients hiring me?" It just clarifies why they are and why they might want to pay something and why they might want to hire you for this and not this. I think it's an interesting concept, but, of course, the audience is going to tell us if it is or not, right?

BLAIR: Five bucks says we come up with another one as we're going through this list.

DAVID: Yeah, could be.

BLAIR: Here we go. Reason number one is objectivity, explain yourself.

DAVID: I was thinking about this in relation to some of the acquisitions that have happened recently, where a big client will hire the agency they worked with for many, many years, and then I was thinking particularly about the Capital One acquisition of Adaptive Path. And hearing from some people afterwards, about how quickly the objectivity fades away. So, and you see this in a staff org setting too, so somebody becomes too familiar, they get too friendly, they, not only lose some of their courage, but they lose some of their objectivity because they're used to the way this company is doing it. Or you think about hiring a new employee, and it's so important to capture their first impressions before they get used to all your weirdness unfolding. So, it's just this objectivity that you bring to the table because you're not used to the way things are done. This is true for me, I know it's true for you, I think, it's true for a lot of our listeners as well, you walk into a place and you are just flooded with all the things that they are doing well, and the things that they really suck at, and it just hits you, you don't even have to think too much about it. Does that make sense?

BLAIR: Yeah, it makes perfect sense. I always tell new hires that they have this valuable but rapidly perishing asset, and that is outside perspective or objectivity. So, I'm really interested in the first few weeks, and maybe even first few months, but by six months, it's long gone, in their point of view on why do we do it this way? Because we just get locked into doing things the same old way and then the new person or the outside advisor or consultant comes along and says, "Why are you doing it this way?" You hire that objective external point of view and you bring it in house, what you're doing is you're killing it. You might not kill it entirely, but definitely there's this sloping line that the objectivity is going down, or maybe it doesn't get to zero, but it gets closer to zero over time.

DAVID: Yeah, and how would you recommend that agencies take advantage of this subjectivity because I know something that you've talked about a lot and it really makes sense to me is that they'll never really have more permission to share some of this, then they have right now at the beginning of the relationship, so how is this going to show up as they notice things? How do they share them? And who do they share them with? And how much permission do they have? That's something that I haven't thought all that much about, but it would be interesting to take this thought further and to be more tactical about it. How does it show up when you share some of your objectivity to a client?

BLAIR: Yeah, and I think how is it on boarded or perceived by the client who becomes the boss once you're in house? I've been in situations where I was a prospective employee, I'm thinking one specifically in an agency and I was treated very well and then the moment I was hired the tenor just changed. I was a respected colleague and professional during the hiring process and once I was hired it was communicated to me that I had no power or authority and I was a subordinate, so I think that's inevitable. But you talk about how really the source of an agency's power and their relationships with their clients, the only thing that they can do, as a kind of a response to something negative going on on the client side, is to withhold their services. As an outside advisor, you always have the ability to say, no You have the ability, ultimately, to walk away and say, "We're no longer going to do business with you." Or "We're not going to take this project on." Now, technically, you still have that ability once you are an employee, but it becomes a lot harder, right?

DAVID: It does. Yeah. And especially early on, because everybody's going to look stupid if you withhold that expertise two weeks after you agree to work with them. Maybe it's more about how there has to be some real substance in the objectivity when you share something. Somebody in the room needs to be shaking their head even if it's just internally, that makes sense, and their ears kind of perk up, and they start listening to you even more. And if we fast forward in this relationship that the client and the agency have, three or five years down the road when they fire them, they're almost always going to fire them because they either have lost objectivity, this agency that had it five or three years ago, they've either lost that objectivity, or they've lost the courage to express that objectivity. So, I don't intend to put this one first in the list, but it is really an important one. I think it's worth talking about it in the sales process too, right?

DAVID: So, you're talking about objectivity that we want to bring to the table, and then the prospect might very well say, "What do you mean by that?" And I think you probably have to be prepared to at least lift the corner of the tarp a little bit and say, "Oh, well, you know, I've been thinking about this and I don't know enough about your situation yet to know if this is true, but one of the questions I have is ... " And then you fill in that blank. And at that moment, they should shake their heads and say, "Ah, that makes sense. That's an example of not just objectivity but courage as well."

BLAIR: Okay, so six reasons why clients hire you, the first one is objectivity. As you say, in your book, The Business Of Expertise, "You cannot read the label if you're inside the jar." The client's in the jar, you bring this outside perspective. The second thing on our list of six reasons why clients hire you, is expertise.

DAVID: Yeah, and this one, maybe we don't even need to talk about but it definitely needs to be on the list, right? You and I have worn ourselves out talking about how important positioning is and seeing the patterns between engagements. But it just goes without saying that the clients who are willing to pay you a price premium are hiring you because of your expertise, and if you don't have that, why in the world would they pay extra? You're gonna fight to get paid even a normal amount. So, that expertise which comes from seeing these situations over and over again. There is an asterisk here, though, right? I'd be curious to know how many times you're seeing this out there. But there are some clients who flat will not hire you or don't want to work with you if you bring too much categorized expertise to the table, they want to see something a little bit different. So, that's something we'd have to think about here, but certainly expertise. I mean, how could that not be on the list?

BLAIR: Yeah, and as we're talking about this, it occurs to me that there are probably owners of firms out there who are thinking about this or have heard us talk about expertise before, but who actually have been in a position where their clients have never hired them for expertise, they've hired them for other things on this list, like objectivity, and like the things that we'll talk about next. And if you're a generalist firm, you're not really bringing expertise, you might be bringing, kind of, a vague, broad marketing expertise or communication expertise that a small client has none of to begin with. But it's the specialized firms are more likely to be hired for their expertise, the generalists are less likely to be hired for expertise.

DAVID: Right. And how is this delivered? I'm just picturing a conference room where nobody's taking notes, and they just simply want you in here to pick your brain and then maybe halfway through this, hour conversation, you walk over to the whiteboard, and you illustrate something, and their heads are nodding. And at the end of the meeting, they're just thinking to themselves, "Oh, my goodness, that was $20,000 worth of value I just got there." That's expertise, where you didn't actually do anything with your hands, they were simply wanting to get inside your head. And that feeling, a lot of our listeners have had that feeling and it is almost like a drug high where you're just so grateful that you have been in a position where you could impact the situation well.

BLAIR: Yeah, I've heard you say, from a stage many times, you've admonished the audience, in your way, by saying, "Some of you have never tasted competence." That's such an encouraging statement. But I know what you mean by that because most of us have tasted competence, and most of us have been in that moment when our expertise wasn't really valued, and then we said something or did something, just like you just talked about, and the client responded, they opened their notebook, they started taking notes. You can see that you've just drop this bomb, this nugget of expertise on them, that's changed everything. And when you taste that, everything changes for you, especially somebody who has high power needs, like me have a strong need to be the expert. I remember the first few times I experienced that and it's like a drug and you never want to give up that drug.

DAVID: Yeah, I think that was like three months ago for you?

BLAIR: Yeah.

DAVID: Yeah. I'm just trying to sneak that in a little bit.

BLAIR: Okay, six reasons why clients hire you, the first one is objectivity, the second one is expertise and third on the list is talent. And then this could go in a different directions, what do you really mean by talent when they're hiring us for talent?

DAVID: This was a completely new revelation to me. I was working with a client LA, I think, it was recently, or maybe a support line, I can't remember. And they were talking about how two of their clients had actually expressed this to them that one of the reasons they use them as because they get access to people who would never work on the client side. I mean, we know the differences in those folks, there aren't as big of differences there used to be. People are moving back and forth between those two worlds, but that was really interesting to me. I think they're talking more around the raw creativity, but just getting access to people that they couldn't hire, that would never work for them on a permanent basis. And that was really interesting to me. It also points to the fact that you've got to have some pretty unique, maybe not crazy unique, but unique people who are thriving in your system, and the process you're bringing to the table is reliably producing results for them. I just thought that was really interesting to think about that. Some of the people working for you would never work for the client and the only way to get access to them is to hire your firm.

BLAIR: Yeah, and specifically, I think creative talent because when you think of creative talent, strategic talent, like consulting or business guidance, like people in the account side, you can see the account people going back and forth fairly readily. On the dev side, I can see those folks going back and forth readily. But there's a certain type of creative person that would view going to the client side is effectively leaving the pirates and joining the Navy to steal either Jay Chiat's or David Ogilvy's term.

DAVID: Yeah, I agree with you completely. There was a time when you know anybody ever moved from the agency side TO the client side, It was just like, "Well, yeah, I guess, they just weren't good enough to cut it over here." And I don't think that's true. I don't think that's ever really been true. But there is something about that creative personality, like the culture of a creative firm is so different from the culture of almost every client company out there. now, some startups or some tech companies, share some similar creative cultures, but most clients do not have that creative culture. They're more kind of infrastructure type businesses, where the structures of the business are different, the incentives are different. They're more geared towards efficiencies, where in a creative business, it's less about efficiencies, and it's more about the interesting things that you have to do, the culture that you have to create to attract creative people. So historically, when you've seen those creative people go over to the other side, they were clearly making a sacrifice, they were sacrificing culture. They were seeing to be selling a little bit of their souls in exchange for money or stability or whatever it was.

BLAIR: Absolutely. And when you look at how this works, if you just hear this phrase, "All right, we really need to think out of the box." And I'm choking as I say that, or, "We need to break the rules here." When you hear somebody at an independent agencies say that, they really mean it. I mean, I'm almost instantly little terrified when I hear that. But when you hear somebody at a fortune 5000 say, "Break the rules." What they really mean is, let's break the rules of the work we've done to date. But there's another set of rules just behind this wall that we can't break. And that's the kind of stuff that turns off the really crazy, wild creatives. And your work still isn't going to see the light of day in some cases, because it's too crazy. But they're like folk heroes to these clients, the fact that they get to rub shoulders with these crazy people that are willing to work for you and only for you.

DAVID: And I think that's a new business advantage that I've seen some firms really leverage, the idea that when you're interviewing with a prospective client, you're walking them through your offices, I know you've talked about this as well, you just make the point to the client that, you know, there's a safe space for you here, you're a creative person trapped in a bureaucracy. Whenever you need to get away from the bankers, or whomever you work with, and you need to come work with the freaky creative people, this is your safe haven, this is your desk, et cetera. So, you can really leverage that. This is the place where the freaky people make the pretty pictures. And when you want to come hang with the freaky people, this is the spot. And this is where you bring your dog, and that's where you get your espresso and all of that, you know, leveraging all of that stuff. Okay, now we're hitting all the cliches.

BLAIR: Oh, you left off the ping pong table or the foosball. I'm really disappointed in you. It's an incomplete picture you just drew there.

DAVID: Okay, get that straight before we do a website. But yeah, that's good. So talent.

BLAIR: Okay.


BLAIR: We're talking about their only ever six reasons why your clients hire you or according to David, there are not seven reasons why your clients hire you. We've talked about three: objectivity, expertise and talent. And number four is overflow. What do we mean by overflow?

DAVID: It's not very exciting, is it? Because it's hard. You could see a client really needing overflow, but not necessarily. I guess there's some urgency behind that. But they, you know, they're staffing for the valleys and a peak comes up either because of some trade show or something and they just need outside help, but it wouldn't be super exciting, but we have to have it on the list because it is absolutely true. It happens all the time. Even for ... here we're talking about a client who would typically already have an in house department, but they're still reaching out when they're in house department is not capable of handling the workload. That's, I think, what we mean by overflow. It's a good one to have on the list, but it doesn't really warm our hearts all that much, right?

BLAIR: Yeah. And I think we could probably do a whole podcast, I've done webcast on this, we could probably do a whole podcast on selling to and working with clients who have in house departments, because there are times when they're asking you to essentially compete against internal resources, and they're thinking, "Do I farm it out to you?" And it might just be a pure overflow issue where it's like, they're only going to pay so much, or they might consider farming it out to you because you have a level of talent or expertise that they don't have in house. And not all of those situations are similar, so maybe in the future, we'll do a deep dive on that, but that's really what we're talking about here. There are some clients, as you say, they staff with the valleys and then a peak comes along. And that overflow, you know, it doesn't warm our hearts because it's usually not high impact, high margin work. But with some clients, there can be a volume of business there that, you know, you can manage nicely and make some money from.

DAVID: Absolutely. And what I've learned, and this has surprised me, but I've later confirmed it several times, what I've learned is that, when they face that situation, where do they turn if they don't already have an existing relationship? They talk with their internal employees in the department, who say, "Hey, anybody here have a recommendation?" And often it's the firm that that person left before they went work for the client. It's just another reminder to keep those relationships with your past employees solid, don't fight them when they leave, celebrate their contribution to the firm, stay in touch with them because they are a significant source of referral work for you from valley to peak. And it's not going to be your marketing efforts in this case, it will just be the loose, sort of, connections that you've built.

BLAIR: Yeah. Okay, next on our list is nimbleness. This is the one I probably understand the least. So, clients are hiring you for your ability to be agile or nimble, what is nimble mean?

DAVID: Nimble means, in this context, the way I understand it anyway, as I hear people talk about this, it's that the way the client works is not nimble, and they need something nimble. I don't mean just that it needs to be quick, although obviously, that could be a part of it, it's just that it's a long drawn out process, to get the department to do something because there are layers of approvals, and there are people who don't work quite as entrepreneurially as you might. So, it's just this, "Oh my goodness, something in the marketplace has changed." Or, "One of our competitors has done something and we need something pretty quick. It's not so much that we don't have the capacity for it, we just need something really quick and I just know how long it takes to spin our people up on something like this: they have a lot more vacation, they don't typically work later, we just need somebody to respond pretty quickly." Again, it's not going to warm our hearts, but it is a very frequent reason why somebody uses you.

DAVID: And they frequently use you for this and the overflow thing, at the beginning of the relationship. In the past, we would have always said, "Don't start it that way. Just wait until it's slower, it's more thought through, its methodical, they're going to pay you a lot of money, there's a big project." Unfortunately, their first taste of you is sometimes in this overflow or nimbleness category, so you have to kind of pay attention to it.

BLAIR: As you're describing what you meant by nimbleness, I started to have this big grin because I recalled two situations where I worked for a multinational ad agencies, and I was running two different accounts at these two different agencies, not simultaneously. And in both situations, I needed some creative work done quickly, and, you know, talk about being nimble, in a large multinational agency there are times when you're just not as nimble as you need to be. Essentially, the larger the organization, the less likely you are to be nimble. So, in two different occasions, I just went out and out sourced, without permission, talent from other agencies. In fact, I have friends to this day, where we refer to each other by our code names, Mr. Black, Mr. Green, and Mr. Pink, because when I hired them, they were working at another agency. They were a creative team, and I hired them to work on my project. And I couldn't let the client know. The client knew who are creative people were, and I told them what I was doing to meet the deadlines, so they could never know the names of the people that they were dealing with.

BLAIR: To this day, this is almost 20 years later, when we speak and we always refer to each other as ... I call them, Mr. green and pink and I'm Mr. Black. So yeah, getting so large that you're no longer nimble that happens on the agency side too. But it absolutely happens on the client side all the time, right? You kind of set the tenor for the relationship, You establish how long things take, And then you're really good client calls you in a panic and says, "My God, I need this done faster than you typically are able to do it." I'd love to hear from some people out there who own agencies or run accounts in agencies who have essentially gone around the corner and hired a competitor, because somebody smaller than them is more nimble than their internal resources.

DAVID: Yeah, exactly. I was getting ready to write something this week. And I was looking through ... I had 30 article ideas ready and the illustrations were all done, I wasn't motivated to write on any of them. I sent a note to my illustrator, and I said, "I am really sorry to do this to you, but could you give me this illustration by this afternoon?" And I was kind of prepared for her to say no, and I wasn't sure exactly what I was going to do, but she just very graciously, whatever she was doing, she dropped it and she did the illustration. And it's like, I never forget that kind of thing. And I don't abuse it with Emily, with her, but every once in a while, you do need to rescue your client, right? And maybe not even worried too much about the paperwork and don't worry about getting burned every once in a while. But there is something about this world that, you know, we used to call the internet time 10 years ago, now it's just time, it's just everything is that way. But I do think it's something to consider, and it's one of the reasons why clients hire you, it's because you're nimble.

BLAIR: We've talked about this before. I think there's a little bit of a conflict here because I would put nimbleness or lack of nimbleness, under the category of why clients fire you. I think, you're more likely to be fired because you cannot be nimble in certain situations. And I think even though people do hire you for and value your nimbleness, it's one of those areas where like overflow, you would be hesitant to lean on it when you are trying to get a new client, so I think we need to be a little bit careful with that one.

DAVID: Right, exactly.

BLAIR: Alright, the last thing on our list. So, far we're talking about there are only six reasons why clients hire you and not seven. We've covered objectivity, expertise, talent, overflow, nimbleness, and the last one is because they don't want to build a team. So, this is somewhat tied to overflow a little bit, kind of sorta, but let's unpack that a bit.

DAVID: Yeah, it's different from overflow in the sense that overflow is episodic, it just happens. And here we're talking about a company that's big enough, that clearly could build a team, but they're just not one of those. You know, there's been this movement over the last, almost four years now, where most of the bodies, most of the people under the marketing umbrella have migrated to the client side for the first time in history. And that path is continuing, and I don't see it necessarily stopping. But there will always be firms who, big clients, you know, fortune 5000, who will not create an in-house team, and those are the people who are always going to need to work with you, so it should be on the list. What's interesting about this now is that, even though what I said earlier was true about how the movement is for these big companies to build in-house teams more than ever before, there are some cracks in the foundation. You see large companies disbanding their team. There are dozens now that have disbanded their teams, and in some cases, they've disbanded them shortly after creating them. So, for whatever reason, they tried this experiment and realized, "Ah, that's why we didn't do this." And I don't know what those reasons are yet, I haven't researched it enough.

DAVID: But they're just back in the camp now of, "We're always going to use external firms." So, that would be another topic to talk about. The difference between working with a client that doesn't have a team and then working alongside a client that does have a team. You mentioned that earlier. I think that would be really interesting to explore, but that's really what we're talking about here. Maybe this is the most important reason they're hiring you because they simply are never going to build a team, so everything they do is gonna have to be done by a firm like yours.

BLAIR: And it may be a more important reason today because it seems to me that it's one of those things where the pendulum is always swinging back and forth. And we seem to be at this point. Maybe you're saying we're just past this point now the pendulum is swinging the other way. But for the last few years there has been this big movement to create internal marketing teams, right? You're saying some of these teams are starting to unwind?

DAVID: Right. Yeah, the pendulum is still swinging towards the client side, but it's not swinging as quickly. There's been some cracks in the foundation, we're realizing, "Oh, this is not a panacea, it's not quite as easy as we thought. And we're not winning the same awards, our work is not quite as unique, we're not able to attract the kind of talent that we thought we would, these people don't fit the culture." You know, there's all sorts of little reasons but it's not a panacea, like it was two or three years ago.

BLAIR: And you take the internal team and the subject of nimbleness. I think the design challenge of our time, maybe it's the business challenge of our time in the design world, is figuring out how we work with the client. Because there's such a movement to agile or other lean project management methods right now in the agency side and in the client side in the tech world. And so, you've got all of these firms saying to their clients, like, "We work in this agile, sprint based anti waterfall, I guess, you would call it, anti planning approach. And I think that message is resonating with clients, and I think people look at the agility or the nimbleness that it seems to imply, and clients want some of that, but then when they bring those agile methods and teams to a lot of clients, they find there's this conflict with these siloed, traditional, layered organizations. So, I think, often clients are looking to bring some of that magic agility to them, and they find that there's a culture clash, and again, maybe that's a topic for a future podcast.

DAVID: Yeah, there's so much in there that I would love to ... I actually love to get inside your head. I think that maybe 80% of people that say they're doing agile really aren't. They're just trying to hitch their wagon to something that's a little bit more popular. And then how does all that ... How does the impact of agile relate to pricing? Which is your sphere of influence and project unfolding and cadence and all that? It would be something really interesting to talk about because the world is changing, but we have not caught up with that world yet in terms of how we're working with clients and how we're charging clients.

BLAIR: Okay, so we've identified two topics, I can hear people clamoring for us to do an episode on, and the first one is, working with and selling to clients who have in-house resources, and the second one is the implication of Agile on all kinds of client relationships and pricing. But I just want to point out that two episodes ago, in terms of ... we record them and they don't necessarily go to air in this order, but they usually do, two episodes ago, we finished by saying, we're going to talk about partners, working with your spouse.

DAVID: Oh, no.

BLAIR: ... we recorded that one and then afterwards we both went, "Oh, that was horrible." So, we've decided that it is never going to air because we don't want to talk about all of the messy things. You know, really, it's like we had all these stories we could tell and decide, well, we're not going to tell any of these stories.

DAVID: You can't tell those, yeah. Our audience should love the fact that there is some quality control. There may not be a lot, but there's some quality control. We have actually killed an episode out of 70, that should give people confidence, right?

BLAIR: Yeah, right. Sure.

DAVID: Oh, I didn't convince you. And that the podcast will continue for at least two more episodes, because we need to cover these two things, so that's good.

BLAIR: Yes. And that's the only commitment we're making.

DAVID: That's right.

BLAIR: All right, David, this has been fun. Thank you. We'll talk to you next time.


David Baker