Have you ever fantasized about your vanity plate? I have.
For quite a while, I thought it would be cool to drive around with the plate ADWORDS. In Ontario, where they cram eight letters into a vanity plate, I could even go with PAGEZERO – following the logic of “now they can’t tow me out of my own parking spot.” Or what about simply “PPC”?
Vanity plate? How about a humble plate?
I suppose “PPC” explains my line of work, but since the “P” for the “C” mostly goes into Google’s pockets, it would be unwise to tempt anyone seeking Ferrari-level money to jump into our profession today. Anyway, “professional brag” plates seem to be mostly owned by dentists driving BMW 328i’s. Yawn.
By definition, most vanity plate owners seem to be inordinately proud of themselves. I’ve sometimes wondered why those Beemer-driving dentists with their “RTCANAL” plates aren’t a tad humbler. Perhaps a tribute to the bank that lent the money to start the practice, the parents who put you through school, or… here’s a thought: your patients, your PAYING CUSTOMERS?
And so it hit me. I’d best inspire my colleagues and become a shining example to the marketing profession at large by saluting the folks who pay the bills:
A seven-letter vanity plate that really isn’t vain at all.
We work with many kinds of clients, and strive to hit performance targets regardless of who they are. Here, though, I’ll discuss folks who “have skin in the game.” Business owners. Pioneers who started and grew a company all by themselves, or bought into one recently, risking their capital. Obviously, they’re in the minority. We don’t seek them out, necessarily. Somehow, we have found each other.
Working with owners is great if you love clarity. Corporate relationships can be mired in ambiguity and propriety. The impact of having frequent contact with an owner is that you never lose touch with the real feelings and priorities of the shareholders, for better or for worse.
Oh, and it might get worse. As in, sometimes none of the feedback is positive. Overburdened entrepreneur clients may assume that a lack of complaint is the equivalent of praise, in this case because they pay you. (They’re pretty much right about that.)
Second-guessing is just as far as a competitor’s sales pitch away, too. You have to keep proving yourself, which in a digital, abstract, remote profession, is damn hard. Even in a brick and mortar context or in old school law firms and such, it was hard, as Harry Beckwith brilliantly showed in Selling the Invisible.
Some agency folk, let’s be honest, don’t enjoy the feeling of empathizing with the acute concerns of a fully-invested entrepreneur.
They might even begin to construct a cynical pattern in their minds. ARE ALL THESE CLIENTS BONKERS?, they begin to ask themselves. They may begin wearing clever t-shirts with slogans like I HATE DOING THIS SHIT… clearly a cry for help.
Entrepreneurs have PTSD… so empathize
Oh, we can tell you some stories. Sometimes owners, families, etc. actually yell and call people names. When you think about their situation, you start to appreciate why that is.
My grandfather once took a huge risk and went from skilled tradesman to part owner of a bankrupt metal fabrication company. He did this in his forties, and was moderately successful at it, largely because of his relationships and his sales acumen. Which, my dad informs me, sometimes meant he had to hang out with clients and suppliers in some poker club half the night drinking rye out of dirty glasses. Between that and his affability – he never pushed his anxieties onto staff, family, or clients – his high blood pressure got the better of him and he died prematurely (40 years ago).
People still recognize his name in the town where he started that business (Welland, ON) – little wonder, because it’s still going. In some local people’s book, people like my grandfather are the “good guys,” and big employers like John Deere (at least, when they pull out suddenly, leaving 800 people out of work) are the “bad guys.” I don’t know about any of that, but I respect the risk, and the result. Grandpa knew that customers and jobs just don’t fall out of the sky.
The entrepreneur, farmer, and independent professional, according to Nassim Taleb, should be decorated like a military hero for taking risks on behalf of all of us, having “skin in the game.” That’s a long story. Short version: Taleb is now admired as a popular author with a hatred of “fragile” expertise emanating from pedigreed experts who “teach birds how to fly.” He also made $50 million betting against said fragilistas in the subprime meltdown of 2008.
Turns out that discomfort with the real entrepreneurial spirit is the norm in the business world, especially here in Canada. And it can be quite rewarding to avoid it entirely. I laughed recently at a story about the same old suspects in traditional advertising, “reinventing” a 75-year-old cereal in a (“get this”) tongue-in-cheek way as if it is a new thing but really it isn’t! Diamond Shreddies! Get it? It’s the same damn product and we just advertised it turned on its side! Now give us our damned Clio! Highly-paid people whose performance cannot be measured and who literally cannot fail get the awards in our industry. Unbelievable.
The weird science of weird clients
Possibly related to all this, last week I went around the table in a meeting and asked my colleagues to go back into their memory banks and share a story about the weirdest client ever.
I then asked them to identify the best client ever – and certainly made mental notes of my own on that theme.
Turns out there is a significant amount of overlap between the “weirdest ” clients in someone’s memory, and the “best” clients. They are often one and the same!
Perhaps Seth G. should write a sequel to We Are All Weird, and call it Clients Are All Weird. Take note! The meaning of the “weird” in We Are All Weird refers to overcoming the “myth of mass,” and the reality of our unique, specialized needs. That clients are weird in this way – that they demand services tailored to their unique, specialized needs – shouldn’t be cause for alarm. On the contrary: that should be the very definition of professional services!
Maybe this is obvious, but when you’re a professional service provider, clients don’t come to you with already solved problems. And they need to be seeing a positive ROI, or evidence of superior ability.
Rockstar teams > thin-skinned “rockstars”
Getting paid = work. Lots of people want work, and many are qualified. So getting paid = very good quality work. And working hard. That’s the reality of an open marketplace for skills and expertise.
Fortunately for great computer programmers (and, I argue, for the very best in bottom-line fields like corporate litigator or PPC campaign management), there’s a lot of value in hiring the very best (with an interesting wrinkle that suggests ‘rockstar coders’ are largely a myth, but ‘rockstar teams’ are a highly salient reality.
So while the skills market may look on the surface to be heavily weighted on the supply side, the reality is an oversupply of sheepwalkers, and an undersupply of “rockstar teams.” Finding the rockstar needle in the haystack is a client’s ticket to positive ROI… if, that is, the rockstars also maintain robust constitutions that are relatively immune to bouts of client weirdness. Rockstars who are too thin-skinned to persevere, and who frequently talk of firing clients for “being difficult,” are only good on paper.
Define “asshole,” asshole
You may have heard: a lot of talk around the virtual agency water cooler revolves around themes related to “firing the bad client,” “no assholes rules,” “I only take on projects I’m comfortable with,” etc.
Not that any of us truly want to work for jerks, deadbeats, or bullies. But what many people perceive as discomfort, some of us come to understand as the natural price to be paid for delivering a superior service in a competitive field. Imagine a Hollywood agent who only took on “nice little nobodies” because she didn’t like dealing with “temperamental people.” She’d starve in a hurry.
Let me put it to you this way. A decade ago, we once worked for a client who bought up seven separate directory listings in Yahoo for Payday Loans. While working with us, he set himself up as an “agency” to manage the PPC accounts of something like eight of his direct competitors, to augment his income.
100% of our clients are less weird and less flaky than that individual. I try to keep things in perspective.
So I say: bring it on. We’ll continue to “tolerate” a mix of weird, flaky, “best ever” clients. (Hint: that last bit means they pay their bills quite nicely.)
Of course, a “thank you, great job” would be nice once in a while. But we figure the entrepreneur might have enough on their plate remembering to say that, and the occasional “I love you,” to their own team – and immediate family.
P.S. Perhaps you were wondering about the progress of my application for the vanity plate “CLIENTS”? Ha! Ha! No way! I’m not that humble, and after all, they’re called vanity plates. For now, NDN 724 will do.
 Didn’t really happen. For illustrative purposes only.
 Also didn’t happen.
 This happened.
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