Friday, August 15, 2008

How To Put Out Client Fires Without Getting Burned

The Scenario:

You have a client that always waits until the last minute to request a project. And it always has to be completed in about ¼ of the time that it really deserves. So everyone in the agency who works on the client’s account has to stop what they’re working on and go into crisis mode trying to put out the latest client fire.

What are some possible causes of these fires?

1. Your client is caught up in an organizational structure that is highly reactive rather than proactive, and so their last minute plans all roll downhill to the agency. And your client is as frustrated by it as you are.
2. Your client is terribly disorganized and never plans ahead.
3. Your client is totally oblivious to the fact that the agency account team isn’t sitting by the phone waiting for the client’s call, but instead is busy working on business for other clients. So the client thinks all the agency needs is a few hours notice.
4. Your client is just an evil, demonic being whose main pleasure in life is creating chaos for everyone on the account team.

Survival Options:

1. A heart-to-heart talk between the agency account supervisor and the client. The discussion with the client should begin by trying to determine what the agency can do for the client to help prevent these last minute fires. The agency should also point out to the client that allowing more turnaround time will always result in a better creative product, which will result in having a greater impact on the client’s sales.

2. The fire department can charge homeowners for putting out their fires. Why can’t ad agencies do the same? Charge the client higher “rush fees” for turnarounds of 48 hours or less. However, if a rush fee contingency is not part of the original rate structure from the start of the relationship, it will be difficult to throw that at a client midway through the relationship. It’s kind of like sliding a prenuptial agreement in front of your fiancé the day before the wedding.

3. Anticipate fires and manage your client accordingly. If for the past 3 years, the client has always ran a special Memorial Day ad, chances are it will happen again this year. Remind the client in early April that Memorial Day is coming up fast. Set up a timeline that pushes the client to commit to having the ad finished by early May.

4. Install some creative fire extinguishers. Get internal buy-in from the agency creative director to simplify the creative approval process for these client emergencies. Putting a creative team through 5 rounds of revisions on a project that is already on a fast-track usually does nothing more than burn out the creative team.

If creative quality is that important, bring in every creative team in the agency, feed them the assignment details and give them one to two hours to come back with ideas. From that point, take the best ideas of the bunch, and run with them. Set the tone of this emergency as a friendly competition and you’ll likely see more inspired ideas. After all, the tight time frame is enough pressure as it is. Make sure that the usual creative team on the account understands that this group effort is in no way meant to undermine their talents, but rather a necessary tactic for dealing with an otherwise impossible deadline.

Also, take a look at the overall creative needs of your client from the past and look for some trends. Then develop some creative solutions for future emergencies. You might even propose this emergency-prevention as a project for which you can bill the client. A smart client will appreciate your effort for thinking ahead.

For instance, perhaps you create a flexible template ad that could be modified for a number of uses simply by dropping in a stock photo and headline. So future ad requests can be turned around on a dime.

5. Constant fire fighting will lead to creative burn-out. Instead of putting your own creative team through the flames of hell, outsource the fires and headaches that go with them to freelancers. It would be a good idea to have some trusted, seasoned freelance resources you can go to. Freelancers will take on crazy rush projects with a lot less complaining than agency staffers.

Reality Check:

Client fires are a reality that most all agencies have to live with. But by knowing these Ad Agency Survival Guide tactics, you can fight all of those fires. No more heat exhaustion. No more third degree burns.

Do you have any tips for putting out client fires? Or any great stories about clients that always caused fires? Let’s hear about them.

The Ad Agency Survival Guide is the creation of Kevin McIntosh, a freelance copywriter in the Nashville market. His work can be seen at