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The Art of Telling Clients What They Don’t Want To Hear

by Jess Cook on 08/04/2022 | 6 Minute Read

When a client approaches an agency, it’s usually because their brand needs some fresh thinking or a new creative approach. Maybe they want to enhance their visual identity or transform how consumers view them. Sometimes, they’re looking to create an entirely new brand from scratch.  

That means they need creative ideas, flair, and an agency with their finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. But what’s often forgotten is that a brief is essentially a problem to solve, and so agencies should first and foremost be problem solvers.

I often joke that our role can be like that of a detective. We shouldn’t take anything at face value—we need to understand consumer motives, sniff out the clues in popular culture, and look for hard evidence to back up our thinking. Our work should aim to “crack the case” at hand, using creativity to ensure the brand’s fit for purpose and delivers on its commercial goals. 

To become great problem solvers, you sometimes have to dig deeper, likely uncovering some uncomfortable truths which need addressing head-on. That might mean telling clients what they don’t want to hear, but it’s only then that we can establish real, effective change for their business. 

Tell Them That You Don’t Knowand Show Them What You Do

It’s best to come into an initial client conversation without biases or preconceived ideas. We can certainly have an opinion and often have more than a few, but we need time to get under the brand's hood and interrogate the brief, project, and organizational culture. 

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"Changing the brand name from a family name was an emotional one for our client, but was key to bring both the brand positioning and the design to life."

We would never tell clients what we think they want to hear to get a gig or win them over. In the long run, it only makes life harder for everyone involved. Instead, we try to uncover a more rounded picture—something that the supplied brief doesn’t usually provide. That means asking questions up front and preparing ourselves for difficult conversations.  

Coming in with a pre-prepared shiny answer means you could be missing some huge elephants in the room. We won’t bamboozle the client with meaningless jargon. Instead, we demonstrate how our process works by showcasing real-world success stories that have answered similar problems and delivered results. That often challenges clients’ initial expectations but consistently leads to constructive conversations.

Clients often ask us what the end result will be. Our response is always that we don’t have a clue. Rather than being keen to impress, we explain the need for us all to go on the journey together and let it lead us to the right solution. 

It’s OK to say you don’t know. What’s vital is demonstrating how you’ll get to where you do.

Listen, Don’t tell

Our first task is always to listen. When you go into meetings assuming you know everything already, you’ll likely miss the point—the more you listen, the more questions you’ll uncover. It's your opportunity to learn as much about the project and the people you’ll work alongside.

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“We went against the retail standard of copying the branded market leader with Co-op’s range of beers, wines, and spirits. The result is a fun and confident stance for own label."

Don’t just bowl in and try to convince the client that your ideas are both brilliant and right. They probably aren’t if you’ve not taken in what they have to say—they’ve lived and breathed the brand much longer than you have. When you listen, you pick up how people work, their communication styles, and their way of approaching a problem. It’s vital to learn these nuances early on. That way, you adapt your approach accordingly, and make the process a true collaboration.

Once you’ve listened and learned, then you can act. This transition into “telling” mode gets grounded with understanding—it becomes consultative and, as a result, much more valuable. 

Ultimately, you shouldn't go into “transmit” mode. Empathy is everything.

Team-Wide Collaboration

By nature, our work can end up ruffling a few feathers. But by approaching everything as an expansive team effort and understanding every pain point our clients have, we can mitigate potential issues and help to find solutions, not create more problems. 

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“By completely flipping the brand focus from ‘free-from’ to 'Dairy Free’d,’ we were able to revolutionize the brands entire approach and focus of the business."

It sounds clichéd, but you want to become an extension of a client's team. Break down those barriers, and everything becomes easier to navigate. 

At Robot Food, we open the door to our whole team. We ensure the client knows their full team of strategists, copywriters, designers, and production specialists by name and interacts with them directly throughout the process. It’s true collaboration and transparency that builds up trust—no smoke and mirrors required. The client should feel part of the whole journey, and, most importantly, it should be fun!

Honesty and Transparency

Keeping a client on your side while being honest and transparent about what they need can be tricky—particularly when you’re reworking parts of the brand they may have been heavily involved in to begin with and are reticent to change. 

The key is being diplomatic but direct. We aim to find all the great things about the brand that needs to come across and bring those to the fore, giving consumers a positive story to get behind. It’s not about telling clients they’re doing a terrible job; we look for any missed opportunities that can get leveraged. 

The client brought you and your agency in for a reason: they’re looking for someone with the skills and attitude to help them “break things” and make a better brand. They’ll appreciate and respect it if you’re honest about what can be improved and what isn’t working. 

Turn What They Didn’t Want To Hear Into What They Do

When you’re meeting with a client, it’s critical to remember that they’re buying into you as people—just as much as your portfolio or ideas. No one wants to work with people they don’t gel with, like, or trust. It’s a nightmare for both sides, and there’s no way that the best possible work will emerge from it.

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“We often hear, 'you can do anything, but don’t touch the logo!' Sometimes, touching the logo is the key to unlocking the entire brand architecture."

By forming strong relationships with the client across the board from the get-go, it’s clear we’re all working towards a common goal. It shouldn’t feel like we’re battling from different sides, and the client should implicitly trust that you’re simply striving for the best possible result. That way, when "difficult" conversations happen, they suddenly aren’t so difficult. 

It can be easy to feel nervous and flustered when discussing tricky challenges along the way, but the main thing is to remember we’re all just people trying to do a great job! Once you demonstrate that you’re thinking about their business—that brand’s future success—everything else follows much more easily.

We’re not just there to make things look pretty, though naturally, the work should look great. We’re there to help solve problems to make the business more powerful and successful in the long term. The thing clients don’t want to hear suddenly becomes the thing they really do want—and need—to hear. 

After all, it’s the concept, idea, or strategy that will be best for their brand and make them look amazing at their job. Keep that in mind, and delivering the news they didn’t realize they wanted becomes a no-brainer.