Wear your client’s shoes

This is follow-up blog post to one Jaime wrote yesterday about getting under the skin of a client’s business to really understand their market, background, aspirations and indeed worries. It’s something I’ve done throughout my career and it’s the best way to truly understand what the heck is going on in their world. And here’s a new business tip: it shows huge dedication on the agency’s part and breaks down any them/us barriers. Here are three of my most valuable ‘work experience’ instances.

1. Police Service of Northern Ireland

I was lucky enough to be the Creative Director of an agency that had the Police Service of Northern Ireland as a client. In fact, we launched the new name of the force in the face of political and public opposition. But we did some decent work, won a few awards and really enjoyed the experience. They were one of those dream clients that say ‘well you’re the experts, we’ll go with what you recommend’. Heaven. I think part of their attitude was due to the fact that we volunteered to go out on patrol with their officers to see exactly what the job entailed. Art Director Mark Black (now a CD at London’s Dare Digital) and myself climbed into the back of patrol cars all round NI to get a taster of life as a PC. It was a fascinating experience. We watched drug deals being done; officers being abused; got trained how to use car theft ‘Stinger’ devices and were reluctant passengers in a car chase with armed robbers. When we went back to the agency to do the creative we were pumped full of adrenaline and ideas. I’m still really proud of that work we produced.

2. Waste Collection

As a freelance involved a pitch process for a waste collection and management service I volunteered to go out with the collection lorries and work as a bin man for two days. The knowledge I gained and the respect it garnered from the desk-bound client was instrumental in winning the business. And to this day, my high-visibility jacket hangs proudly in my shed.

3. Call Centre

There’s nothing as enlightening as listening in to a client’s out-bound sales calls. This is the coal face. The pointy end of customer relationships. As much as we like to believe we know what people are thinking and how they behave, this is where you find out what’s what. Forget ‘focus groups’ and quantitative research, when you hear real people caught in the midst of their real lives you get a very clear sense that what we do is very low on their list of priorities. Sitting at home, watching telly, you never hear consumers in their own house telling your ad to ‘get stuffed’. That’s why we need to be as relevant as possible in everything we produce. I was lucky enough to work on the BT advertising account for 10 years and learned a lot listening in on Call Centre conversations. Not just about BT, but about people in general.

Some clients are enlightened enough to build this thinking into their induction process when they hire a new agency. Honda, for one. Their ‘Dipped In Red’ two day programme is an intensive and steep learning curve where you visit one of their factories, their design team and their other agencies.

So if you have a garden centre client, spend a day amongst the plants. A taxi client? Get out there and drive for them. I’m still trying to persuade our Barclays Premiership footballer clients to let me play alongside them and our PGA Tour golf client to make up his fourball. At least I’ve caddied for him though. That’s a start.


Mike Fleming

Mike is a multi-award winning copywriter and brand strategist. He has over 20 years’ experience writing TV commercials and online films, press advertising, corporate branding and website content. In 2010 he was voted the UK’s most recommended copywriter in an industry client and peer poll and this year was listed in the world’s Top 100 SEO copywriters by Forbes.com contributor, Robert Kim.