Clients from Hell? We Got ‘Em

Clients from hell?

Do all industries include at least some “clients from hell”? Apparently so. The Twitter feed Clients From Hell (@clientsfh) asked followers if any specific industries had a higher percentage of bad or difficult-to-work-with clients. Answers covered nearly all industries, from small government agencies to real estate, retail, banking, law firms, tourism, non-profits… even house painters. One respondent to this very informal poll reported that working as a subcontractor to another freelancer was an awful experience.

Yes, people in the advertising and design industry, including freelancers, can share plenty of client-from-hell stories. 

The ad business is awash in iconic stories like those of vintner Ernest Gallo, who made the life of Advertising Hall of Famer Hal Riney (and a host of agencies and creative who preceded Hal) so difficult. And we get calls…! Agency principals frequently vent to us about problematic clients, often involving clients who patently do not trust the agency’s recommendations; see themselves as having better creative ideas than the agency team; or can’t spare the time to meet and discuss a project—but always finds the time to berate the agency for the work not being on target.

A leading cause of agency-client friction is second-guessing agency proposals. Why do businesses hire marketing professionals, only to argue against, countermand or ignore their recommendations? Such behavior speaks to the lack of respect most businesspeople have for marketing in general, and highlights that many ad agency leaders are at not good at demonstrating and promoting the value we bring to businesses.

Despite our best advice with regard to managing difficult accounts, agencies keep running into clients from hell. The trick is to spot those you will never be able to manage or educate, and know when to avoid engagement, or cut your losses. Following are some of the client-from-hell indicators you should watch out for.

How to Separate the Possibly-Reformable from the No-Hopers

The Scope Creepers. – They agree to scope but then exceed it, adding, editing and generally ignoring the estimate and scope of work. They won’t ignore the much higher bill, of course.

The Quick and Dirties– They put all emphasis on project size and time needed, not on value. “You can do this overnight, right?”

The Easy Peasies– What you do is of no value whatsoever, because really, anyone could do this. So “you aren’t gonna charge me for this, are you? I was gonna ask my nephew to bang this out, but he had homework…”

The Penny Pinchers– They aren’t really concerned with the value or goals so much as the cost. Cost-focused clients will never see you as anything but an expense, a commodity… and therefore interchangeable with any other agency.

The Read-My-Minders– They avoid input meetings, give vague input, and “don’t like” ideas but can’t explain why. They mention campaigns or ads they liked, but then can’t detail what they liked, or its relevance to the project they want you to do for them. They are infallibly upset when you don’t deliver exactly what they had in mind.

The Wanna-Be-Creatives– These frustrated creative people hire an agency, then insist on your developing their ideas, even if these fly in defiance of research, customer knowledge, your team’s best recommendations, and the stated objectives of the project. When their idea fails to deliver the desired results, they ask you why you didn’t talk them out of it. “What do I pay you guys for?” What indeed…

The Deferred Payers– They want the deliverables as fast as you can produce them… but sure take their time about paying the bill. Seek partial payment up front, or use phased payments. Insist on final payment on delivery. Or, build extra cost into the estimate to help cover the payment delays. (We call this the “aggravation factor” on our Pricing Template.)

The Agency Churners– How many other agencies have they burned through before hiring you? If they can’t work with all of those other firms, expect that they’ll decide the same about you very quickly. Better to not even get involved, unless you can get paid in full at delivery.

The Crowdsourcers – They equate any amateur’s work as equivalent to your professional expertise, skill and talent. They really want something for free, or “the exposure” for the artist/designer. Run very fast in the opposite direction. 

The Googlers– they didn’t come to you because they know your reputation, your work, had a recommendation or saw your content online. They just googled “ad agencies” and are going down the list until they find a new sucker to twist into knots.

The Always-In-a-Rushies– Notorious procrastinators who turn up needing every project overnight… but who get upset if you levy overtime or rush charges. They’re also often entirely unappreciative when you get the job done. And expect it even faster next time.

The Trend Hoppers– Every new trend that comes down the marketing pike is something “we gotta try.” Your recommendations and counsel are unwanted; all that matters is that the marketing makes him/her look “cool” before his/her superiors. And if the tactic is ineffective, the agency gets the blame.

We’re sure most agencies could add a few more types to this list. Ultimately, clients from hell are part of our business. We either learn to manage and re-educate them, or we learn to steer clear of them. Know what you’re getting into, and work hard to be their marketing angels. They just may be redeemable.

See also: 

Cleaning House: How to Resign an Account

Know When It’s Time to Resign an Account