Driving from the back seat.

I’ve not worked as an advertising copywriter since June 2013.  I’m rather relieved about this.  A recent Twitter post about difficult clients reminded me why, so I dredged this out of my ‘drafts’ folder.  It’s a piece I wrote in March 2008 to try and illustrate why the traditional client/agency relationship in advertising was (and still is) screwed.

Imagine the scene…

Opens on a smart, glass-walled City lawyer’s office. Two people sit facing each other over a meeting table. They are lawyer and client.

Lawyer: “Now, Mr Client. Here’s the contract for the transaction. We’ve spent the last week working on it and it’s pretty much perfect. You’ll get the company, the buildings and the staff. They get £3.5m over five years, that’s what we agreed.”

Client: “Thanks – that’s great Mr Lawyer. Where do I sign?”

Now. Imagine another scene…

Opens on a smart, glass-walled advertising agency’s office. Two people sit facing each other over a meeting table. They are copywriter and client.

Designer: “Now, Mr Client. Here’s the copy and design for this year’s press ad campaign. We’ve spent the last week on it, tested it with customers and it’s pretty much perfect. You’ll get…”

Client (interrupting): “I don’t like green.”

Copywriter: “Sorry?”

Client: “I don’t like green. And we need a bigger picture of the product. And the copy isn’t ‘salesy’ enough. And… AAARRGGHHH!!!”

SFX: Agency bludgeoning client to death with a cafetiere.


I have seriously thought about introducing a £50 fine for each time a client says “I don’t like it.” I don’t actually CARE whether clients like or dislike the work we do (although it’s personally flattering when they do – which is very dangerous indeed).

What I care about is whether or not our work sells for our clients. I care whether or not it’s appropriate to the target market. I care whether or not it gets their message over clearly, simply and effectively. But I don’t give a stuff whether they like it or not.


Not because I’m an arrogant, stroppy ‘creative’, (not always, anyway) but because I give a damn about my clients’ work and its effectiveness. We spend all our time thinking about the people who buy from our clients, reading what they read, understanding how they think and use websites, printed material and ads. I’d like to think that, after (blimey!) nearly twenty years we’re OK at it.

Casual comments like the famous ‘make the logo bigger’ entail rather more than casual amounts of work; they’ll mean re-work and more work.  Vague requests like ‘can’t you make it a bit punchier?’ guarantee it.

Comments range from the reasoned and justified (“that ‘phone number’s wrong, you prune”) to the bizarre.  My all-time favourite was the client (now a senior at a high-street restaurant chain) who once told me to redraft a piece of writing completely because “I don’t like words that end in the letter Y.”

We don’t have a codified set of principles to fall back on in the same way lawyers can. The only way either of us is proved right is through the sales figures.  So I can’t prove to my mythical client that ‘punchy, salesy copy’ is about as appealing as being cornered at a party by someone who talks solidly about themselves unless they’ll let me test it against something that sounds like a human wrote it.

And, sadly, most clients don’t test.  They often don’t have time.  Sometimes it’s just too much bother in the JFDI, short deadline world of corporate marketing and advertising.  Instead, we plough on – one opinion butting against another.

And, slowly, as their work gets pecked to death, plenty of scribblers and designers stop giving a toss.  The expertise they’ve spent years researching, learning and testing to develop counts for very little against the determined onslaught of arbitrary but bill-paying opinion.

Clients get poorer work because of it too. This death-by-a-thousand-opinions approach creates a pecking cycle of work-amend-work until what started out as a sound Shire horse ends up as a limping, sad, three-legged donkey.

And, as people who see ads, we end up with poorer ads that, ironically, don’t sell. Because it’s not about the writer or the client being right – it’s about the customer buying something that keeps us all in business.

4 thoughts on “Driving from the back seat.

Add yours

    1. That’s a cracking good article! Reminds me of Jeremy Bullmore’s “Ten Tried and Tested Ways to Get The Worst From Your Agency.” Looks like I was wrong about clients and lawyers. So it’s down to us as the ‘professionals’ (I use that term advisedly in advertising because it’s a trade) to educate clients.

      Liked by 1 person

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