(Very) Short Treaty on Observing Clients – by Sorin Tranca

I read Mr. Tranca’s article and I resonated with some of the situations described there. Not with all of them though. I guess we were lucky (I’m talking about us, Branzas) or we just happened to work with the right customers, with whom we had a real partnership. But the article is a good one, Mr. Tranca is someone who admires thorough and well-done work, I liked reading it, and that’s why I try to pass on his impressions. Like Mr. Tranca, I am a fan of entrepreneurship, I’m involved in my work, I’m responsible and solution-oriented, no matter what type of client-company relationship we’re talking about. Documentation, research and structured information are the basis of any project.

(Very) Short Treaty on Observing Clients
by Sorin Tranca
Published in iQuads

“We have enough examples of Romanian companies that are monopolising their particular market (some examples are given in Andrea Rosca and Mona Dartu’s book), as we have many examples of local brands that are in fact financially supported by foreign capital (as to the top 100 strongest Romanian brands, less than 1/2 are 100% locally financed), because they accept this local vs. multinational division.

On the other hand, as long as they are set here in Romania, set up as limited liability companies, all companies are seen as “Romanian companies”, therefore they are considered local. I would not divide customers into local or multinational, but into entrepreneurial companies and non-entrepreneurial companies.

So, I will continue to refer to this division, which seems to me to be more appropriate than the terms “local” vs. “multinational” (where the risk of generalisation is high and not entirely productive).

I have seen multinationals in which the level of involvement and initiative clearly exceeds that of their average local competitors, as I have also met many “locals” who have reached maturity or have become lazy (generally after becoming successful).

So, the pitches organised by entrepreneurial companies are more pleasant and more transparent in regards to the questions you ask in order to understand their business problem, questions for which you get real, pleasing and interesting answers. You have the feeling that you are there because you are needed, not because someone has to tick off 8 hours of work a day or hide their incompetence.

Example: A few years ago, I participated in a big creative pitch in retail with a market leader. After the briefing, 2-3 questions in, a marketing director who was very convinced of his God-sent special mission on this earth answered me and said that “if he had known the answers to these questions, he would have solved the problem himself and he would not have needed to call us”.

I asked one or two more questions afterwards, out of politeness, but I was once again struck by the gentleman’s self-sufficiency and it was clear to me that I only arrived there to be a tick on a pitch list register, that nothing was expected of us. Today, the company, a former successful local enterprise, is a small company that was bought for nearly nothing after bankruptcy.

Considering how well I know my colleagues; I am part of the minority of creative people who are big fans of research and consumer understanding. In entrepreneurial companies, this is much more clearly used as a tool of knowledge, while in the other types of companies its role is management and risk management. And guess what? A paradox: bigger budgets, with potentially poorer results.

Example: I participated in focus groups several times, groups in which the number of participants was less than or equal to the number of people working for the client + the agency who had worked on the elaboration of the paper in question. I ask you: how much right do 12 “consumers”, who are neither designers, nor communication or marketing strategists, have to change the work of 12 or more fairly experienced people? It does not seem fair to me to listen to the consumer as if they know it all, and to ignore the specialist. In the event that this is the situation you’re dealing with.
Listen, I’m not saying I don’t believe in research. I like the way in which it is sometimes used.

And the communication requirements are, in general, much better articulated when the company thinks entrepreneurially, when it is open to solutions, not focused on ticking something off on a piece of paper. I would also add that nowadays communication is certainly no longer standard and that in the 3rd millennium the advertising solution could be just as well a TV spot or a mobile application.

I think we live in a difficult time, I think that for the first time in the history of advertising we are not dealing with something we can see clearly (TV, radio, outdoors, etc.) and that this is where encounter another shortcoming; the preconceived opinions of some decision makers who do not understand consumers (maybe even because they are from a different segment of the population than them) is one of the biggest sources of turbulence and inefficiency. Simply put, there are customers who want to buy something that does not solve their problem, but insist on it, because “it worked very well 10 years ago”.

Example: 3 years ago I went to a pitch at a winery and, after the second slide, the one in which I indicated who is the most profitable consumer for a brand that deals with problems (which also resulted in some solutions for choosing distribution channels) they told me they don’t like these solutions and that they don’t want to have clients this posh.

I’m still sorry that I didn’t close my computer in that exact moment and go out the door, thus losing almost another week trying to discuss strategies with them. They chose another agency in the end, one which told them whatever they wanted to hear. The last time I looked at the wine shelf in a store, the brand in question was on permanent promotion (3 at the price of 2) and at a price well below their competition at the time of the pitch. In the meantime, the brand may have even “become extinct”.

I recommend to all employers and CEOs to build a marketing team that is completely compatible with the consumer that their brand targets. Under no circumstances should marketers or brand managers dislike or look down on their consumer.

In terms of strategy, a good agency is not just about communication or creative ideas. When a discussion takes place, a good agency looks at the business as a whole, its progression, and, especially, at their available resources. What is a strategy, if not the shortest, most effective way to achieve a business goal?

Example: A few years ago, I participated in a pitch on a multinational client’s brand, which explicitly asked us for a “creative concept” to launch a brand extension on a crowded market (say, for the sake of privacy, that a low-cost shampoo brand wanted to enter a more competitive, more specialised hair conditioner market).

An honest (and, most of all, free) strategic analysis led us to the conclusion that the best conclusion is to recommend to the client not to take this step, because he will lose money, since he would undermine his initial position through this exposure. Irritated, the client told us that this doesn’t concern us and that our job is to come up with a good creative idea. I refused to enter the pitch. Another agency did it. Today, after spending hundreds of thousands in vain and eventually withdrawing from that market, the original brand is delisted from most stores.

Because this is my main thing I do and I am good at, I argue (I will probably upset my colleagues) that when it comes to creativity, the most important asset is discernment, not talent. There is this preconception that a creative individual can work wonders just with ideas and talent. This is true up to a point. Creation is a knife: sometimes it’s dull, sometimes it’s sharp. If you use it to spread butter on bread, it doesn’t matter much. But if you press it in too hard, hurrying to solve all your business problems this way, you cut your hand. Who is to blame, the knife or the one who uses it? To be reflected.

I think that a client with an entrepreneurial mindset can benefit more from a competent creative person, because they are more prepared to take certain risks. And any new, bold idea, since time immemorial, has a certain degree of risk.

As for “freedom” or “restrictions” in creation, I believe that the only ones who can give legitimate answers are the consumer, the sector in which you work or your competition. Paradoxically, I don’t believe in clients who give you freedom. If you are a mature creative person, freedom is the greatest possible responsibility. I would like to see the “creative freedom” lawyers guarantee the success of a campaign paying for it from their own income.

I think it is very important for readers to understand (especially if they are also customers) that production budgets are those amounts of money that an agency does not spend in its own interest, but in the interest of the project. This money is not to be touched, basically; it is the money with which a painter would buy paint, a builder would buy floorboard, and a cook gizzard. And there is another very important aspect, that of imagined confidentiality or of dragging it out in order to buy some time, when we talk about this type of a budget. If something is left unsaid, it can create a series of chain disasters (adjustments, changes, returns to the original). Overbidding these budgets, however, is an even worse idea.

Example: I had a temporary (local) client who literally told me “money is not a problem, I have a million euros to spend on the spot, if I like your idea”. I left that meeting telling my partner that we were dealing with a liar and that I didn’t believe what he was saying, even if my colleague was very excited about this project.

Finally, after about 3 weeks of discussions and negotiations on an idea he liked, the client told me that “he has some friends that work on a television network, who can film the commercial in their free time for very little money and very professionally”. Coincidentally, we knew the owner of the television network, who paid us to film his commercials with professional production means, because the people working there did not know how. Never trust megalomaniacs. Also, creative freedom is only good for Mick Jagger, not the commercial creator.

I recommend all customers to say what their budget is clearly and openly. We no longer live in the time when we should be afraid of getting caught; no one runs away with the money. Moreover, now it is a good sign, a sign of competence, to be accurate and careful in spending customers’ money. It’s much better like this: you know what kind of stew you can make from scratch; you don’t waste your time coming up with creative recipes, all so that in the end you mix it all up in a bland soup just because the guests (consumers) are getting hungry. In addition, there are also simple budget control mechanisms, transparency means, procedures, filters.

I think that an entrepreneurial client is slower in making decisions than one who has a great inertia behind him, by sheer force of circumstances. But from my point of view, this is not the most valid way in which to differentiate between customers. I believe that we need to get the job done as quickly as possible, and feedback time has become a form of politeness that a client cultivates when working with the agency. By the way, we work so fast today that if you have 2-3 situations in which a customer delays feedback beyond what is expected, things just don’t work out.

And when it comes to transparency, I don’t believe in clients who don’t practice it. We live in a time when the first feedback responses appear a few hours or even minutes after the launch of a campaign. In addition, most actions related to the development of a campaign are perfectly measurable, so I really do not remember when was the last time there was no post-evaluation.

P.S.: All of the above reflect the opinion of a man who has been practicing this bloody sport called “advertising” for over 16 years. I may not have been completely balanced in what I wrote and it is very likely that my opinion has some subjective touches that do not fully reflect the reality that each of you experience.

I apologize if I hurt someone, colleagues or (former) partners, this was not my intention; my intention was conveying a more detailed analysis of the “customer” casework, for making people see what they can expect when dealing with a similar situation.