And a Nice Purple Suit, Please

Ah, the age old story. Creatives take a whole bunch of great work to an unappreciative client who tears through everything with a soul just because he doesn’t see that nasty idea he threw the creative team last week. He then demands a logo the size of Uranus (You heard me–Uranus) be plastered onto whatever dreck is left on the table. Crushed creatives subsequently stumble out of room, decide to throw selves off a bridge. They don’t, but mostly because they’re a bit peckish, and there’s a Five Guys nearby.

Okay, rockstar. You really want to know how to sell work to your client? Here it is. Give the client that purple suit he wants. You have no idea what I’m talking about, so here’s the story: Guy walks into a tailor’s shop. Tailor asks, “How can I help you, sir?” The would-be customer replies, “I want a purple suit so I’ll get noticed!” The tailor, appalled at his prospect’s lack of sophistication, quickly says, “Sir, I don’t think purple is the color you want. How about a beautiful navy?” The customer digs in, and says, “No, I think purple is good. Purple.” The tailor simply can’t let the customer do this to himself, so he pushes the issue further. “Sir, the purple will make people think you have no taste at all. You really should think about the navy.” The tailor’s heart is in the right place, of course, but the customer is now fuming. He says, “I’ll tell you what, partner, you keep both suits. I’m going down the street where I know they’ll sell me the purple suit I want!” The tailor is immediately sorry because of the loss of business, and also for the fact that the customer would turn out to be a new member in a purple suit gang, all of whom would later have custom purple suits made at the competition. That same gang would then make a regular habit of demanding “protection” money from the woeful tailor, but that’s another story.

You see the point, right? Here’s what the tailor should have done, instead: Customer says he wants a purple suit. Tailor knows the purple suit is a very bad idea, but is clever enough to also know that the customer is always right (yes, ad people – that cliche from a sign in the hardware store does indeed apply to our business). So the clever tailor, without missing a beat, says, “Of course sir. I have just the one.” He outfits the customer with requested purple suit, and then steps back so the guy can inspect the colorful marvel in the mirror. The tailor knows what’s about to happen, and it does. The customer realizes that his self-directed choice of suits was a lot better in theory than in reality. He looks like a pimp, and he knows it. Having no one to blame but himself, and being faced with shelling out six hundred bucks for this purple thing, he takes a step back. He turns to the tailor (who has intelligently avoided passing any judgement whatsoever), and says, “Well, of course I like it, but I’m not sure. What do you think?” This is the moment the tailor shines. His customer has actually asked for the expertise he should have trusted all along. The tailor ponders this request for a moment longer than actually necessary, then replies, “Yes, I see what you mean. The purple is bold, for sure. But I wonder how you’d look in navy? They’re both in the same blue family, after all. Shall we try one out?” The customer is now off the hook for his earlier snap decision, and quickly says, “Yes! That might be just the thing.” The tailor knows navy will be sharp, and it is. The second the customer is able to see himself in the navy suit and compare it to the train wreck purple of moments before, he’s sold. Not only that, but he considers the tailor a sage genius. Best of all, he’s been steered away from purple, which means he also passes up the opportunity to be a part of the Purple Suit Gang. One less person for the prison system to deal with later, which is a big bonus to taxpayers.

Get it? When you DENY your client what he or she wants, you’re being disagreeable. All creatives want respect for the thing we’re good at, but it’s earned and not freely given. Your client thinks a great deal of his or her own powers of advertising and marketing, which means you aren’t yet the acknowledged expert when you walk into the room (sorry to pop the bubble). The great part is that you can earn that position, simply by being a clever tailor. When your client believes you have respect for his or her ideas, you have a better shot at becoming a real confidant and partner in the thinking. Ding ding! This is how you move from “vendor” status to “partner” status. It’s also how you sell the work you want to sell. Very often, clients are eager to throw mandatory ideas your way (disguised as “thought starters”), but lose some nerve when they realize that the idea has been executed and it’s “all on them.”

By the way, you often won’t even have to fully execute the idea in question. Your client really just wants to be heard. He or she wants you to listen, and then willingly try to execute the idea. All you have to say to be in the right spot is, “Absolutely. We’ll put that one in the mix and bring a nice version of it back next time.” Be sure to be writing notes to yourself as you say this, because the client wants to know you hear loud and clear. Next meeting, begin with that very concept and elaborate on the exploration around it. No – “We tried it and didn’t like it”  – is not enough. Show some sketches, some art, some evidence of a real attempt at the concept. Show that you did NOT disregard the client’s wish. There’s an 85% chance the client will throw it overboard before you can, and then you can move forward to the good stuff.

I know this kind of acquiescent behavior goes against every fiber of your artistic, creative soul. After all, you’ve spent your career around other creatives who invariably scream, “Fight the good fight for the good work!” But what could it hurt to try this out? Warning: Sometimes, your client will choose the purple suit. He just has a thing for purple, and purple is perfect, by golly. You won’t win every time, but you will learn how to choose the right battles. Now go forth. And pretend to agree.

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