There isn’t a lot I know about working with clients that I didn’t learn from Hall & Oates.
Whether it’s interpreting qualitative research results (“Out of Touch”), negotiating production budgets (“Rich Girl”), or knowing when to turn down opportunities that just don’t fit our particular skill sets (“I Can’t Go for That”), the poets of Philadelphia have quite a few business insights to pass along.
But perhaps the best advice Daryl and John ever offered was on the subject of collaboration, as featured in the 1983 hit single, “One on One.” Sure, on the surface, this is a song about a man who’s tired of playing the field, and his attempts to woo a particular woman. (The song also features a persistent sports analogy that I assume was included to keep the male half of the Hall & Oates audience engaged.)
But if you look past the specifics and focus on the bigger picture, what they’re really saying is that the best client-agency relationships are collaborative. And collaboration requires intimacy, honesty, courage and lots of idea generation sessions at a big whiteboard. I may be projecting the last bit.
When I think of the times I’ve had the best collaborative experiences with clients, it’s easy to focus on those that truly were “One on One”—two minds with two very different perspectives solving a tough problem. Those are clean, simple memories to process.
The reality, however, is that virtually all of our client engagements include more than one client opinion holder/decision maker. Sometimes it’s just a few, sometimes it’s more. Once, it was 72 stakeholders. Yeah, fun.
So, the obvious question: How do you establish a connection with a conference room full of people? Well, you don’t.
In our world, in order for two creatives to successfully concept a new ad campaign or content platform, they need to trust each other. They need to be able to share bad ideas, build on interesting kernels, and have the audacity to take concepts further—all without bruising egos or annoying the shit out of each other. This is hard.
Doing this with a client who’s not used to working this way with agency partners is even more so. Which is why most agencies spend a lot of time talking about collaboration, all while the real ideas are being generated back at the agency.
But a few years ago, we realized the best ideas (the ones we felt were the most interesting, the hardest working, the most extendable, and, frankly, the most likely to see the light of day) were the ones the client had a hand in creating. So we’ve spent quite a few years figuring out how to guide people who don’t wear flip-flops and shorts every day to the office in generating interesting, authentic brand stories.
The truth is, however, that the people most suited to do this are the ones running the business (CXOs, board members, founders, entrepreneurs). But the other (71?) folks need to be involved, heard, and understood, too.
Now, I don’t want this to sound patronizing. But just as these people serve a particular function within their organization, they also serve a particular role in how a brand’s story gets articulated. It may not be as fundamental a role, but it’s often crucial to validating any ideas, understanding the realities, and, of course, generating buy-in across the organization.
So, in addition to intimacy and openness and a lot of other Hall & Oates-ian stuff, it also takes planning, coordination, and organization.
None of which sounds fun, I know. But what most creatives fail (or just don’t want) to understand is that developing the idea is only half the battle. Actually, it’s probably more like one-tenth.
Brand stories turn into something tangible within an organization, not when people understand a concept, but when they believe it. And belief is not rational. It’s emotional. The larger team—all 72 of them, if need be—needs to feel personally connected to it. Individually engaged. Intimately associated.
One on one.