Knowing when to use the N-word with clients.

One of the most important lessons of 2013 was one I’ve learned over and over again. It’s a simple lesson, but doing it can be the difference between steering clear of danger and disaster. Here it is: Know when to use the “n-word” with clients.

Yeah, I said it. The “n-word.”

Now that i’ve gotten your attention, let me put this in context.

Early summer I was contacted by a very articulate prospect about a potential business relationship on Linkedin. I responded with thanks as usual, and we spoke at length by phone about the work needed for a business idea he and his partner (a family member) had. In his initial email, he seemed very clear on his business idea and stated the budget. Without any specifics, the stated budget for the items needed was fair enough. I had the product launch, digital and strategic experience relevant to get the job done. The client was very formal, called my references and spoke at length with 3 of them. After 2 weeks of vetting, the prospect communicated to me that my details checked out and that he was ready to meet.

I hopped on the train out of the city for the 45min trek and when I got there signed an NDA. He and his business partner then took me to a pretty expensive dinner and explained the business idea. It was terrible. I asked a few questions, one of which was about the business plan. The reply was that, “the business Idea was so simple that it didn’t need one.” This is when my red flags started going off. I should have halted everything right here, and used the “n-word.” Hindsight is 20/20.

I reasoned that I could help by benchmarking the company he had based his idea on and explain why it worked for them and therefore why it wouldn’t work for him. From there, I could then give him the tools to tweak his offering and develop something original that would work. So I proposed that, wrote a proposal and ensured that he would be able to determine viability from my research. I’m always clear that I’ll make recommendations, but the client will be making the decisions. We agreed on my rate, signed the agreement, I did the research and presented it at another expensive dinner. At slide 10 of 96 during the presentation, I could read the body language but wasn’t sure it if was impatience or confusion and asked for any questions. Our small discussion revealed a bit of both. He wanted me to just tell him what to do and trusted that if I did, we could be done with the presentation. This felt a bit like trust but much more like the expectation that he had paid me to write a business plan. I assured him of the value in his understanding the viability research and the strategic tools I was presenting and continued. Something felt weird but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

It was my intention to move on having helped the client determine a lack of viability, and having given them the tools to reach viability in exchange for a fourth of the overall budget. Win win. Some time would pass before the entrepreneurs called again ready to move forward and hire me to launch their brand. In my mind, they had taken the time to incorporate and tweak their idea with the 96 slide presentation I delivered. I drew up a contract and after a month of back and fourth on details in 64 emails, (that included: what was and what was not offered in the agreement, what was and what was not a part of my expertise and even an option to have me project manage a cheaper team that wasn’t mine, which I declined) and a check, we signed on to do the project.

I completed the first milestone on the schedule of the signed agreement, a creative brief, as per the signed agreement. I was 5 minutes into the presentation, when something strange happened. The client stopped me mid-presentation and said, “Douglas, we are really disappointed in what we are seeing, we thought that we would be farther along than this.” I was blindsided. In the following conversation, I began to understand that after, vetting me, paying me for a viability study, taking three weeks before contacting me again, 65 emails to clarify the subsequent agreement over 3 weeks and a 40% deposit to start the job, these guys didn’t read the contract, recognize or understand anything that they paid me to do. After all the explaining over expensive dinners, several presentations and green lights, we were still here. All of this could have been avoided if at first sign of serious red flags, I had just used the “n-word.”

I should have simply said, “no.”

There are two morals in this lesson. 1) We have to listen to ourselves when there is internal hesitation because it is best to avoid some situations all together. And lastly, If you are 65-emails-for-clarification clear, and still have a miscommunication then 2) No has to mean no, even when you’re telling it to yourself.

Happy New Year


Omg. We Graduated, Now What?

Congratulations! You’ve earned a square hat and robe. You struggled through statistics or pretty much every math class (but you passed). You stayed awake in that eight o’clock class you didn’t want to take. You checked all the boxes. You made it past Professor Fill-in-tha-Blank to finish your portfolio in time. All so that you could pursue your love of Advertising. Though the days of cramming for the test in those all-nighters are over, something still makes you uneasy about the future. You’ve had a ton of reoccurring questions, like:

“Can I compete?” 

“Will I even get a job?” 

“Is my work strong enough to land at a good agency?” 

“Who can I contact on the inside to get to the right people?”

Let’s just say it, you’re AFRAID. Why? There are too many reasons that cause for the FEAR to list, so I won’t. However, I’ll give one comment and one encouragement I read to each of my classes on the last day.

Here’s the comment: Commencement isn’t the end, its the beginning (hence the term). Therefore the first day of school begins, the day you graduate and now have to make the sacrifices I mentioned above earn your living. Specifically, you know its graduation day when you have to take the things in your head and make them pay for your food, rent, clothing, transportation (you get it). Sure, they gave you a piece of paper with your name on it, but that wasn’t enough to make the doubts go away. Yeah, you have another line item on your resume now that says you’re a graduate from your university. These were all necessary steps to getting started but, no one has ever asked me to see my master’s degrees. In a field where they’ll hire the dog if his portfolio is better than yours, they’re only interested in what you can do.

So take it from me, the only thing you can really use is what you have in your head. Begin by acknowledging that the FEAR is there, take a deep breath, and get off to school. Sure, that FEAR will go with you, but it can’t stop you from trying (unless you let it).

Now for the encouragement. Think of it as a note from your parents in your lunchbox.

Parting wisdom for students.

I’ve enjoyed seeing all of you accept the challenge to grow at your individual rates. I’m extremely proud of you all, but understand that the hardest work starts now.

Think about this: What will you do when you don’t have to do anything? What kind of work will you do when there is no one pushing you? Will you use the time to explore when there aren’t any deadlines, or when there isn’t anyone familiar with design challenging you? Will you really seek the ideas past your first few and then develop each idea as many times as it takes? What you do will determine how well you do this, and in that choice lies the difference between a job and a passion.

Will you go for the instant praise with mediocre work, or will you continue to go through the process for yourself? Will you continue to explore and reach to surpass your best effort every time? Will you continue to seek answers through research, thus choosing to grow instead of reinventing the wheel? Will you step up to the plate and compete to raise your own standard and level of work? Will you desire to keep yourself sober by raising your tolerance for direction and criticism. Will you really seek to separate yourself from the work and view critical thinking and verbal critique as something crucial to your survival in this profession. Will you commit yourself to expanding your knowledge of strategy and thus growing to meet the needs of your clients?

Understand that I taught you ‘my way’, but the creative process is ‘the way’. Designing to the problem leads to an outcome but the process of creating doesn’t end. I’ve enjoyed giving you all I have and I hope it’s benefited you. I’ve learned the most over time from my friends whether they were my professors, peers or colleagues; that’s why I try to reach you as friends. I want you to understand that because I learn and benefit from you as well.

Remember that your learning environments are the purest form of creativity, take advantage of them in whatever form, school, or job they come in. You aren’t here to do what is acceptable in the real world now, you’ll do enough of that when the time comes, you are here to explore and define what can be possible in the future.

Use what you have.