The graveyard account

The graveyard account

“The Graveyard Account.” That’s what we called it. Every marketing agency has a one. It’s the client that no one wants to work for.

Which was a problem for me as creative director, because I was responsible deciding who worked on which accounts. Persuading someone to work on the graveyard account involved pleading, cajoling and bribery in equal measure.

But there was one graveyard account that bucked this trend, and taught me a valuable and humbling lesson about being a creative director in the process. This particular client sold office phone systems. The product was boring. The sales channel was complicated. And their budgets were always tight.

Whenever we presented new creative ideas, these clients would make so many changes that in the end our designs looked exactly like what we’d done before. They would say they preferred to stick with “what worked”. The entire agency was demotivated as a result. And as it turns out, the clients were not happy either. They felt they were not getting our best work, and were considering putting their account out to pitch.

It was at this point, through luck rather than judgement, that I made a decision which changed everything. Within six months, the graveyard account was to become the agency’s most profitable and award winning client.

It all started with a simple “please take one” leaflet. I needed someone to design it, and the team that usually worked on the graveyard account were already booked. So I asked a new recruit, Julie, to take it on instead. Julie hadn’t yet heard all the stories about “the graveyard”. And I wasn’t about to warn her.

So, filled with optimistic enthusiasm for her new account, Julie started reading the sales literature and thinking about phone systems. She called up a couple of her favourite photographers and discussed visual approaches. She talked to her husband who was an illustrator and got him to do some sketches. She put together mood boards of vibrant ideas, presenting a business phone system as if it was a fashion brand.

The rest of us just watched and shook our heads. We’d been here before and knew that this would never fly. Not only had these clients never commissioned original photography before, but they had even balked at the cost of using budget stock photography. Julie’s ideas were too expensive, too ambitious and… well… just too different.

But Julie was full of passion and excitement about the project, and even insisted on accompanying the account handlers to the client meeting to present her ideas personally. This was unheard of. The client’s drab offices were in a depressing industrial estate out in the suburbs. Creatives never wanted to go there. That’s what the suits were for.

Julie’s presence, her passion and personality brightened up an otherwise dull meeting. The clients were silent as she outlined her vision. Instead of picking her ideas apart as they usually did, they asked questions, trying to understand what she was proposing. I think it was so different to what they were used to that they couldn’t think of anything to say at first. Instead there was stunned silence. They needed time to reflect.

The senior client took a liking to Julie, however, and invited her to lunch. They immediately hit it off, and as a personal connection was established, the client’s confidence and trust in Julie grew. A few days later, they called to give us the go ahead on Julie’s leaflet design, including the photoshoot. And the budget for this shoot alone was more than the client had spent with us in the last twelve months.

These clients, who had previously had only very limited budgets, suddenly found plenty of money out of thin air. For Julie. For her shoot. For her vision for their brand.

And so Julie got to work. Casting models. Booking stylists. Scouting locations. Briefing makeup artists. Negotiating usage rights. And all the time, she was on the phone to the clients, involving them in all the fun and glamorous details. On the day of the shoot, she invited the clients along. With Julie at the helm, a photoshoot had all the lustre of a Hollywood film set. The clients had a whale of a time.

From that one “small” project, we went on to pick up the brief for relaunching this client’s entire brand portfolio. Something they had not previously been planning, let alone budgeted for. Not until Julie’s leaflet designs inspired them.

…And I was left reeling. The graveyard account had suddenly become our most exciting and most profitable client. One that all of my creative teams wanted to work on. But what had just happened? Had I got it all completely wrong before Julie came along?

Well, yes and no. It’s true that the client would previously never try anything new. And its also true that they had always claimed poverty before. But somehow, along the way, we’d given up. We were no longer giving them good reasons to find more budget.

It was then I realised what I should have known all along. When incumbent agencies lose accounts, they typically complain that the newly appointed agency is allowed to do things that they were never “allowed to do.” As if clients give agencies permission to be creative.

This framing of the client-agency relationship as a static thing where clients brief agencies and agencies respond within the confines of what the brief allows is flawed. It’s a dangerous illusion. Relationships are dynamic. They’re always changing, and they are a two way thing. Agencies influence clients and clients influence agencies all the time. As a result, perceptions and assumptions of what is possible arise on both sides. And they can build up like dust, clogging the pathways of creativity and innovation. Julie had reinvigorated the relationship by blowing all the dust away and showing us and our clients a shiny world of new possibilities.

It wasn’t just her ideas that were new. She showed us new ways of building relationships and trust as well. She showed the clients how they could get involved in the creative process and how much fun that was. She showed our account handlers how easily relatable and likeable our clients were, when you got to know them. And most of all, she showed us the leadership that we all needed to find a way forward.

Julie taught me that there’s no such thing as a graveyard account. Like any relationship, a client relationship is a two-way street. You get out what you put in. It may seem obvious, and of course, in a way it is. But it is surprising how in a professional context, when we get too close to a problem, our vision gets clouded by all the dust.

Photo credit: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-4.0