Let me tell you about a client from hell.

When I was employed in a small ad agency, we were working on a packaging project for a big company. The project was a test for our agency, to impress this very important client and prove ourselves in an industry we coveted but in which we were inexperienced.

We spent a lot of time working on concepts for the package, with dozens, perhaps hundreds of different directions, variations, and sub-variations. When the time came to present, we whittled our selection down to our best ones and put them in the deck. 

Our job as creative professionals is not making things, but guiding the people we make stuff for through the creative process. This guide mindset takes us away from desperate, starving artists to empowered and empowering collaborators.

Finally, presentation day came. We passed around printouts of the concepts to everyone at the meeting. We had intended to go through each one by one. What happened next shocked us. With printouts in hand, she quickly shuffled through the pages, throwing each one to the floor as she said, “No … Nope … Uh-uh … Not this one …” You’re probably thinking exactly what I thought at the time: Who does that? 

It was like a really bad reality TV show. It was unbelievably rude.

We had poured so much into the work, and she didn’t even try to be civil about her disappointment. Surely, a reasonable and constructive conversation could have come out of the meeting. Instead, she completely disrespected us and disregarded our efforts. To my surprise, the others sitting around the table just sat there and took it. I had to bite my tongue so hard I almost swallowed it. I remember thinking that if she were my direct client, I would have fired her on the spot. And given her a piece of my mind.

I realized something important that day. The people I worked for were constantly in a state of fear of their clients. They feared pushing back or saying no for fear that they’d lose their business. This fear mindset permeated so much of how we operated as a creative company. In hindsight, I can see why I constantly felt like I had to fight my own team where it came to championing good creative work.

From that moment on, I resolved never to work under a fear mindset. I don’t care who a client is or how much money they have. I believe the creative process is very vulnerable and needs to be protected in order to work out. It’s collaborative and service-oriented, but it has boundaries that must be respected in order to work properly. When these boundaries are under threat, it’s my job to defend them.

Illustration by Tom Froese

It’s not really on the client to know instinctively where these boundaries lie, though. The creative process is different for everyone, and it is our job as creatives to guide our clients through it. This is part of a more empowered mindset. Creatives with an empowered mindset come to the table as equals. We don’t just take orders and make stuff. We are stewards of unique strengths and talents that we use to help others. We guide them through the magic and mystery of the creative process. It’s never easy at the beginning of our careers, but as we grow in strength and experience, we begin to understand what we need in order to do our job. And once we know what we need, we can start designing a process and way of working with clients that gives space for these needs.

Our job as creative professionals is not making things, but guiding the people we make stuff for through the creative process. This guide mindset takes us away from desperate, starving artists to empowered and empowering collaborators. When we see ourselves in this light, believe it, and act on it, our clients will too.

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