What’s Wrong With Chartreuse? 7 Tips For Negotiating Awful Creative Input

Can you imagine a patient blurting this out as they’re getting wheeled into surgery?

“You know, Doctor, I know you say it’s my left kidney that has to come out, but…and bear with me here…what if we went with the spleen, instead?”

Doctors don’t usually have to put up with their customers trying to micromanage them.

But a lot of people (not always clients, either) have the notion that “everyone is creative,” so they wind up pissing off creatives.

As I explain it to them, in as friendly and restrained a voice as I can muster…

  1. It’s not a given that everyone is creatively talented. No, I don’t know your 12-year-old well enough to judge, but why were you showing him storyboards for an ED treatment :30 in the first place?
  2. Most “creativity” is honed by years of training and experience. I’m sure you write a bitchin’ deal memo or PowerPoint, but that doesn’t mean you can work up an effective squeeze page.
  3. We’re talking about marketing here, about arousing audience response based on strategy, insights and best practices…so it’s moot what shade of chartreuse your wife says the website should be.

There are other motivations at work, too.

In college, we had a lecturer come in who was an account SVP at DDB, as I recall, and he gave a fabulous explanation of why clients muddle and meddle in creative decisions:

“You’re the most exciting part of their day. They spend hours and days trying to shave a few pennies off the price of packaging, or figuring out logistics, or humoring distributors. They’d LOVE to do what you’re doing. So don’t be surprised when they try doing it with you.”

Nowadays, as the lines get blurred, as the industry shuffles and brands and companies take more of their strategy, branding and marketing supervision in-house, creatives find themselves being shunted into the role of “vendor” more often. So you might find yourself being held in lower regard by clients. Or being eyeballed among a gaggle of lesser talents who happened to have a few stars on Elance and a cheapo rate.

So it’s likely that pushback parties are going to be a bigger fact of creative life than ever. How to deal with them?

How to manage the meddling

I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of clients who are hands-off, or who appreciate our respective roles. Much of that is because they’ve got too much damn work too much of the time. Upon occasion, I’ve even had to natter and nag to get feedback.

But I’ve still got to navigate situations where the people I’m working with are very hands-on, insistent on bad choices, or ask for endless revisions in search of a holy grail of a final idea only they can recognize.

How can a creative deal with this?

  1. Don’t have that relationship in the first place. If you’re a freelancer, especially, and you’ve got the latitude to walk away…then walk away. If you’ve been a professional long enough, you know the signs of a problematic client.
  2. Set limits. Tell them they only get a certain number of rounds of revision, for instance, unless they want to pay more.
  3. Grin and bear it. Hey, think about the money. Learn to let go…and don’t put the work in your portfolio.
  4. Learn how to rationally present creative work. A lot of creatives are miserable at presenting creative. Even with pretty trimmings and word-perfect pitchmanship, there’s something missing much of the time: a seemingly linear rationale for creative decisions.  Have a factually-based answer when the client asks, what’s wrong with chartreuse? “Because it looks better!” or “because I’m the one with an MFA, dude!” won’t cut it. Most clients are required to think in linear terms, to juggle numbers and facts as the grist of their daily grind. So present your work with rational underpinnings, based on insights, or quanta, or established best practices, or whatever grounding you can provide, even if it’s made up. The very fact you’re putting it in “hard” terms can be reassuring to the spreadsheet-pounders who walk among us.
  5. Try client management. Keep your eye on the long term, not the hiccups or frustrations involved in a single review or project. If you develop the patience to listen, nod, respond attentively, do the occasional horsetrading or show you’ve taken their input into consideration as you play it back during the next round (“You mentioned chartreuse, and I’ll show you chartreuse, but chartreuse inspired a new direction…”), you’ll very often bring them along to your point of view. Or budge them a little closer.
  6. Wear their shoes. They’re putting their business or job on the line and spending real money, usually not their own, on a leap of faith, because that’s what every truly good piece of creative work actually is, isn’t it? Being able to show empathy for how it works on their side of the desk will go a long way toward getting them on yours, and trusting in your genius.
  7. Be unceasingly brilliant. Don’t lose faith in yourself, even after compromise rears its ugly chartreuse head. Make it the best trophy-wife-approved website ever launched – as hard as that might be – because it’s basic professionalism, and you’ll feel better for being a pro.  Then go back at them again with new work that’s better than anything they’ve seen before, because that’s part of being a pro, too.



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