Keep the Best Coming Back: Customers & Creative Providers

By Fred Ashman

Keeping good customers, long term, is the goal of every organization. For a small creative company, in a very highly competitive environment, to keep large fortune 500 clients long term, (over 25 years), is rare. American Airlines, NCR, and a few others were clients for over 30 years for their biggest, most important, creative projects. The assignments included huge international meetings and events, with many original videos as well as live productions. Other assignments included 70mm (Imax format) films, videos, and milliondollar documentaries. When the Boeing Company heard about our long-term relationships, they asked me to put together a three-day seminar for their senior video production people from all over the country. The topic was how to keep clients. The Boeing creative departments were losing internal clients to outside companies. Their creative work was good, but the clients, mostly internal executives, were going outside for the important larger projects. It was only on the last day that we figured out why.

As independent production companies go, we were small to medium-sized, and we did not have offices anywhere close to where our clients were headquartered. As a creative media team, every job may well be your last. There are no long-term contracts, and big competitors are knocking on your clients’ doors incessantly. To keep a client, you need to be very good all the time, and flexible in your creative approach. The common comment from clients after a big project was, “That was great, but what are you going to do next time?” Answer: “I don’t know, but we have some ideas.” Throughout the years, it was our clients who told us why they came back year after year, and cost was low on the list. What we learned applies to any business, and especially B2B organizations.

First and most obvious, we got results. We delivered value, a very high quality product at a price, higher than many, but less than the larger New York and LA competitors. The results are measured many ways, but the most important in the communications and production field is achieving the communications goal in a meaningful and memorable way, which connects and moves an audience both intellectually and emotionally.

For Bridgestone Tires USA, we were brought in to make the annual dealer-sales event “more upscale.” At this event the largest sales orders for the year would be placed by tire dealers, who flew in from across the country at their own cost. The Bridgestone sales force had quotas to make, and the event had been a very straightforward business-like event. It was, in a word, good business, but boring. Our job was to add a professional touch and a bit of sizzle, but most of all, create some meaningful content. The live staging was easy to upgrade, the on-screen elements were charts and numbers. In the first year, we added a short but good video, which was a first-step game changer and focused on fewer charts and better graphics in the presentations. Sales skyrocketed. A little bit had done a lot. Each year that we produced the show, sales exceeded quotas by large percentages. The Vice President increased our budget every year because “our increased sales are directly tied to the presentations and great videos and events you create.” We lost that client after 6 years when the VP retired and his replacement demanded kickbacks if we wanted to retain the client. The corrupt replacement did the same with the ad agency and PR firm. It was a non-starter for us.

A key to keeping a customer is honesty, and that must go both ways.

We delivered consistently, on budget. We would budget creative work up front as a fixed fee and we delivered. In many creative fields, exceeding the budget is the norm. Many bid low in order to get the job, then make up the profit on change orders. That is classic bait and switch. We never did that. No surprises at the end, ever. Costs we had no control over, like travel, were estimated but would be billed on a cost-plus basis. Any minor creative changes were handled within the budget, and any request clearly beyond original scope and budget was discussed, with less-expensive options presented, with a fixed price. No executive wants to explain to the big boss any over-budget or last-minute extras tacked on at the end. All our employees heard the words many times, “Never make a promise you can’t keep. Our job is to solve problems, not bring them to the client. Stay on budget, and remember, failure is not an option.”

A third element goes to the heart of any brand - trust. When you go to McDonalds, you know what to expect in product and service, and you know it will be delivered. When the product is personal or custom, the need for trust goes way up. The element of risk is higher than many ordinary transactions. Good examples of the importance of trust relationships are between dentists and doctors and their patients, or between executives and their advertising agencies, creative providers, outside engineering groups, researchers, or even lawyers.

On the creative side, for the executive, having a relationship with the senior creative person is essential. The executive needs to convey goals, background and key information so the creative leader can understand the brand, where the executive is coming from, and the needs of the audience. The creative leader must come up with a concept, and turn it into a communication, which has the desired effect on the audience. Sometimes the stated goal or story is wrong. For example, the Bridgestone VP gave us marketing brochures to use to build a story. We did some research and discovered what the most loyal Bridgestone customers, the people who bought tires from the dealers, cared about. It was different from what we got from brochures. We conducted interviews in the field, got some great cinematography, and created a mini (8 minute) documentary which hit the issues the targeted customers cared about, and showed why Bridgestone was superior in engineering and value. The use of strong story, real people genuinely expressing opinions, with strong images and music, hit an emotional chord. The message resonated with dealers, who responded with larger orders. That year the quotas were beat by 50%.

Back to the Boeing story and the very key element that was the problem. Boeing’s senior creative people were not allowed to communicate directly with the executive who was responsible for the project. All communications had to go through an assistant. this issue Open Source Revolution P.1 IT Management Tips P.2 Non-Profit Solutions P.3 Trends & New Software P.4 This publication is the sole property of Lavinia Capital Partners. It may not be copied or reproduced without permission from the source. “A key to keeping a customer is honesty, and that must go both ways…” “On the creative side, for the executive, having a relationship with the senior creative person is essential. …” Fred Ashman Branding Analyst a Keep the Best Coming Back: Customers & Creative Providers p. 2 “Positive Emotional influence drives revenue growth…” “It is essential to the success of your business that you create an environment which allows your customers to feel good about giving you their cash” “Emotional influence is powerful, it defines your culture.” The creative direction and goals were “not from the horse's mouth.” The decision maker was never able to establish a relationship with the creators, and did not personally set goals, nor approve the creative concept, script or even rough cuts. Decision makers abdicated the responsibility, and were led to believe it was the creative folks who missed the target. It was an institutional norm, and a bad practice. The lesson; be absolutely sure that the people dealing with the creative lead on an important project have direct access, especially at decision points. Do not let others get between the boss and the writing/concept person. All the big projects we created had logistics people assigned to facilitate our work, but no one but the boss and the lead creative producer/director had creative authority. The big boss must trust the creative pro to make the right decisions. More creative freedom comes with proven results over time. Do not let middle managers or assistants come between you and the person in charge of creative.

All of my best bosses made sure I didn’t have to work through others for creative direction. They were always the approval point for scripts and initial creative direction. Mike Gunn at American Airlines would provide the objective, the means (budget) and assign the responsibility AND authority to me as creative lead. He would then say, many times, “You’re in charge. Make it good.”

And if we didn’t come through, he didn’t have to fire us, just not call us back! In his career he went from sales manager to Executive Vice President, and at his retirement after 36 years with us, said, “Your work greatly contributed to establishing my brand throughout the organization, and absolutely helped with my advancement. You also captured the heart of the American Airlines brand better than anyone else, year after year.”

The best earn trust, and over time become part of the team, not just a vendor. That too is a two-way street. Loyalty runs in both directions.

Be very careful when buying creative work to keep purchasing out of the loop (to the extent possible) and make sure you are working directly with the person who is the creator, not an agent or rep for the production company. The person who makes the promises must be the one who has to keep the promises. That goes for the buyer as well.

One other thing: executives, make sure outside creative teams are paid promptly. Corporate accounts payable can put your valued creative team out of business by delaying payments. Summary: 5 reasons every long-term customer/client relationship works: 1. Results: A quality product with solutions to problems is consistently delivered.

  1. Be Easy to work with. Customer service is important. Creatives: make it easy for the client. Don’t ask them to handle things or make decisions that you, as creative lead, (the producer-director) should make. Executives: delegate responsibility AND authority to the creative person you trust… and make them earn that trust.

3.Value: Keep hiring those who deliver the highest-quality production at a fair price - no surprises. Be reliable and solesource the people you trust. Bids are about hiring the cheapest. Award assignments to those you trust to come through, especially when the stakes are high. Institutional knowledge of the organization by the creative team, over time, is a great asset to the executive.

4.Integrity: Live up to your word as buyer and creator. No surprises like an unexpected bill at the end. Execs: make sure you give the access, tools and authority to succeed. Pay on time.

  1. Relationships: Get to know the client. Get to know the key creative person. Take time to know each other. Regularly meet in person or video-conference. Electronics are great for information and quick updates, but regular meetings by telephone and in-person are essential to building understanding and trust.

More publications by Fred Ashman

By Fred Ashman - Branding Analyst
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By Fred Ashman - Branding Analyst
Keeping good customers, long term, is the goal of every organization. For a small creative company, in a very highly competitive environment, to keep large fortune 500 clients long term, (over 25 years), is rare. American Airlines, NCR, and a few others were clients for over 30 y...

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