Our Worst Client Ever

Rebecca Wilson Lundin | Thinking, Doing | November 28, 2017

We’ve all had bad clients (or bad projects). It comes with the territory. But what makes them bad? Can you define the characteristics? While lots has been written on the topic, we thought we’d share a recent experience that brought it all home for our agency.

This particular client:

  • Didn’t define a budget
  • Can’t commit to dates
  • Needlessly nitpicks designs
  • Constantly changes content
  • Makes all decisions by committee

What made this situation particularly challenging was that this was arguably our most important client. The one key client who essentially defines us as an agency. The one for whom we absolutely could not fail. Yeah, you guessed it, that client was ourselves.

Last month, we launched a new brand and website for Rowland Creative. During the process we rethought our world from the ground up. Not everything changed. Orange is still our color (albeit a slightly different hue). And we’re still Thinker Doers. But at one point or another, we examined absolutely everything. Sometimes too closely. And not particularly efficiently. Because we are, officially, our own worst client.

In some ways, this is the classic story of “the cobbler’s children have no shoes”. But when your entire world is built around being paid to do awesome marketing and branding, it takes discipline to do that work for yourself. For free. It’s also a story about a group of people who love what they do and feel so passionately about it that they occasionally get in their own way.

The roots of this rebrand go back several years. We made the strategic decision to evolve from a design agency to full-service marketing agency. We also decided to focus on B2B technology – an area we’re both really good at and one that suits our talents.

“Yay us!” We had a specific and attainable business goal paired with a narrow market focus.

With that in mind, we carefully identified our target clients, understood their needs, wrote personas, started hiring the right talent and reworked our agency structure.

Again, “yay us!” We took the right steps in the right order.

Next, we set out to design a new logo. We knew our identity needed to be simple, memorable and easy to adapt to many use cases. Did we establish a budget or a timeline? Of course not. So each time we landed on a new comp, we’d refine the heck out of it. Everyone had input and as you might expect, that is wonderfully inclusive but not particularly efficient. On top of that, all our (paying) clients inevitably took priority. That meant the logo design and business suite took months. In addition, we applied exceptionally high standards to our work. Just ask David about the orange business card paper. Even if we can only see the difference under certain lighting, it’s not quite perfect.

Eventually, another “Yay us!” We had an elegant new visual identity.

With our new logo in place, we ran through a couple cycles of messaging. Again, lots of great ideas and opinions. While we remained true to our original Thinker Doer philosophy, the nuances of our message evolved in a very positive way.

The last step in this journey was our website. That intersection of design, messaging and functionality always poses a challenge, but especially so for a marketing agency’s own site. We won’t bore you with the hundreds of agonizing decisions, but suffice it to say we scrutinized every aspect of the site. (I’m looking at you, Jeff “I-just-changed-the-homepage-copy-again” Erickson.) Guess what? Again we didn’t meet the basic requirements of a defined timeline and budget. But the time we took to design and develop our site was worth every minute. We even built out a custom WordPress theme that will form the basis of many websites to come.

Another delayed “Yay us!” We love our new website.

So what did we learn from this multi-year experience? Here’s the short list:

  1. Internal projects must be approached with the same rigor and importance as client projects.
  2. We all bring a unique and valuable perspective both inside and outside our areas of expertise.
  3. The idea of a website lifecycle of 3 years sounds particularly appealing right now.

In the end, it only matters what potential clients think. Will we show up on their radar? When they find us, will they be engaged? And most importantly, will we get to work together (with a real budget and deadline)?

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