The client is always right, except when it's not

For more than 40 years, I've had drummed into my head and tried my darndest to believe and follow the No. 1 "truism" in PR and advertising: "the client is always right."

For more than 40 years, I've had drummed into my head and tried my darndest to believe and follow the No. 1 “truism” in PR and advertising: “the client is always right.”

But I am here to state categorically that this is simply not true. Having “client” in front or behind your name and on the bottom of the check does not automatically give you a pass to the front of the credibility line.

Clients can be wrong. Sometimes slightly, and sometimes horribly and arrogantly so, insisting their judgments on the very subjects for which they have hired us as PR professionals to convey are the only ones with substance. Or they might insist that their time is far more valuable than ours; that responsiveness and timeliness and collaboration is of less value to a “vendor agency” than to themselves; that the only really “busy” people somehow reside on their side of the desk.

Clients also can be right, and many are a good part of the time, but it's an earned title, not a divined privilege that comes with writing the check. These are the clients that learned long ago the lessons that most of us picked up as kids: to listen as well as talk because there is always something new to learn. They've also learned that much more can be accomplished through cooperation and collaboration than simply a demand and that good things usually come to those with the most patience. Not to mention they respect others' time, intelligence, and experience and recognize that hard work can pay the greatest dividends.

The client-agency relationship is obviously not one of equals when one depends on the other for short-term monetary rewards and the other's return is much more ethereal and long-term. But it still must be based on more than instant gratification. 

Good client-agency relationships, the ones that last years based on each party gaining not only real value for their bottom line but a shared learning experience based on mutual respect and sometimes even friendship, are rare but worth the effort.

Richard Grove is CEO of Ink. He has more than four decades of experience in the media industry.

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