How to work with clients that don't suck

Eight ways to avoid working with partners that aren't worth the paycheck.

Adjective & Co. cofounder Taylor Harkey
Adjective & Co. cofounder Taylor Harkey

Clients keep the lights on. They put food on the table and craft beer in the company fridge. They pay for us to put our imaginations to work. But do they have to suck in order to do it?

In 2014, I founded Adjective & Co. with my partner, Autumn Berrang, on one core commitment: "We don’t work with people who suck." That applies to everyone we work with: clients, team members, interns, and even the office security guard. In order to create brands that don’t suck, you have to surround yourself with people who don’t suck. This philosophy has been our recipe for attracting talent, creating brands, and yielding business results, all while having a great time. Here are some tips on how to not only win and keep clients that don't suck, but also how to avoid or get rid of the ones that do.

Define your perfect "un-sucky" client
In other words, what makes the perfect client for your agency? Make a list, and be specific. Once you’ve nailed that down, everything that’s not on that list are the things that make a client suck. Sometimes you have to know what you’re not looking for in a client to help you figure out what you are looking for.

Create a "client suck-factor" test
At Adjective, we have a pretty scientific screening system and score every potential client on the criteria that makes a great client to us. It’s the equivalent of a client’s GPA, only for not being sucky. Before we even speak with the client, we pre-screen them by sending them to our "new client quiz" at adjectiveandco.com/idontsuck. We have a minimum score each potential client must reach before we consider partnering with them. If they come up short, they’re not a good fit. Some of the criteria on our scoring system includes:

  • Creative opportunity: Will this account be fun for us to work on? Does the project excite the client’s internal team? Are they truly looking for change?
  • Brand name recognition: Do people know this brand? More importantly, do they want to know it?
  • Financial stability: How long have they been in business? What’s their reputation? Are they willing to invest in building a great brand? Can they afford to?
  • Culture fit: Are they like-minded in the sense that they want to do things differently and take some risks?

Do the whole "sniff test" thing
Dog’s do it for a reason. Ask questions that provoke a response. Be yourself, and trust your gut. I believe chemistry is as important as budget, if not more, when it comes to a new client relationship. One of the best ways to see if you'll get along with a client is to get to know them before they sign on the dotted line. Nothing is as telling as an informal happy hour or latté break with a potential client to help you decide if they'll cut it as a new addition to your roster. If they order a white wine spritzer, refer to themselves in the third person, or cry to you because their mother never loved them, play the "pass" card.

Avoid clueless clients like the plague
Clients that say they need a "banner ad" to hang on the wall may not be the one. (Yes, this really happened). Another potential client said she would email us her company brand as an attachment. Those are what we call red flags. We certainly don't expect clients to know everything before working with us, but understanding the basics of advertising and marketing sure does help. If a potential client still can't open a Google doc, doesn't know how to PDF something, and refuses to reply all even when it's desperately needed, they might suck.

Beware of clients that ask for the kitchen sink with the purchase of a cup of water
Everyone loves free stuff. But if your potential client is asking for you to throw in a free brand overhaul with their brochure, that's another red flag. We’re all about added value, but you also have to know your value and not diminish it from the start.

Don’t listen to on-hold music for more than nine minutes
Everyone is late now and then. No biggie. But if a potential client stands you up more than once or keeps you waiting for long periods of time, that's a clear indication that they don't respect your time — and they never will. Buh-bye. Hang up. Block number.

If they don’t have a pulse, peace
Snooze-bar clients give snooze-bar feedback, and that waters down great ideas until they’re safe and boring. It’s not that we fear feedback. In fact, we thrive on it; but only the right kind of feedback. Clear, consolidated, and meaningful feedback shows that clients care as much as we do about putting out a final product that we can all be proud of at the end of the day. Bottom line: If the client doesn’t have passion, no thanks.

Know when to fold ‘em
Sometimes clients can pass the initial test only for us to find out they were a sucky wolf in an unsucky sheep’s clothing. At that point, the best thing to do is wrap up that project and wish them on their way. Then shut the door and lock it. Maybe change the locks, too. Just to be safe.

While an unsucky client may seem like a unicorn in a haystack, they’re out there. Believe me. As Steve Jobs once said, "You have to pick carefully. I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things."

Taylor Harkey is cofounder and executive creative director at Jacksonville, Florida, boutique ad agency Adjective & Co.

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