Productivity

How to solve creative differences with your client when you’re seemingly at an impasse

This is the first in an ongoing series of posts aimed to provide you with useful insights to help you and your team be better marketers. We’ll be focusing on improving productivity and collaboration, and providing valuable insights to a whole range of content professionals including freelancers, agencies, and marketing teams of all sizes.


In the 1970s, a big section of the American population thought Avocado Green and Harvest Gold were attractive colors when paired. The hues could be found together on sweater vests, appliances and wallpaper. The Brady Bunch kids really loved them. While the earth tones warmed some people’s hearts, others tossed their cookies over them.

We all have likes and dislikes, and mine aren’t the same as yours. The world won’t end over it.* Yet why is it that opposing opinions in an agency-client relationship can get us so fired up?

Don’t take it personally

Well, first, it feels personal. Your team spends hours on the work – first winning the project and developing the relationship, then researching, concepting, refining – and has all that courting time to fall in love with the whole package. The client has one second, the impact of the “final” product, and forms an immediate impression. It’s important to understand as a marketer, a creative, heck, as a person, that you are not your idea. Your team came up with the idea but isn’t defined by it, and a creative difference is not personal.

Measure your reaction

How you react to that creative difference, though, is personal, and it tells your client a lot about your team’s ideology. You’re familiar with that bristling feeling when a client emails you “I don’t like this. Can you jazz it up?” You start swearing incoherently, like the dad in “A Christmas Story” working on that blasted furnace.

Resist the urge to trade barbs behind her back. It won’t strengthen the team to unite against “a common enemy.” A truly capable, skilled team can accept criticism and pivot to a new solution gracefully, without ganging up on the client.

Creative differences aren’t always bad

This is the really wonderful result of a murky and sometimes awkward disagreement: It can improve the end result. Good ideas can come from anywhere and anyone. As the pros in your field, your team is more likely to have a good idea than a client, but it doesn’t mean you all have the monopoly on creativity. When work is allowed to be malleable, the project will be better for it.

Take time to hear one another out

Your client’s open to taking an unproven creative path – in this tiny, boxed-in, one-sliver-space kind of way. You might stand a chance of getting there with proven communication strategies instead: Focus on when you’re collaborating (Is it shortly before lunch? Right after a marathon internal meeting?), how you’re feeling (Are you down in that afternoon energy slump?) and whether you’re open to truly listening (Are you thinking about how you’ll respond instead of trying to understand her concerns?).

To partner in solving the dispute, ask for examples of what she likes elsewhere, in a project that isn’t attached to you so she feels more comfortable speaking freely.

Focus on small wins

When your client feels she hasn’t been understood, she gets scared you’re working toward your own means instead of hers. While her feedback is digested back at the drawing board, what can she be offered in the meantime to build trust? An on-site visit? One more meeting a week? An earlier delivery on another project? A devoted account manager? A concession on a phrasing she’s stuck on? Because in the end, your team is working toward a happy client as well as a creative success.

Most successful ideas aren’t created in a silo; they’re the result of independent brains collaborating. Embracing your client as an important element of your team – an outside voice – helps you become more critical of and insightful about your work, which is where real growth happens. For the good of the project, work to find a way around the stalemate.

*If the differences are too terrible – say, the client is hostile or insists on a concept you disagree with morally or ethically – that isn’t just a creative difference; that’s a bummer of a person. You can end the project professionally.

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