The stranger you work for

The stranger you work for - image for article by Greg Alder

Answer this question honestly. Do you know your clients? Beyond their names, beyond their company titles? Beyond their partners’ names or their favourite restaurants or their sports teams?

Bet you don’t. Bet you don’t know what motivates them, what drives them, what ambitions they hold, what really irks them, what really turns them on and what fears they have.

We were warned as kids not to talk to strangers. If anything, today we’re being warned more than ever not to start up a conversation.

Our response? Well those of us in the communication business have gone to extraordinary lengths to learn what we can about our audiences so that they are no longer strangers.

Don't talk to strangers

I think we might have gone too far. Some of us think it important to spend hours, days and months trying to demonstrate that we understand our clients’ businesses. We listen to their customers in research groups, then search for the hidden meaning behind their words.

We read studies – by sociologists, anthropologists, communicators, economists, motivators and psychologists. We talk to people. And talk and talk and talk until we’re satisfied that we’ve made real progress.

We have meetings in which we analyse every minute detail. We take notes and draw diagrams – circles, overlapping circles, squares within squares, pyramids, dodecahedrons, rhomboids and random scatter patterns. We find parallels, paradigms and precedents.

We use this wealth of information to help shape our strategies for the future.

Impressive stuff.

But when it comes to an individual client, nothing. Not a single insight beyond the fact that she’s allergic to seafood. (And you wouldn’t have learnt this if you hadn’t taken her to a seafood restaurant.)

How can we be of value to our clients if we don’t know what they value?

In advertising agencies, one of the first tasks undertaken when planning a new campaign is to write The Brief. And the first item on The Brief is The Target. Who is the audience for the proposed advertising?

In the old days, this audience would be described in socio-economic or demographic terms, categorised by income or by perceived social levels or by place of residence. But then it was realised that this wasn’t a very good way of defining an audience. As your own experience will tell you, not everyone who lives in your suburb shares your values. Not only do they not all drive the same car as you, some of them don’t even seem to desire to drive the same car as you. Inexplicable.

Over time, more and more sophisticated models and methodologies were developed to build a more useful, more insightful picture of the intended target for the new advertising campaign. We started to define people by their behaviour.

The result of these years of intense psychographic scrutiny is that we have a deep and quite accurate understanding of people we’ve never met.

This more insightful portrayal of an audience led to advertising which demonstrated a better understanding of its audience. A bond was formed. The audience, The Target, responded to advertising with their hearts.

I buy Zenith brand because I know I’d like Zenith if it were a person.

I bank with Apex Bank because they seem to understand me.

In a large advertising agency, dozens of Briefs are written every day. Hundreds every year. Hundreds of audiences are defined with such lavish care and detail that you can easily visualise the person you’re addressing.

And yet you can bet that there isn’t one Brief or a single description of The Target written prior to a major presentation to a prospective client. Nor at any stage through the relationship with that client. We just don’t think to take the time to ask the question.

Who is your client?

Where has he come from? Is he from a comfortable middle-class background? Did he fight to drag himself out of a difficult, impoverished childhood? Is he proud of his private Catholic school education? Or will he be sending his own children to government schools?

Is his goal to be CEO of the company before he’s forty? Or does he want to sell his shares and go sailing?

Is he working to a long-term plan? Or is he motivated by the monthly sales results?

Does he like to be involved at every stage of the process? Or does he lose interest after twenty minutes?

Is he one of the boys? Or a dictator? Is his office door usually closed? Or does he work in an open plan space?

You might think some of these details are irrelevant to your working relationship. After all, can it really matter that your client’s father was in the armed forces?

Yes it can.

When values clash

If your client grew up in a household in which discipline was a daily lesson, it’s more than possible that your perpetual tardiness is a real issue. He mightn’t say anything but there’s another black cross going against your name every time it happens.

He runs his life according to a tight agenda which his p.a. hands him each morning, whereas you seem to bounce from one surprise to another.

You think it’s more important to be right than on time. He seems to harbour the belief it’s possible to do both.

Some companies hire consultants from time to time to examine the level of their client’s satisfaction. The consultants ask questions the company’s people are too timid to ask themselves. When the consultants table their report, it includes some real shocks. A client might express, for example, a deep concern with the company’s inability to meet deadlines. Reading this, the company’s principals are genuinely surprised.

What are they talking about? We always get the job done.

They miss the point. This client doesn’t just want the job done, he wants it done without drama, without anxiety, without fretting if it will be delivered in time for him to make the presentation to the national sales team. He doesn’t need the stress. He doesn’t want to be making calls the night before to see where it is. He doesn’t want your excuse du jour.

What he wants is someone else, someone punctual and reliable.

If you don’t know your clients, you can’t give them what they want. And if you don’t give them what they want, they’ll go to someone who can. End of story.

Join the Conversation


  1. says: Geoff Reid

    You’ve been reading my mind Greg.

    Whether my client is a client, an agency, an account director or a CD, knowing how they tick is crucial.

    And it’s a minefield if you don’t.

    Thanks for the article.

    1. says: Greg Alder

      Thanks mate. I’m not surprised you understand the value of understanding. Human insight has always been critical to your and my craft of copywriting.

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