What I Learned Being a Client

Shawn King, Senior VP, Executive Creative Director

Graphic of a man sitting on a book doing a meditation pose

My early days in advertising were turbulent. Feeling lost would bring me to tears one minute, and having my ideas chosen would give me goosebumps the next. For a while, I assumed that was the way of life for a creative person in an advertising agency. An emotional roller coaster of highs and lows that you get better at managing as you go. And to some degree, that’s true. Until you realize that what you’re doing isn’t as much about advertising as you might think.

That was almost 28 years ago.

Since that time, the experience gained and lessons learned have been unexpected and invaluable. My three years spent as Head of Marketing, Canada for PAX Labs was not a career shift I saw coming—and was a time I would not fully appreciate until I decided to return to ad agency life this past year.

Now, armed with my previous experience and a new perspective from the client side, I see things a little differently. Here are some of the reasons I think every creative person in an ad agency should spend some time on the other side of the table:

1. You get a better sense of what matters.

It isn’t the advertising. It’s making sure you understand the problem you’re being asked to solve, then using your creativity to help solve it. This changes the questions you ask, the solutions you believe will work and how you will share the thinking with your clients. It might even change how you feel about what “great” work actually is or isn’t. It helps you, help them.

2. You put effort into creating a great relationship.

The privilege of being able to say what you think, share open feedback and work to make things better is a must—but doesn’t always come easy. When you understand how that looks/feels from both sides, you can navigate these discussions and circumstances in a much more productive manner. Empathy for what your client might be navigating can be monumental in how you move forward with the work you do. You need to create trust, and a forum for open dialogue that allows that to happen.

3. You appreciate the importance of the process.

I would argue that getting buy-in on a creative direction is often more difficult than coming up with it in the first place. Without a full understanding of what your client is navigating on their side, you may never fully appreciate what must be done to get approval on your thinking. Internal structure, politics, layers, boards and even personal lives can all play a much larger role than you think.

Understanding and accepting that will change how you bring your work to life with your clients.

4. You learn to listen.

It’s been said that it’s only about 10% of your client’s time spent with an agency. I’m not sure that’s exactly right, but what I know for sure is that they have a lot going onmuch more than we agency folks likely realize. Some say dealing with the agency is their favourite part of the job. For others, it’s the worst. You don’t want to be in that last camp. I’ve always believed it’s not what they say, but what they mean that matters most. And you can only hear what they mean if you’re truly listening to what’s going on. Instead of feeling the need to have all the answers, hear them out, ask more questions and really listen to what’s being said. Not only will you get the respect you’re seeking, but your odds of success will be far greater than leaning on any assumptions you’ve already made.


The client-side experience was hard. Much harder than I thought. Maybe that’s the most important lesson in all of this. Our job as an agency is to help our clients accomplish their goals, and the best way of doing that may not always be what we think. A deeper appreciation for that can go a long way in making sure that the 10% of the time they spend with us is worth every minute.