“The Way to Work is Co-creation:” Negotiating with Difficult Clients.
Even in the Vietnamese local clothes markets, I’ve found everyone is becoming more demanding and no one’s settling for less. The advertising world is no different so I’m left wondering how can you negotiate effectively with difficult clients?
“In Vietnam, you need patience,” he says without hesitation. The office has closed but DDB Group Vietnam’s Managing Director Daniel Gordon Jones has time for one aspiring advertiser. As he calmly passes me a glass of water and stirs his tea I can see that patience is definitely one of his qualities.
Although a foreigner like myself, ten years in the Asian Communication industry has given Jones vast experience in managing local and international clients. DDB Group worldwide, has over 200 offices in 95 countries specializing in strategic planning and advertising. The Vietnam Group began in 2005 but is now an industry leader winning bronze for Creative Agency of the year 2012. DDB aims to “pursue collaborative relationships with clients” but Jones admits it’s easier said than done, (DDB Worldwide, 2013).
“Ném đá,” is one term that he shares has impacted his negotiation experience in Vietnam. It means to throw stones at someone’s idea intentionally and damage them. He sighs, explaining that one local client is always both excessively cost orientated and has high demands on the creative. “It can become very demoralising working with a client who is just killing an idea for the sake of it,” he says. How do you work with clients like this?
“Be rational and break it down”
“Don’t get frustrated and focus on the main course of action,” Jones advises. My experience with negotiation is that it can get heated and sometimes personal. Fells argues all negotiators should seek to manage the process and not the people, (Fells, 2010). To avoid emotional arguments agencies must rationally justify the benefits of their service at all stages including breaking down fees to hourly costs and outlining the talent level of the team. “As long as you then provide that service you are set for the next round of negotiations. It all depends on the client’s previous experience, it’s very much for the long term” Jones confirms. But how do you demonstrate this service and secure a long-term commitment from a demanding client?
“Always have more than one option”
“Being prepared and being patient are the most important first steps in negotiation” Jones insists and you should always have a plan B. Fisher and Ury call it a “BATNA” or “Best Alternative to a negotiated agreement” and without it they claim “you are negotiating with your eyes closed,” (Fisher and Ury, 1999). One way is to have options up your sleeves for both fees and creative ideas. Jones says DDB prepares three creative options for every pitch; one will be radically new and creative, the next safer but still highly creative and finally a rational response to the brief. If they are on strategy these options can act as leveraging points. Jones still admits “a lot of negotiation is on the client’s side because they are the paymasters.” He is annoyed because advertising is becoming “something you can just buy on the shelf.” It definitely seems that clients are bargaining much harder and more frequently. But how do you stop it going too far?
“It’s good to say no”
This stops me in my tracks. In my view the customer is always right even when they’re wrong. Robert Solomon believes “no is a barrier builder” and “helps no-one (Solomon, 2008). Jones is resolute however that theory is great but in practice for agency survival there must be a mutual balance. “You can’t always bend. You will break if your clients push you too far.” He demonstrates the effect of force on the teaspoon in his hands. “When everything is only one way and negative it will kill the agency. We like to have clients that will work with us.”
Uncooperative clients often use “distributive bargaining” that divides both sides into distinct positions. William Ury and Fisher argue that if more attention is paid to sticking to a position then “less attention is devoted to meeting the underlying concerns of the parties,” (Ury and Fisher, 1999). It makes negotiation adversarial and “focused on claiming rather than creating value,” and the outcome is win-lose, (Patton, 2004).
“Everything should be win-win”
For Jones win-win is the only way because each side must keep face. However, integrative bargaining tactics require a high level of commitment from both sides. Theorists Guasco and Robinson argue, “negotiating cooperatively involves far more patience, creativity and innovation than competitive bargaining,” (Guasco and Robinson, 2007). How can you start this complex process? For Jones, empathy is the key. “Take the time to understand more about the client’s needs and use that as leverage to sell your point.” Knowledge is power in negotiation and it can also build trust. “If your client is stuck on a certain way of thinking it comes down to trust to change them. If you can gain trust then you are working towards the type of relationship like that between Steve Jobs and TBWA where it’s more of a partnership.” But how can you work not as a supplier but as a partner?
“The way to work is co-creation”
“It’s not about ‘us’ and ‘them’ but about ‘let’s do the best for the brand together,’” Jones sits up more enthusiastically. Reflecting on my experience with pitches it seems the agency is always highly separate from the client. Jones passionately declares “I hate going into pitches where it’s us and them. The whole pitch process is in a bubble where you can’t really talk to the client” he explains. “It should be a round table so you can see each other at an equal level.”
DDB has started implementing co-creation workshops before the pitch to increase the likelihood of a long-term partnership. A recent workshop with a toothpaste manufacturer was high in cost and involved them hiring a strategic planner but resulted in a solid collaborative plan.
Every client is different so there’s no universal negotiation method but it’s all about building strong foundations for a long-term relationship. An agency must be patient, listen to a client’s needs, provide balanced options for win-win mutual gains and use co-creation as part of a trusted partnership.
It’s getting dark but instead of disappearing Jones takes a moment to show genuine interest in my future and offers me contacts in Australia and Asia. This is an experienced relationship manager who has inspired me to build positive and balanced partnerships and hopefully it will improve my bartering in the markets!
Andrew Davy (s3330622) is about to graduate from a degree in Professional Communication and has enjoyed his time in Vietnam. Soon he will embark on work in advertising sales in Singapore where he will negotiate with clients from all walks of life.
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