Happy collaborations are all alike; every unhappy collaboration is unhappy in its own way. It is the nature of any working relationship that we sometimes butt heads, disagree about a creative direction, flat out seethe with anger when the other can't see what's right in front of them. Like the relationships of our own lives, these collaborations can be rife with drama and dysfunction. But they can also create vital and fulfilling work. We cannot create in a vacuum. The essence and aim of great marketing requires compromise. Any great creative knows that compromise isn't one of our strong suits, but we beat on, because, in the end, we hope that great work will win out.
But what do you do when you get the client from hell? You know this client. You've worked with this client. It's the client that doesn't quite seem to get it, who has an unrealistic view of their own brand, or little to no experience with the creative work that you thrive in. But commerce is commerce. Without the client, there is no exciting idea, and so we have to find a way to work and live in peace. So how does one navigate these tricky waters, delivering great work for a difficult client while also preserving your own soul?
Practice Some Empathy
You are not the only one in this relationship who wants to succeed. At the heart of any conflict is fear, of not reaching your customers, of flat and uninspired marketing, of failure. If you find that you and your client agree on nothing, know that at the very least, you share one common goal: you both want to deliver the best product possible. None of us is a stranger to this fear. It's what delivers the cold sweats, keeps us up at night. When you take the time to understand that this is not unique to you--that, yes, even the client from hell gets the night sweats--you can approach even the worst disagreements with a sense of camaraderie.
Communication Is Key
If this is starting to sound like marriage advice, it's not by accident. Collaboration is an intimate relationship, and every good relationship lives and dies with communication. When expectations, intentions, and deadlines aren't communicated well, a collaboration can begin to rot and die on the vine. For your part, do your best to practice what you preach. Clearly communicate your strategies and ideas. Ask for clarification when needed. In turn, don't be afraid to ask your client to communicate better with you. The better you express your expectations, the easier it will be to deliver everything your client wants.
Defend Your Work
You know that feeling of laboring over that great campaign, that great design, that perfect strategy to roll out a new product, only to have a client say, "thanks, but no thanks." You might remember it better as the moment you wanted to scream and throw something against a wall. Don't do that. But that doesn't mean you have to do a full retreat. A client hired you for your talent and expertise. Use it. Don't be afraid to disagree, or defend your own work. Oftentimes a client comes to you because they are unequipped to do that work on their own. Politely remind them that you know what you're doing. If you believe the work is good, stick up for it. Everyone respects a person who has the courage of their convictions.
But Be Willing to Compromise
Easier said than done. Sometimes you make a valorous defense of your work only to lose the battle, the war, the whole shebang. Let's get real; you need the client. If you're too precious about your creativity, your process, then feel free to grab a paint brush and a canvas and go be your own boss. Best of luck. But you want to work, which means you have to work with others. By realizing your common goals, keeping the lines of communication open, having a fair and objective view of your own work, you will be in a better position to implement great ideas, no matter where they come from. Yes, even ideas from the client from hell. It'll hardly ever be an easy process. In the words of Samuel Beckett: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."