Client collaboration isn’t the creativity killer you think it is

DPR&Co's Phil Huzzard makes the case for client collaboration, and explains why Don Draper's 'black box' method doesn't work in today's landscape.

‘Clients get the advertising they deserve’ is an industry adage that dates back to the last century. It’s rarely repeated in the presence of clients, and only ever when things are going well. On one level, however, it’s true.

Clients who strangle the creative process through the need for control, or those who rely on focus groups to make decisions for them, end up with blancmange.

Here’s the rub though. Most clients are as committed to excellence as we are. It’s just that their view of excellence differs their agency’s. 

So what does it look like when client and agency are as one in their drive for creative excellence?

I believe there are some very logical precursors to this state of creative ‘grace’.

First, you need to agree on why your ideas are important. It’s also important to understand any areas of sensitivity or brand vulnerability – the no-go areas that are not worth pushing for. Reaching agreement on the ‘why’ is also a great way to establish the trust required to push creative boundaries together.

A much more challenging area to agree on is what you’re going to be creative about. And here, there’s simply no substitute for knowing what our client’s business really is. That means bringing seasoned people, who understand business, into the conversation.

Waiting for a nuanced creative brief is a mistake. We see the reverse briefing process (often iterative) as our opportunity to prove that we get it. It’s about giving the client confidence in our ability to distil what’s real (now or potentially) about the relationship between their brand and their customers. Some of the most valuable conversations take place through this process of discovery.

The collaboration framework

Historically, highly collaborative agencies are known for producing bland work – the sort of stuff the client could have done themselves. These agencies don’t have the talent, business expertise and creative confidence to protect a powerful idea.

At the other extreme, highly creative agencies can be difficult to deal with. Many clients believe they care more about the agency reel than the client’s business.

These situations are two sides of the one problem: a misunderstanding of what it means to collaborate, and the lack of a process by which to do it successfully.

Collaboration is not brainstorming. It’s not ‘putting our heads together to come up with a solution everyone’s happy with’. That’s how you end up with greyness.

To collaborate well, you need to allow people to contribute their unique, complementary skill sets and knowledge base. You need to allow people’s strengths to come to the fore at the right time. This won’t happen by accident. It only happens when you have the right process and you follow it.


We ask our creative teams to play within the rules that we’ve agreed on with our client. ‘Rules?’ I hear you complain! Yes. Rules. Rules define the game. They bring tension to competition and make things fun. Without rules, a game of football would simply be war. A workplace wouldn’t exist. Nor would anything else of value. In fact, the firmer the rules, the more sweetly the creative juices tend to flow. Best of all, we’re playing the game with our client on the same side under the same rules.

There you have it. Our approach to ensuring we reap the benefits of a deeply collaborative relationship with our clients without producing a camel – which is, famously, a horse designed by committee.

There will undoubtedly be some who violently disagree with this approach – subscribers to a ‘black box’ technique complete with big reveals. If the client hates the work, they’re just incapable of comprehending it.

Don Draper was a fan of the black box method AMP

The black box approach can, on occasions, deliver stunning results. But most of the best ideas wind up in the bin through lack of buy-in and ownership.

Is this way perfect? Not all the time. But having spent years in that Black Box, lamenting stillborn ideas, I’d put my money on it every time.

Phil Huzzard is founder and principal of Melbourne-based agency DPR&Co.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.