Telling Client Stories


hen I was in college, I remember sitting in the office of an advertising executive who was given the firm’s largest account, a beer vendor.

Knowing he should have been extremely excited and honored, he shared his internal struggle with me over whether he really wanted to contribute his talent, his ideas, and his energy into selling more beer for this account. His values clearly did not align with his client’s.

I felt his pain. Sometimes client stories just fail to resonate with our own. We dig for other reasons to take on a new project — money, status, connections. But in the end, we would never volunteer to tell this particular story in this particular way.

Each step in my creative journey where I struggle over accepting client work versus personal work confirms one point. Client work is best when it becomes sponsored personal work.

When we do not tell our own stories, develop our own style, or hone our own aesthetic, we become an engineer. A button pusher. A shape shifter. We become whatever the client wants us to become for a particular project. And we show up, execute, and get paid.

There are people that love this work, they were made for it, but the kind of artists I am talking about are different. They may have an engineer somewhere inside them, but it’s the artist that shapes the story, casts the vision, and brings the heart behind the project.

When it’s flipped, when the artist sponsors the client, the art suffers.

Shouldn’t the artist be the inspired one, breathing life into her work, while the client sponsors it and shares it with the world?

Maybe I am being too idealistic. Maybe I have it all wrong.

Maybe as artists, we will always face the struggle over whether to tell client stories or our own stories. And maybe most times, we will tell both.

But I have seen too many artists I admire first develop their unique voice, values, and eye to see the world before the right kind of clients came knocking. These clients clearly know the kind of artists they align with, artists who resonate with their story, artists who stay true to their art while accepting sponsorship.

These type of client-artist relationships seem a better fit in my book and create a bigger win-win. The hard question for me is whether I have an aesthetic of my own yet. Am I communicating clearly enough to the world in order to attract the kind of client sponsorships where I am aligned?

When faced with this idea of whose project to work on, whose stories to tell, whose products to sell, I always fall back on my core values to make the call.

What does this product or company stand for? Would I purchase and use this product? Do I share the same values with this company? With the people running it? Do I feel right about our two brands working together? Is this a story I want to tell with my art or work?

I think every artist at some point in their career has taken a job they later regretted because it violated their values or crossed a line somewhere.

I certainly have. When it happens, I usually review why it was misaligned, what I can learn from it, and move forward with a positive attitude.

When we value ourselves as artists and storytellers, makers and creators, and have learned from all our misaligned projects, the compromises dwindle.

This is much easier to say than do.

To ensure we have enough potential business coming in to say no to the misaligned work, to ensure we fire clients who do not listen to us or disrespect us, to determine our values upfront and stick to them — this is extremely hard.

I recently directed a commercial for Magnetic, an ad agency out of Greensboro, NC, and struggled through some of my own questions. I love technology and innovation, but am I a golfer? I want to work with friends and collaborate on something fun, but is this my style?

In the end, we made it happen and had a great time. Chad Ray and Brooks Oursler did an amazing job of capturing the roles we envisioned. Page Lynch dialed in the camera as cinematographer, and David Horne was a gracious host, client, and friend.

Whether a positive or negative experience, each artistic endeavor, project, or job can shed more light on what kind of stories we should be telling. I hope you find yours and tell it without regrets.

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