Home » The Seven Most Hated Words in Advertising

The Seven Most Hated Words in Advertising

Hate is a powerful emotion and should not be bandied about lightly.

You reserve hate for things like Hitler, terrorism or Brussel Sprouts. But you may also reserve the right to hate the following seven words when spoken by your client:

I’ll know it when I see it.

When you are presenting new creative work and at the end of the presentation you hear these seven words spoken in the ensuing discussion, run, don’t walk, and get as far from this client as possible. When these vile words (all of which are innocent enough individually) are strung together when reviewing work, the outcome is almost always deadly.

Generally speaking, “I’ll know it when I see it” means your client has no idea what they are doing, no clear direction and that makes them unwilling to commit to anything. How can they commit to an idea when their decision will make something that has been abstract suddenly become concrete?

The consequences of working once “I’ll know it when I see it” has been put on the table are as follows:

  1. You iterate until the client sees “it”. Which is fine if you are charging by the hour, but if you you are working on a fixed price, you just lost all hope of turning a profit on this project.
  2. You will turn yourself inside out trying to hit the target from every possible angle. This can be a positive thing, right? It is good to stretch yourself, but ultimately no. You have a good many talents, but good telepathy is probably not one of them.
  3. You will second guess yourself to the point of madness. Shattering your confidence in your abilities is disastrous.
  4. If you’ve read previous ramblings I’ve posted, you know how I feel about stress. “I’ll know it when I see it” is very stressful and will rarely give you the opportunity to do your best work.
  5. Since you’re already in the presentation phase of a project, you’ve eaten up a lot of time and now you are going back to the drawing board to start all over again. The potential to get stuck in an endless loop of despair is great.
  6. Odds are good your client will never see “it”. This is frustrating for both you and your client. Frustrated clients are never a good outcome under any circumstance.

Running away is rarely a good option. So how should you handle the situation should the Seven Evil Words be spoken?

  1. Even though these words will sting, keep a clear mind, stay focused and think. What was it about the work that elicited this reaction? Did you miss something? Did you have clear direction to start with? Did you have a proper brief to start from or was it started over a casual phone call? Use this time to educate the client.
  2. Ask questions. Try to tease out an understanding of why your client does not see “it”. This is hard and often times does not bear any fruit, but as a professional creative it is your responsibility to try.
  3. See if you can get the client to latch on to one thing that they do like about what they are seeing. This will give you something you can build on, even if you are starting over.
  4. Go ahead and invest a little more time on the project. Yes, this can be a frustrating option, but devote some time in an effort to keep your client happy. You could land on the right answer. Just don’t overcommit yourself, that’s where the madness comes in.

Years ago I worked at a small boutique design studio. We had taken on a new healthcare client and were in the process of building their brand from scratch. We got them to chose a name fairly quickly but we ran out of luck when it came to the logo.

Historically, when pitching logos we would show a client three designs, each carefully thought out and executed. Having named their business, we had a ton of designs in mind and pushed it out to showing five. We take in the black boards, got some disagreement and lackluster response and were asked to come back with some more designs. Okay, you don’t always hit the mark.

So we went back to the studio and worked up more designs. This time we took in seven designs. Same response. I can see my boss is getting a little testy about this, because we have shown some outstanding choices, but he agrees to go back to the studio to work on a 3rd round.

We go back to the client’s office and spread all 20 designs out on the conference room table. After some hemming and hawing, those seven words that should not be uttered came out of the client’s mouth:

“I’ll know it when I see it.”

What happened next is the stuff of legend. My boss politely says that we have given you much more than you asked for. There are multiple choices that not only solve the problem, but give the new company a strong foundation to build itself upon.

The client asks to see more designs. At that my boss stands up, gently collects all of the designs spread out on the table and calmly replies “I’ll send you my bill” and we leave.

They paid in full.