How do clients learn how to be clients?
The short answer is they don’t. The longer answer is that they perform a series of trial-and-error exercises while on the job, a job they first got because of experience in a completely unrelated area, like business school or sales. As a result, they invariably apply the wrong criteria and processes to a job that, like most jobs, has its own unique demands and challenges and idiosyncrasies.
For years agencies have wished there was a book that explained to clients what they needed to know to do their jobs effectively. Not the number crunching and spreadsheet-reading they learn in b-school, and not the “what will it take to put you behind the wheel” gusto they hone as salespeople. And neither, it should be noted, training in how to be the patsies of any creative director with an expense account and a dream.
Instead, something that would introduce them to what they should be thinking about when they engage an agency. That would prepare them for the kinds of issues that always arise when creating a campaign – politically, financially, creatively, strategically, and every other way. Something that would help them not try to be creative directors or sales people or analysts but instead really good, you know clients.
And that, whether they know it or not, is exactly what 160over90, a branding agency in Philadelphia, have done.
To be clear, Three and a Tree is a book about higher education marketing. (The title refers to the category’s ubiquitous visual cliché – the one that features three students of carefully varied or indeterminate ethnicities, garbed in heavily logo’d school merch, smiling idiotically in the vicinity of a – wait for it – tree.)
But the more you read, the more you realize this is really a primer for how to be a client. Like this useful observation:
Branding is not for everyone. It takes a strong stomach for criticism, a long-term commitment in dollars, and support from the top down. If you don’t have a president willing to stand up in front of his harshest critics and be able to say ‘this is who we are, I support it, and I hope you will too,’ any new brand message you develop will have the impact of a firecracker tossed into the Pacific. Likewise if your board or executive council is in constant disagreement with your institution’s goals. Or, if you believe that a brand can move your school forward, but nobody’s willing to stand by your side, you’re doomed for failure – and you should probably seek employment from people who care. (p.62)
Replace “president” with “CEO” and “institution” with “product” and you have a sentiment that should be read before every agency presentation regardless of industry, discipline or media.
But why should a book on higher ed marketing turn out to be so damn useful?
For one thing, the topic is highly accessible. In spite of the fact that only 30% of Americans have college degrees, we’ve all encountered college marketing on some level. Either as high schoolers inundated with materials, or as parents dragged from campus tour to campus tour, or as viewers of the commercials colleges run during the halftimes of football games. We know the category.
What we don’t know is the colleges themselves – and that’s the vital distinction. Because we have some level of familiarity with the products in virtually every other category we shop for. Buying a car for the first time? You’ve surely heard of Ford and Toyota and probably ten other brands. Picking up some beers for a friend? Even if you don’t drink, you know something about Bud and Coors and Heineken, right?
But in higher ed marketing, we often have no frame of reference beyond what the marketing materials are showing us. We come to them as blank slates, upon which institutions try to draw their brands. And it turns out that this curious combination of the familiar and the unknown creates a unique opportunity. One in which basic truths like the ones 160over90 lays out about the principles of branding on p. 13 are surprisingly resonant. Like their emphasis on involving all stakeholders before launching anything (p. 97). Or like their insight on p. 151 that content without carefully considered form is a waste of time.
You know, the kinds of things clients should be thinking about, but often don’t even know they should be. Because they’ve never been taught to.