Advice — How to attract, maintain and build the right kind of client relationships

Posted 01 November 2018

Finding and landing your first few clients is one thing, but maintaining good communication and delivering work you’re proud of is quite another. We’ve all heard horror stories of client relationships gone wrong, so what can you do to make sure the exchange runs smoothly? We’ve drawn on some of the most useful advice we’ve received from our interviewees to find out just that. From ways to attract the right kind of commissions and getting off to the best start, right up to knowing when to say no, here are some key recommendations from a wide range of creatives.

Attracting the right clients

Make the work you want to be commissioned for
“Dedicate time to personal projects that focus on things you enjoy. Client projects are usually very fast-paced and come with so many restrictions and strings attached that they can leave you frustrated and creatively unfulfilled. 

“Spending a little bit of time each week on that story, short film, illustration series or indie game can be so creatively rewarding. These projects will develop your style and skills, might make it into your portfolio and probably lead to paid work that’s more in line with your interests and style.
– Priya Mistry, illustrator

“I am always working on personal projects, they are so good for developing belief in what you can do. If you just work for clients, you are only producing work that someone else wants. You came into this industry because of your love for it, so don’t ever forget to work on your own projects. This will inevitably get you more work, as it’ll be a project filled with genuine passion.”
Kelly Anna, artist and print designer 


Maintain consistency
“I have a few key clients that I work with every season, but I try to be proactive in generating my work too. This is particularly important as it keeps you evolving and taking yourself to the next level. Within my work, I aim to maintain a consistency and identity to be able to attract the right collaboration for future projects. This has helped make me the right person for the jobs I do, as it shows clients how I align with their direction.”
David Steven Wilton, casting director


Stay visible 
“I do my best to stay visible online and in touch with people as much as possible. I guess my approach is to externalise a certain tone-of-voice across all my work so that clients can see the potential in what I do and match it up with their needs.” 
– Matthew the Horse, illustrator and tutor 

Getting off to the right start

Communicate how long something takes
I’m fairly new to the industry, but I’ve found that clients usually have no idea what [my creative working] process involves. This means that the deadlines and budgets they propose are almost always extremely tight. This in turn means having to work much longer hours and sometimes weekends. I’m quite good at time management so I can manage the workload when it gets tough like this, but it definitely isn’t sustainable for the industry as a whole.”
– Katy Wang, animator and director

Agree on the scope of work
By defining the problem clearly right at the start, and what the solutions can be judged against, the client has their yardstick. This means I can also explain any decisions based on referring to what we've both agreed at that stage. I know when I'm getting it wrong and so do they. I spend a lot of time getting that bit right.”
– Bruce Usher, designer and art director

Go the extra mile on the first project
New clients usually come about from recommendations or seeing my work online (from my portfolio, social media or press). So when new clients come through I try to over-deliver on the first project. About 80% of my projects are from repeat business, so that first project is important to get right.”
– Michael William Lester, multidisciplinary creative


Meet in person
I always try to meet with clients face-to-face, especially when introducing my work as you get to explain the process, and in my case show how original artwork is constructed. This is not always possible of course, but you tend to form more of a relationship through a meeting than sending a PDF.”
– Marcus Walters, illustrator and designer


“I might be a little old school, but I believe it’s important to step out from behind the emails to do in-person meetings, which are key to building strong relationships with existing and potential clients.” 
– David Steven Wilton, casting director

“Spending as much time as I can with the client whilst I'm working through the design seems to make the most sense to me.” 
– Bruce Usher, designer and art director

Communication and collaboration are key

Work with clients, not for them
“Collaboration is a huge part of the way we work, both as a team and with our clients. We find that we get the best results when we work with our clients and not for them. Close collaboration means effective communication, being able to be honest, having trust and respect from both sides. Working in a truly collaborative way with your clients takes a lot of hard work and energy. You have to really mean it.”
– Ben Steers, designer and founder of Fiasco


Have patience
“When you’re in a role that relies so heavily on creativity, you need to accept that some days you’ll be firing on all cylinders, and others will be an uphill battle. The same goes for clients – you learn to be patient, because they might not have done this before, or worse, they might not understand fully (which ultimately is your fault).”
– Katie Cadwallader, designer at Supple

See things from their side
“[Having] empathy is vital. People behave in different ways when they are under pressure, so it’s important to try and see things from the client’s point of view too, and what’s important to them.”
– Joanna Rowlands, client director at Uniform


Be honest, and make friends
Because I’ve made so many connections over such a long time, a lot of clients have become really good friends as well. Your job can become quite a big part of your life, so you might as well enjoy it. There’s an old style of selling which you get in car showrooms, but people don’t want to be pressured. They want someone who knows what they’re talking about and isn’t just telling them what they want to hear. The relationships you form with people thrive off on honesty – it forms a stronger working relationship. My clients know that if I don’t know the answer, I’ll find the answer. If you can’t do something, admit that.”
Jane Crowther, sale executive at G . F Smith


Treat each relationship individually
“I like to think there’s no such thing as bad clients, just bad relationships. Some of my clients aren't so visually literate, others aren't sure what the solution needs to be, some are stressed, some are laissez faire and some have very little time to spend with you. The main thing is to work out how to make the relationship work best and then keep everything totally clear and transparent, what's possible and how can we both achieve it. Perhaps I'm lucky, but I don't think I've ever had a truly terrible client.”
– Bruce Usher, designer and art director

Balancing your style with their needs

Find the middle ground
Clients don't think like you. They may have a strong idea in their heads that you dislike, somewhat. So it's about developing a middle ground that will give you the platform to push back in your own desired direction.”
– Jaco Justice, designer and interior designer

Identify opportunities to push an idea further
With some art directors, there is a tone they want, so you have to do your best to deliver under those constraints. But there are some ADs who you’ll be able to encourage to go in a less obvious direction. With experience, you’ll know which ones are more open to ideas. In this situation I try to offer them many more options they hadn’t initially considered. In this instance, the collaboration is subtle and rewarding. You get more out of it.” 
– Nishant Choksi, illustrator

Offer strong alternative options
“My approach is to always give the client what they want, but open them up to a strong edit of possibilities in line with the brief that they might not know exist. In the end, they may still go with their initial choice, but if I don’t try to give them other options and open them up to other ideas, I’d feel like I have done them and myself a disservice.” 
– David Steven Wilton, casting director

Find clients who are willing to try something new
“A huge challenge [at Uniform] has always been to convince our clients to try something different, challenge the norm and evoke emotion through our images. We’ve actively pursued clients who want to spark intrigue and move beyond the ordinary.”
Mark Lee, associate creative director at Uniform

Keeping it professional

Get good at time management
As I am usually working with clients in different times zones, the time span of a job can vary, which can make it a 24-hours and 7-days-a-week job. It’s super-important to know how to manage your time properly and create a good work-life balance as it can become all-consuming at times.”
David Steven Wilton, casting director 


Brush up on your presentation skills

“Having good ideas will only get you so far, but having the ability to share them with your team and clients in a clear way, without fluffing your lines, is really important. This was something that I was pretty weak at for the first few years of my career, but the only way to get better is practice. Even as a junior you should try and have at least a couple of slides in each presentation which you feel comfortable explaining. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.”
Liam Hill, copywriter and strategist  

Collaborate and keep learning
Working with clients has to be collaborative. I have to listen to and balance the needs of my clients with my own, and try to merge them together. Every project I work on helps with development, because there is always something new to learn. Sometimes you’ll work on a project and you’ll only have one round of feedback, and with others it will just go on and on! Working with different clients is a constant learning curve.” 
– Kelly Anna, artist and print designer 


Don’t be precious
Learning not to be precious about your work is important; clients regularly change their minds in the middle of projects and there isn’t time to mourn that image you spent three days painting for them. You just have to move on and get on with it, which can be hard sometimes. Advertising moves at a pretty rapid pace so being efficient with workflow has been another important one.”
Daniel Lambert, illustrator 


Learn to deal with rejected work
Spending many years as a self-managed artist meant that I was always in total control. But when you start working at an agency, there are suddenly a lot more voices in the mix. Then you have to get the client to approve your work. I've done a lot of work that's ended up in the bin, and that can be pretty demoralising.”
Luke Leighfield, copywriter

Don’t be afraid to say no

Stand by your ethics
“Clients find us through a mixture of word-of-mouth, recommendation and repeat business, but we also approach companies or organisations that really fit with our ethos. It has to work both ways; we need to be right for them but equally they have to fit with our philosophy.

“We’ve turned down work because there was a conflict between our ethics and those of our clients. For example, we were recently approached by a potential client who, after some digging, we discovered had an offshore account in a tax haven. Having done a lot of work with Global Witness to help them expose such companies it just didn’t feel morally right. Which was a shame because the budget was great!”
Pali Palavathanan, co-founder of TEMPLO


Stand your ground when you disagree
It’s not enjoyable dealing with highly strung, over-empowered marketing managers or company owners who hire you to do a job, only to insist that they can do it better. There’s a lot of integrity in the work that we do, so we won’t just roll over if we’re asked to do something that we don’t believe is right. Having those conversations, with clients who think they know best, can be really taxing and can make or break a project.”
Ben Steers, designer and founder of Fiasco

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