The Impact that Comes with Control in a Marketing Firm

We all define the ideal client in many ways, but essentially it boils down to two things: the ideal client relationship is one in which you make money and have an appreciable impact on your client. Sure, you want to enjoy the relationship, you want referrals, you want prompt payment, you want to work with a decision maker, and a dozen other things. But those two things are the really important ones: money and impact.

We talk about money in various other position papers—here I want to talk about impact.

Mind Your Own Business ConferenceThe Role of Control

How do you get (money and) impact in a client relationship, consistently, month after month? It doesn’t happen without some measure of control in the client relationship. If you’re an order-taker (that’s the opposite end of the spectrum), you’re not an expert, and your recommendations are not considered as seriously as they could be.

So impact doesn’t happen without control, and you know this from your own life outside of work. Unless your physician takes control, he won’t have much impact on your situation. Sure, he will have to listen to you and tailor the treatment to your circumstances, but ultimately he’s got to be the expert or…you’ll just shop for another doctor, who will tell you want you want to hear and be the order taker, whipping out his prescription pad and taking notes as you tell him what you need. This is what your clients often do if they don’t think you’re the expert.

But what control do you really have, right? Answering that question for the client is easy: they can fire you. Or they can fire you without firing you by simply refusing to pay, undercutting your role, marginalizing your impact, demanding daily miracles, etc. But overarching each of those passive-aggressive behaviors is the ultimate threat: do what we want or we’ll fire you and replace you with one of the other marketing firms that keeps calling on us. So that’s easy to see, but again, what control do you really have?

The only real power you have is to withhold your expertise.

That answer is just as simple, but it’s obscured by the fact that the real power behind it is largely absent at most firms, and here’s why: they’re not providing unique expertise in the first place. Instead, their positioning is built on service and the me-too claims nearly every other firm makes.

When your client relationships are built on service, you’re really masking poor positioning, and I can hear you disagreeing in the background, muttering to yourself that “we’re different.”

That might be true, so here’s a way to determine if you’re right or in denial. What would happen if you went to a client and in a kind way indicated that you were going to have to resign the account because you didn’t think you were having the impact you had hoped for? In reality you’d be threatening to withhold your expertise, though you wouldn’t have to necessarily use those terms.

So what would happen? How long would it take to replace you? You’d like to think that no one could, but tell yourself the truth. Three months later, would they be okay?

Client-Driven vs. Client-Focused

The difference between having control in a client relationship comes down to the difference between being client-driven and client-focused. Client-driven is being an order taker struggling to get an edge, clawing your way back to a seat at the table. Client-focused is being an expert who is doing what’s best for the client (and making a lot of money in the process).

There are all sorts of things you can do with control, too, that improve the sustainability of your own firm. In addition to making more money and having more impact, you can erect higher walls between your work and personal lives, protect your staff from abusive clients, and even do more of the kind of work you’re really proud of.


What do you wish were different in your marketing firm today? Especially when you go to work on Monday, perhaps having worked the weekend? What would you do with more control? Make a list for yourself and keep it handy. It’ll serve as a nice reminder as you implement change and experience the inevitable pain that accompanies it.

Client Relations: Rules of Engagement

  • Ellen Shapiro’s Guide to Clients is as close as you can get to a field guide of how to work with people you work for.
  • Inside the Business of Graphic Design, by Catharine Fishel, compiles information from the leaders of today’s design industry about the best kept secrets of the design industry.


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