Are Clients the Devils, Buddies, UnSpeakables or Angels?

Are Clients the Devils, Buddies, UnSpeakables or Angels?

For Clients - Gun or Rose?

It’s with great pleasure that I introduce this month’s guest writer, Jef Tan.

Jef is a dear friend of mine. Not only that, he was my colleague when we worked in Pounds and Jordan. On top of that, he has been my boss. After he left P&J to start his own agency, he invited me to head his account servicing department. Those were exciting days where adredalin was perpetually high as we kept clinching coveted accounts over the big boys. It was with regrets that I left his agency to join the client side. Jef went on to make it big in the creative scene and won 3 awards from Creative Circles. However, it will be a big mistake to see Jef simply as an outstanding designer. To me, Jef is no ordinary designer. He can write excellent ad copy effortlessly to match his creative idea. He will unreservedly contribute his opinion on marketing strategies and tactics during brainstorming sessions. He is an asset in any team.

I enjoy working with Jef. When I started Versa Creations a few years, he was the only one I could entrust with the design of my corporate logo. I had expected nothing short of good work, still, he surprised me with the originality of his idea. Until now, my ambigram logo remains one of the most talk about features on my business card. Recently, David Airey – the popular designer-blogger – short-listed Versa Creations’ logo in his Logo Design Love Award.

Jef Tan is currently freelancing as an art director in Melbourne and is working on his first book. In his own words, “thankfully not about the creative industry”.

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Clients are a funny lot of people aren’t they? They are the reason why businesses like ours exist. But for most of us with the odious task of coming up with design solutions or any kind of creative work (and by that I mean, a unique genre of service where human emotion is a deciding raw ingredient), clients can sometimes force us to evaluate why we were ever in the creative business in the first place. After having spent a decade and a half in this trade, I should like to say that I’ve seen them all: clients who can bring us to the moon and back and of course, the ones that send us to the psychiatrist’s chair.

I’d like to offer a quick categorisation of the various kinds of clients that creative folks have encountered at some point of their professional lives. These are all pigeon-hole categories of course, common sense could never draw distinct lines between them all. I do this in the hope that for the younger lot of us, it might serve as some sort of an umbrella, you know, for when shit hits the fan.

The Devil

Let’s start with the worst type of all and why not? The Devil is the type of client whom you’ve come to depend on for the most part of your balance sheet. The kind that might even possibly pay well and provides enough work to keep your younger colleagues away from Facebook. This client will most likely be the one whom you’d reschedule appointments at the drop of the hat. And get this: the Devil knows all this and the evil thing is the Devil will use it to his or her advantage each and every time. Sounds familiar? You know it’s the Devil when they demand and throw tantrums like everyone else except you find yourself jumping into the car and racing to their office only to find that it wasn’t such a big deal in the frst place. But then again, it’s their way or the Highway.

The Buddy

Okay, I lie. Here’s the Buddy. Worse than the Devil. These are the “clients” that leave you wondering in the middle of the night while you contemplate the space-time continuum: how did I ever find these people? The truth hits you like a decaying durian: at someone’s wedding, housewarming or multi-level marketing product demonstration! That’s right. The “friends” or friends of friends or relative of a business “associate” who, over a tipsy martini you agreed to do work for. These are the ones who expect mate’s rates (if you’re lucky) or next to nothing (if you’re really unlucky) or nothing at all (what did you do in your past life?). There’s nothing worse than doing anything under emotional blackmail duress.

The Unspeakable

I lie again. Worse than the worst of all, meet the Unspeakable. An evil so foul that it has no name! Now these would be the type that creeps into your life very innocently. It might have been a successful pitch or a random phone call from someone with a cute accent. Unspeakables have monolithic identities: they could come from brands or institutions the size of Godzilla’s mother so at first glance you’d kill to work on their account. Then after months of working on a mamoth project, the Unspeakables can decide to “call it off”. And because they are evil, they can also decide not to pay you. “What are you gonna do hotshot? Sue us? Haha!” Unspeakables thrive in Asia where many cannot tell the difference between a graphic designer and a hooker.

The Angel

Now imagine someone with all the initial characteristics of the Devil. Pays the bill, demands good work and rewrites on occasion, the works. But the equation is a little different. The Angel knows that it’s not always about what he/she thinks. They know that for any work to be good, it has to be done happily. So the Angel knows how to inspire, rather than shove values down like unprocessed meat. You know when you’re working with an Angel that even the smallest person on the team is excited to work with any project and any aspect of it. Even the receptionist is happy to get a call from the Angel. It’s freaky, but all true. The Angel is the kind of client that makes working with the Devil a lot easier to bear. Unfortunately, Angels are elusive. Some of us spend our entire career looking for even one!

Caricatures aside, what every savvy designer/businessperson really should know is when to sack the client. Newsflash! You are allowed to sack them just as easily as they do you (no pun intended). For all those who live on the dark side of town, know this: your business relationship really is a two way street. Unfortunately even with my handy guide to client survival, nothing really defines their true category like time can. That, I’m afraid, is eternally unchallenged. It is a rule that quite unfortunately applies to finding your life partner.

You never know if a client is an Angel or a Devil or if someone turns Unspeakable. The only recourse you’ve got is to keep your ears to the ground and be well-informed in the creative industry grapevine because evil clients, like all evil doers normally leave a trail of destruction. If they’ve caused you harm, it is without a doubt that they’ve done this before to someone else. Do a thorough background check, visit online forums and have drinks at a popular peer hangout, drop their name and see if people run for the exit. As for “Buddies”, what were you thinking? Tell them to get out! Lastly, if you’re still searching for your Angel, fear not; they’re out there and they’ll find you if you’re consistently producing outstanding quality work. And that can’t happen when all your time is spent trying to survive Devils, Buddies and Unspeakables, can it?

Jef Tan can be contacted at

3 Replies to “Are Clients the Devils, Buddies, UnSpeakables or Angels?”

  1. There are tons of Devils and Unspeakables in Singapore…disgusting (Asian) business culture here. Many clients elevate themselves to the position of ‘king’ or ‘queen’ as soon as they identify themselves on the paying end of the transaction.

    Singaporeans may be living in a strong economy (pseudo first-world society) but their mindset and behaviour are still very much third-world. No doubts about that.

  2. Hi Jef!
    Wonderful post! I faced several of all the types you mentioned. The humour apart, it’s good learning of the different types of clients we inevitably face! Thanks for your post! Keep writing more such gutsy stuff here!

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