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Client Stages
(June 12, 2001) We're fortunate enough to be getting to know Mike Moser, one of the world's great branding people. Over the course of his career, he's made the "Moser Memo" a famous part of training his team (of clients and employees) to create memorable brands. Mike always says that a brand is like any other relationship, the details are what its all about.

Today, we present a really interesting Moser Memo, from his files:

Below is a model that has to do with "growing up" and the different levels of "questioning" that can occur in one's lifetime. The particular one below has to do with "faithing levels" (originally articulated by James W. Fowler), but I've seen this concept expressed in a lot of different areas - from art appreciation to raising kids.

I think there are a lot of parallels in our client relationships. It shows up in their ability to question their core beliefs, to see beyond themselves and their industry, to be open to more expansive ideas, and to absorb honest criticism and insights into their business. Our recent inability to communicate effectively with Boston Market crystallized some of these thoughts, but I think the parallels also apply to a lot of our other clients.

  1. The Innocent Early childhood
  2. The Literalist Late childhood
  3. The Loyalist Early adolescence
  4. The Critic Late adolescence/Early adulthood
  5. The Seer Integrated expansive thinking
  6. Wisdom
In general, the first three levels are concerned with what "others" think and "How do I fit in with others?" The last three are more individual focused, as in "What do I think is right'

This group echoes what their parents do and say. They don't grasp concepts in a personal way. They tend to imitate an authority figure. In business, these are the true believers that follow the lead of a charismatic leader: a Steve Jobs, a Bill Gates, a Michael Dell. They do only what the parent/visionary wants and no more. These are the blind followers, both at the client and within the agency.

Concrete, literal thinking guides this level. There's security in this phase because one believes that there is only one right way to do things and that's their way. In religion, these are the Fundamentalists. The word is the word. There is no interpretation. If the Bible says God created the world in seven days, then it was literally created in seven 24-hour days. If David Ogilvy says that reversed out headlines are ineffectual, then reversed-out headlines are ineffectual.

People at this level tend to connect intensely with "the program." Rules count. Processes matter. People who need order naturally gravitate to this level.

This level is also very seductive to people who haven't traditionally played by the rules. They tend to go right to this level after a traumatic event or during very stressful times (in the case of Boston Market, the Falling of their stock from 42 to 11.The same thing happened to Dell a couple of years ago when their stock dropped. You also see people who've been living on the edge as alcoholics or heroin addicts gravitate towards this more rigid, literal, rules-oriented level for "the answer."

When clients exist solely at this level, it's a miserable area for the more creative/questioning types of advertising people. They get treated like vendors and are constantly being to told to "get with the program." The advantage of working with people at this level is that they know what they want and they don't waffle. Joel Kocher, the president of Dell in the early days, was a literalist. His mantra was "Just give me big computers, big prices and a big phone number. Just think of all the time you'll save. I could be your most profitable client."

Certainty is in abundance at this level. Questioning is non-existent.

Belonging, loyalty, harmony and conformity are key words. Fitting in and having a close bond with peers is important. The security of the group is comforting. "We Catholics believe." "Us Southerners believe." "Marketers in the fast food industry do it this way." "People in the computer industry do it this way." The security comes from doing it the way everyone else in your perceived group does it. People in new industries, like technology companies, tend to fall into this category.

If you don't believe me, try bringing up a consumer analogy in a high tech meeting. The feeling you get is one of stone cold indifference. You can almost hear the screaming through the silence: "How dare you contaminate this pure industry with your consumerisms. We're new. We're different. We're the future. YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND US!"

Because of this group identification, most technology companies never get past this stage. And, in general, most companies never get past this stage. Car companies look to other car companies for answers. Telecommunication companies study their rivals. Packaged goods companies idolize Proctor & Gamble. Advertising creative people look at awards annuals and imitate other advertising creative people (oops, did I hit too close to home?).

This stage is defined by observation, experimentation and a growing inner awareness that often leads to disillusionment, struggle, doubt and difficult questions that go against the established order (walk around the creative department and this level is palpable). The person/client evolves from"what do others think?" to"what do I think?"

Advertising agencies like us tend to have a lot of people in this area. A willingness to experiment, to go against the established order, to probe the difficult questions. This can be especially hard on a client unless you have one that's willing to go through the process with you. But if you're dealing with a client who's looking for certainty (as in the Innocent and Literalist levels) then the process is painful. It's also painful for a client who's moved beyond this level and really does know what's right for them. They generally don't want to deal with the chaos or cynicism that's inherent in this level.

On the positive side, a lot of creativity comes out of this level.

They've taken in their experience, mulled it over, questioned, synthesized, and integrated it until they arrive at values that ring true for them. There's a deep sense of internal rightness. Great clients and great agency people operate at this level. They're always open to new ideas, but they intuitively know what's right, and they're able to act on that intuition. Advertising agencies tend to be great allies at this stage because of their exposure to a wide range of businesses and consumer buying patterns. They intuitively know the universal truths in the marketplace that apply to a client's issues.

Clients who are at this stage are generally open to what's going on outside their industry. They want to find out how their brand fits into the culture, and they want to understand the bigger trends so they can find the bigger answers. They also tend to treat advertising agencies like valued partners. Clients at this level are great for an advertising agency like us.

This level is defined by a total commitment to a higher authority than themselves. Values, beliefs, and actions become one. Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and Mother Theresa achieve this level in a spiritual sense. In the marketplace, Nike operates at this level. They're cultural icons, representing much more than just themselves. They inspire, educate, and transcend traditional perceptual barriers. They play by a completely different set of rules than traditional people or companies. These are the visionaries in life and in business. These are the clients that elevate business and advertising to an art form. The client/agency relationship at this level is hard to separate because they operate as one voice in the marketplace. For example, it's hard to know where the Wieden culture stops and the Nike culture begins.

Okay, so now what. The general rule is that people have a hard time communicating with someone two or more levels above them. I repeat, the general rule is that people have a hard time communicating with someone two or more levels above them.

The Literalist has a hard time communicating with a Critic. A Loyalist has a hard time talking to a Seer. This is true whether they're clients, agencies, parents or kids. (It's not as hard for people in the upper levels to understand the levels below. Usually they've been through the level and there's a certain amount of empathy. But as any parent of a teenager can tell you, it's frustrating to deal with on an ongoing basis.) With this in mind, we need to be aware of what level we're at. And what level we're trying to communicate to. We deal with all kinds of levels every day. For example, inside a level 5 or 6 company lead by a visionary CEO, someone in the marketing department will inevitably be a Literalist (in fact, almost always).

Or vice versa. The Literalist CEO will have a Seer in the marketing department that we'll have to communicate with (although, as a rule, the lone Seer in the marketing department usually doesn't have a lot of power, and usually leaves after a couple of months because of "communication problems" between themselves and management).

I hope these observations can crystallize the reality of a client or agency situation and help you deal with it. If you're having a hard time communicating with a client, or internally with a colleague, go over some of these thoughts and see if any of them apply to your situation. 1 can't guarantee that anything will change, but at least being aware of what's happening may make your life a little less frustrating, and a little less stressful. If that happens, then it's worth it.

As far as I can see, we have a ton of level 4 (Critic) and 5 (Seer) people in this agency. That's good. That means we have the creativity, understanding, insights and ability to do great work. We also have a lot of Literalist and Loyalist people within our client organizations. The only way we're going to turn our creativity and insights into higher level

advertising is by educating our clients. Getting each of them to stretch to one level above where they're at (I know you want to get them to 2 or 3 levels above, but it isn't going to happen overnight. All you'll get is folded arms, or a downward stare, or a "deer in the headlights look," all leading to a phone call to Fred asking that you be taken off the business). Just do your homework, listen to their issues, slowly get them to question their safe "beliefs" and give them sound, alternative solutions that will enable them to start communicating on a higher level.

You guys have the talent. I know you can do it. Go for it.

We think that this could well be one form of foundation for employment branding.

- John Sumser © TwoColorHat. All Rights Reserved.


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