Everyone is shopping (for good humans).

It is one of those familiar queries. Sometimes through an email, sometimes over a phone call.

“We are looking for an agency to undertake our ______. Requesting you to please share your best quotation at the earliest. The quotation should include _____.”

That’s the polished version. Sometimes it is a random WhatsApp message: “Do you guys do brochures? How much?”

While being appreciative that someone took the time and effort to find us, we almost always know this will go nowhere. In the past, I have received queries for branding, websites, videos, on-the-ground activation, packaging, and campaigns. There was once a strange enquiry to design a training deck consisting of 200 slides, which made me feel bad for that organisation’s employees. 

Behind the query is usually a person who is shopping for a vendor. He/she is probably talking to 3 more, or perhaps 10 more setups to get quotations. 

The main selection criteria? Costings. Comparing all apples, ignoring the orange.

The relationship between client and agency/studio/consultancy is not as simple as the shopper purchasing goods from amazon. We are not here to offer special discounts, promotional bundles, or first-month-free trials. Given that we have limited time and resources and value the people we work with, we have to make the best decisions on who we choose to work with.

Hence the shopping process is bi-directional. The first impressions – the first phone call, the first meeting, the first exchanges of emails – pretty much determine whether we would want to take up a job or a client. Perhaps it is surprising to clients, but money is usually not the main factor.

What are the deal-breakers that make me say NO to a job/client, especially on first impressions? 

It sounds cliched, but I really see a client as a partner who is worth investing time in. 

“Is this a good human to work with?”

It is almost like doing a personality evaluation, and scoring them based on personality traits: Openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. The first three traits can go either way, as long as there’s some balance: Pragmatic and disciplined introverts; or creative and spontaneous extroverts, are equally amazing as clients. The last two traits are the warning signs: I just don’t want to work with self-centred, impatient and borderline abusive clients. “Do as per what I have instructed, produce 3 options, and send it to me tomorrow morning – non-negotiable.” Just because the client is always right. 

“Is this a good human worth investing time in?”

He/she could be a mid-level executive. Besides having the right mix of personality traits, I am also looking for leadership qualities – the most important quality here is vision. Even if it is a small project, a person with great potential can clearly communicate the vision of what the final outcome should be, and will be taking full ownership to make it happen (and not just being reduced to the role of a messenger for his/her immediate supervisor). 

One of the best clients I ever had was the regional marketing director of an MNC. I first got to know her when she was a door-to-door sales consultant. She needed some brochures made to support marketing functions – jobs too small for the big studios. Our relationship started there, because, somehow I knew this is a good human to invest time in.

Surprisingly, it doesn’t matter too much which organisation he/she works for, as long as we have the assurance that we will be paid at the end of the project. Organisations with notorious work culture reputations sometimes have good people, although they don’t normally stay around for too long. That is a plus point too – people move and from there, new clients are found.

“Is this a good human to spend time with beyond work?”

Sometimes, it just clicks. The chemistry. Although, admittedly it doesn’t always happen during first impressions. 

It’s not always about work. The people whom I could find some connection with are the best people to build long-term relationships. They are the clients whom I could call friends, and wouldn’t mind spending time with them beyond work. It could be over a cup of coffee or chai, at a cafe or at each other’s home. A good (retired) client of mine happens to be my obscure art-house DVD titles exchange buddy – that means a lot before the days of torrents, and in a country with heavy censorship rules. 

There are always defenders that argue about keeping a professional boundary. Sometimes a blurred line may be a good thing – when both parties genuinely want each other to do well, and going the additional mile for each other becomes a norm in the relationship. 

I graduated in Economics. Not design.

I remember studying relative scarcity in Economics 101 – there’s always a limited supply in relation to demand. There’s an abundance of marketing/brand/product managers in the market, there’s only a handful of good people. There are too many agencies/studios/consultancies/freelancers in the market, but again, only a handful of good people.

An ex-client (now friend) of ours, when leaving the organisation did a handover meeting. He introduced us to his successors, “These are good people, please take good care of them”. Perhaps the best compliments we can ever get from a client.

Good people. Good humans. 

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