News & Views

Opinion / Creative Risk Profiling

by Simon Kemp

Simon Kemp, Contagious Insider’s Head of Asia Pacific, explores why understanding your clients’ real needs and attitude to risk, as well as their stated ones, can help to develop creative solutions that they accept and embrace

Creative professionals are no strangers to risk. Every time we create something new, there’s a danger that our ideas won’t work, that our clients will reject them, that other people might criticise or ridicule us, or that we won’t get paid for our efforts.

Most ‘creatives’ accept these risks as a normal part of everyday life, but it’s often a very different story for the clients who commission that creative work from them; as we highlighted at last year’s Most Contagious, research from Cornell University has found that many people – clients included – actually equate creativity with ‘poison, vomit, and agony’.

Given the strength of these negative associations, it’s perhaps understandable that many clients have a low tolerance for creative risk. However, clients have never been in greater need of innovative, creative thinking, so we need to find ways to help them feel more comfortable with – or at least in better control of – creative risk.

Perhaps surprisingly, though, a group of professionals in the financial services industry may have cracked the problem for us.

Financial Advisors (FAs) work with clients to plan financial investments, but each of their clients has a different tolerance for risk. Some will be looking for stable, long-term investments like retirement plans, but others will be looking for more dramatic, short-term gains, so are willing to accept more volatile (i.e. risky) investments.

Interestingly, though, an FA’s own tolerance for risk has very little bearing on the advice that they give to their clients. A good FA recognises that their job is not to convince their clients to adopt the investment strategy and risks that they themselves would adopt; rather, it’s to identify and recommend the best approach for each client’s specific needs.

And this is where many creatives come undone; they mistakenly believe that their task is to persuade their clients to embrace their most creative ideas – in other words, to accept the same level of creative risk that they themselves are comfortable with. In most cases, though, this will be asking too much of their clients, and the mismatch in tolerance will lead to tension, friction and disappointment.

But how do FAs know what’s right for each individual client? The answer lies in a simple process called ‘Know Your Customer’ – a simple yet structured interview that maps out each client’s specific needs, objectives, and context. By getting to know each client as an individual, a good FA can identify and recommend an investment strategy that is optimised for that individual’s tolerance for risk, rather than scaring them with high-risk opportunities.

The good news is that creative professionals can adopt a ‘Know Your Client’ process too. While there are different questions you’ll need to ask depending on your specific area of expertise, there are three key areas that play a disproportionate role in determining how much creative risk a client will be comfortable with: their objectives, their challenges and their previous creative experience.

The Client’s Objectives

Most creative professionals work to a brief, and because of this, we’re used to identifying and understanding our clients’ business objectives (e.g. ‘grow sales revenues’). However, there’s a second set of objectives that we often overlook: the personal goals and ambitions of our clients.

This oversight is one of the greatest sources of frustration for creative professionals, because these personal objectives are often the key factor determining whether or not a client buys – and buys into – our work.

Sometimes, clients’ personal goals will be straightforward, such as wanting a promotion, getting a pay rise, or even securing a new job. However, less obvious factors can play an important part in defining individual goals too, and there may be some hidden – and less constructive – motivations that we need to be aware of; for example, personal creative frustrations, or the complexities of internal politics.

The only effective way to understand each client’s individual motivations is to get to know them on a personal level, and to establish and nurture mutual trust. That may seem obvious, but many creative professionals are so focused on ‘doing the work’ that they neglect to build these crucial relationships.

However, without this mutual trust, clients will find it much harder to embrace the ideas we recommend, and we’ll find it much harder to sell in our ideas.

The Client’s Challenge

We at Contagious are big believers in the notion that creativity is the single greatest source of competitive advantage. However, for many clients, the challenge isn’t about how big a difference they can make over the longer-term; often, it’s about how quickly and effectively they can address smaller, more specific challenges.

For example, the more urgent the deadline for delivering their objectives, the more reassurance clients will need when it comes to selling in a particularly creative idea. Similarly, the scale of the challenge your client is facing will have an impact on how comfortable they are embracing a risky creative approach. The key question we need to answer is: how big is the gap between where the client is today, versus where they need to get to by their deadline?

For the same reason, it’s also critical to understand where the current brief or project fits within the overall context of your client’s business; is this a make-or-break opportunity for them to achieve their goals, or is it just another mandatory activity that they need to tick off their to-do list, with minimum effort and engagement?

It’s often tempting to offer our clients the most inspiring and creative ideas we can think of, but that’s not always going to be the best answer for them, so we should always tailor our recommendations and creative solutions to each client’s specific challenges and context.

The Client’s Experience

Prior experience also plays a significant role in shaping people’s tolerance for risk, so it’s critical that we understand how much exposure our clients have had to creativity in the past.

There are two sides to assessing your client’s experience:

Experience in Creating: whether or not your client has experience of being ‘a creative’ themselves. It’s worth exploring creativity beyond your specific area of expertise too; for example, your client may have no experience in building websites, but they may have been involved in desktop publishing, which will invariably have an impact on their perspectives and expectations

Experience in Evaluating: there’s a big difference between knowing how to create something of your own, and being able to objectively evaluate others’ creations. Understanding how much experience your client has in assessing other people’s work – whether that’s in your specific discipline or any other kind of creativity – will help you plan for the various rounds of review and reworking.

The most important step in evaluating your client’s creative experience is to understand how effectively they can communicate their feedback on creative work. Poor communication between clients and their partners is invariably the single greatest barrier to selling in and delivering.

Ensuring Alignment

It’s clear that the three areas we’ve just looked at have little to do with specific creative outputs. However, until you’ve understood the role they play in shaping your client’s appetite for risk, it’s risky for you to even start thinking of potential ideas and solutions.

But by conducting a simple Know Your Client exercise, you’ll be better placed to understand your clients’ real needs, and you’ll find it easier to develop creative solutions that they’re more likely to accept – and maybe even embrace.

Simon Kemp represents Contagious Insider in the AsiaPac region. Contagious Insider is a dedicated consultancy unit that partners with creatively brave leaders to build the vision, tools and capabilities that drive change. To find out more about Contagious Insider – including our renowned creative capabilities practice – please contact