Red on Marketing Blog

Ethics: When a client's wrong, how much dissent is right?

I recently struggled with where to draw a line between giving advice to a client contact and escalating an issue in order to make sure that the client organization got the best results. Input welcome.

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I was working with a mid-level manager at a rapidly growing company. I'll call the manager Vinny, and the company Success, Inc. Working with Vinny, we had refreshed Success Inc's branding, created a sharp B2B website design for a new site about to be launched, and built out the site's structure.

Vinny had taken on content creation and implementation. We almost never divide labor with a client in this way. But Success Inc. came to us via a referrer I wanted to cultivate, and I bent our rules (don't tell Rick Roberge!).

During implementation of the content, Vinny created six or seven graphics on his desktop, and sprinkled them on a few pages. Vinny was not a designer. Each graphic used different colors and fonts; some were crammed with poorly written text; all were saved as grainy, low-resolution images. On a scale from 1-10, 10 being the best, I'd rate these graphics around a 2. Trust me here -- this wasn't in one of those gray areas.

Then more and more website pages -- including the home page -- sported Vinny's graphics. The site no longer had a professional look and feel. And that would hurt visit-to-contact conversions, I knew. Which would hurt marketing ROI.

Try #1

I called out the problem at least three times. The first time I was oblique. Probably too oblique. I offered new versions of the graphics, professionally produced by our designers. "Thanks, but no need," was the gist of the reply.

Me: somewhat concerned.

Try #2

The second time I was more direct (I think). I requested a phone call. On it I explained how upgrading to B2B-produced graphics would pay off. "That's great that you're taking time to explain all that," was the gist of Vinny's response, "but they don't seem that problematic."

Me: Now red flags all over about the larger import of this disagreement.

Try #3

Then Vinny asked B2B to design a new banner for a particular page at Success Inc's website. Feeling like a Negative Nancy, I bridged to the topic of the graphics, and said I needed to be blunt in order to be sure I was providing the value that Success, Inc. was paying B2B for. The single most important thing to address before launch were the aforementioned graphics, I said. And with the site launch just days away, a new banner was the wrong place to invest time. Vinny seemed to get it, and was appreciative that I'd pressed the point. He would reflect and get back to me.

When he did, the gist was, "Actually, we really do want that new banner".

Something ain't right

I was taken aback. I'm not used to having thoughtful advice brushed aside. But was the problem just my ego? My gut-check went something like this:

  • What had I missed? Something about the client's goals and priorities? I didn't think so. But quite often I don't know what I don't know.
  • Was I acting in accordance with my core values? Yes (strongly).
  • Would the owner of Success, Inc. be receptive if I contacted her? Uncertain. She had explicitly delegated such decisions to Vinny.
  • Would Vinny be resentful if I contacted her boss? Yes (strongly).
  • Did I have a duty to do it anyway? The site would likely convert visitors, even with the terrible graphics. Just at a lower rate. So the stakes weren't high enough to warrant the escalation, I thought.

So we delivered a cool banner per their request, while shaking our heads.

What would you have done? What could I have done differently?

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Topics: Performance Design