My annual chats with Emuron Alemu follow a pattern. Work is hard; *whiskey*, life is exciting, *whiskey*, advertising is a calling, *whiskey*, Africans are *whiskey* hilarious, we need to *whiskey* work hard, *whiskey* we *whiskey* have *whiskey*to *whiskey* change *whiskey* the *whiskey* world. *whiskey* *whiskey*

Starting out in Uganda and now at WPP, he is the fastest rising creative I know. Saving brands, taking names and kicking ass. We talked about the industry across the continent and about opportunities for young creatives (a common idea is that the industry is dominated by old, geriatric farts whose time is long past but more on this later), then he said something intriguing.

He said rather casually “I was talking to someone at work recently and he said to me across the world clients are now afraid of great work.”

I saw my life flash before me. My chest constricted. My breath caught. I was perplexed. Creatives give life and limb, blood and tears to do great work. They sacrifice family, relations, friends, parties, and more to commit to this craze. How possible is it then that across the industry people were saying that clients were slowly moving away from great work?

What was happening?

This is how he explained it to my addled mind. Great work won awards. It won pitches. Looked good in portfolios. It might even save a tanking brand – for a while. Above all it created expectations.

Expectations are always rising. insatiable. innumerable. Inexplicable. Unseen often unspoken even. They make clients say things like “But last month you did this campaign in 1 week how come you now say you need 3 weeks?” Expectations are dangerous.

Great work also never starts out as great work. Often it will be an idea and not much more. It will require someone to believe in it (insert client) and to pay for it. Why? Because great work has a 50-50 chance of bombing. It can either be very good or very bad. The risk, the edginess is what transcends it. And often, with jobs in the balance, clients will simply not go “all-in” on an idea. They require some certainty.

The biggest reality to hit great work has been the evolution of client roles. In the past most corporate structures separated marketing and sales roles; ostensibly making marketers “spenders” and sales people “earners”.

Businesses are now merging these roles making marketers have targets – real hard cold targets. Don’t get me wrong, they still have to achieve emotional warmth, brand affinity, and emotional equity but they also have ROI, market share and conversion conversations.

The latter conversations are quite difficult to have because they involve justifications to the business and also influence future budget allocations. How will this great TV commercial turn customers to my product and keep them there? The truth is great work does this. It answers the brief and saves the brand – for a while.

Then brands go back and do the same shitty things. Disrespect customers. Abuse employees. Lie to stakeholders. Break every promise they make. So naturally the “great” work done by said campaign is eroded in customers’ minds. Then it is all downhill again. Until the next great campaign. Leaving the business graph looking like the heart monitor reading of a tachycardia – erratic with little chance of normalization.

Those difficult conversations mentioned above have defined the job to be done – deliver results. Clients want work that works. Work that delivers. That doesn’t solve only today’s problem but that will be built on tomorrow, next month and next year. Strategic work.

Work that works.

Good work. That’s what it is. Good, effective, grounded, researched, insightful, problem-solving, long shelf life, and targeted work. That’s what clients need today. Work that helps them keep their jobs so they can keep paying for school fees, mortgages, rent, car loans, bar bills, new phones and CIM.

Clients are also people. They have dreams, aspirations. and responsibilities. 

That doesn’t mean you can do crap work. No. It means if your work isn’t solving a problem, it doesn’t matter if Zeus himself touched you with a lightning bolt, it’ll be crap. It means that if your work improves your client’s bottom-line, you improve their chance of getting a promotion, advancing their career and ultimately growing their brand.

Good work is also replicable; month after month, year after year and is not unattainable. That means you can six good campaigns a year and not only the great one. This naturally lays emphasis on solid strategy and good old hard work and crafting. Where it all starts.

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