As many readers know, I’m officially old. Can’t deny it. Had put in an entire career in advertising–eleven years–before I every touched a personal computer. The younger characters on Mad Men? Your Pete Campbells and Ken Cosgroves and Harry Cranes? Those guys were my bosses back in the Eighties. I am one generation removed from Don Draper.

I mention this only to set up the veracity of my next assertion: I have seen lots of agency/client relationships. Hundreds. Thousands, maybe. In all sorts of industries: retail, financial, health care, high tech, consumer electronics, entertainment, not-for-profit. Among companies of all sizes: large and small, international and local. Giant ad agencies working with tiny clients. Freelancers working with multinational corporations.

Most of these relationships were terrible.

By which I mean, dysfunctional. Based on fear and intimidation. Unbalanced. Marriages of convenience. Necessary evils.

Of course, I’ve been party to some great relationships, too. Through which great work gets done. Work that helps drive customer interest and response. That the people who developed it look back upon with warmth and pride.

So what’s the difference?

We’re fond of asserting that agencies and clients deserve each other; that is, if you hold yourself to high creative standards, you’ll attract clients who want great creative work. If you smother your clients with account service, you’ll attract clingy clients. And so on.

But most agencies have competent creative people capable of excellent work. And most agencies have people whose sole job is to make clients happy. The difference, I’m here to tell you, is usually on the client side. So how do you become a great client? Here are a few words of advice from a guy who’s had the pleasure of working with a few of them:

1. Demand great work. We want to do great work for you. We never want to take the easy way out. Ever. I have never in my life met a writer or a designer or a producer who wanted to half-ass a job. Make no mistake: most creative work ends up being compromised somewhere along the way, and we all understand that. But we all appreciate it when we know our client wants something great. And we all die a little inside when we know our client wants something safe and boring and politically expedient.

2. Listen. We pride ourselves on being good listeners. Clients should be good listeners, too. You hired us for our expertise. You should expect us to be good advisors–and we hope you value our opinions. The great David Ogilvy used to say that if a client didn’t like the idea the agencies brought, the client should do it, anyway. We’re not sure we’d take it that far, but we understand the sentiment. All we want is a fair hearing.

3. Be honest. Don’t beat around the bush. Don’t be afraid of hurting someone’s feelings. Don’t be vague. We’re professionals. We get rejected every day; heck, we reject each other’s ideas all day long. We would rather you told us you hate something–even if you’re not sure why–than hem and haw and send mixed signals. We’re also reasonable people who want to make you happy. We may secretly harbor the same misgivings you do; we have bad days, too. In spite of how vigorously we defend our work, we never want to force anything on you. We’re really not happy until you are.

4. Stay focused on your customers. That you don’t like an idea may be totally irrelevant. We’re not doing advertising to attract you. We’re trying to speak to your customers. There’s so much subjectivity in this business that it’s easy to get wrapped up in your own ego. So when you’re judging creative work, you have to keep the ultimate audience in mind.

5. Say thanks. We will lose sleep–quite literally–worrying about the work we do for you. We will run through brick walls for you. We will obsess over headlines and photographs and typography for you. An acknowledgement that you see and appreciate our hard work is sometimes all we need to feel satisfied. Seriously: we don’t need a present or a party or an award. A simple, “Hey–nice work,” is all we need.

In the end, it’s your money, and we know it. Just know that we love what we do, and we want our work to be great–for you. We want you and your company to succeed beyond your wildest dreams. That’s why we lose sleep and skip lunch and fight about commas. It’s all for you.

Finally: thanks to all of our clients. If we have the clients we deserve, we must be really nice people.