What is "fragile artist syndrome" and why is it so toxic to agency-client relationships?

This is an article written from the client's perspective on working with agencies or freelance creatives. If you're an agency employee, it provides insight on a common relationship pitfall to avoid.

Back when I was heading the corporate communications department of a billion-dollar company, I had the uncomfortable experience of watching a graphic designer break down and crumple into a ball in my office.

Had he had a seizure? A heart attack? Had he learned of a death in the family? Nope. He just didn’t like the design changes I had asked him to make in my company’s annual report.

When I asked him for alternatives to my recommendations, he snapped, “Well, since you don’t like any of my ideas anyway, what does it matter?” And then he turned to look out the window; I believe I saw a tear.

Hey, I’m not heartless. If I recall correctly, I may have even handed him a tissue.

But I sure as heck didn’t hire him the next year. I’d rather design the annual report myself with a Crayola 64-pack than knowingly deal with a case of Fragile Artist Syndrome.

So Fragile, So Artistic

I can relate to fragile artists. I was a liberal arts major. I started my career as a journalist. I didn’t know how to balance my checkbook until I was 30 years old. It’s even possible — and I’m not admitting anything here — that I have openly wept in certain professional situations.

But a lot of executives who must work with creative types don’t have this kind of background. They come from a business background; they like the feel and smell and taste of money, and they have ever since they studied finance in college.

That’s back when the creatives were smoking bongs, protesting meat being served on campus, taking close-up photographs of blades of grass, and arguing about Nietzsche until 4 in the morning.

But funny how life goes. These two archetypes (OK, stereotypes), who never had anything to do with each other in college, in a few years would be forced to come together to create … CORPORATE COLLATERAL!

That’s right — annual reports, brochures, websites, you name it. If you wonder why so much corporate collateral sucks, and why you so rarely see any of it hanging in a museum, you can lay the blame at the feet of this unholy, forced alliance.

Guess Who’s the Boss?

But you know what? The client is the boss in this relationship. He or she is paying the creative (the photographer, the designer, the copywriter, what have you) money to be creative on behalf of the corporation.

That means the creative has to collaborate with — and when there is disagreement, defer to — the client.

As a client, you’ll learn that some creatives are much better at this than others — and that often, it is the creatives who master client relations, rather than the most talented ones, who have the most successful careers.

Of course, the creatives who haven’t mastered client relations have a different term for those who have: butt-kissers.

Getting Down to Business

All kidding around aside, working with a fragile artist — one whose ego can’t withstand normal criticism from a client — can ruin a corporate communications project. At the least, it can take all the pleasure out of it.

So how do you, as a client, ensure that the designer, copywriter or photographer you’re about to hire is not susceptible to Fragile Artist Syndrome?

First, you should ask them directly how they handle criticism. Share an anecdote about a difficult communications project you’ve managed in the past — one with lots of red tape, versioning, and inane executive decision-making — and ask them how they would have dealt with it.

Next, ask them to provide examples of some of their more challenging projects. If their stories tend to cast former clients in a negative light, that’s not a good sign.

Finally, ask for references. Call the references and discuss the collaboration process. Did it come easy, or was it uncomfortable?

Specifically ask how the creative handled revisions. When you’re working with a fragile artist, and you ask them to take an idea back to the drawing board and come up with fresh concepts, what you’ll often find is that the level of creativity diminishes with each request. It’s typically a sign that the creative’s ego has been bruised, and he or she has lost enthusiasm for your project.

Ultimately, I’ve found the best way to avoid Fragile Artist Syndrome is to find creatives you work well with — and then keep hiring them. Shared experience builds trust and, as any old married couple can tell you, trust is the key to a long-term, low-maintenance relationship.

- Scott Baradell