An ode to comfy chairs and the emotional sell, by Frankie Everson (Senior Strategist) and Nick O’Donnell (Account Director)

Anyone who has met Nigel Bogle may remember the story he tells about comfortable chairs. It goes something like this:

When they started BBH, the two Johns and Nigel had a tiny office in Soho. There was barely room to swing a cat. Much to the dismay of the others, John Hegarty had bought some extremely expensive chairs to furnish the office. Given the business was just starting out, these extravagant chairs were a source of much contention.

Fast forward a month, and the three met with a very senior, very important prospective client from Levi’s. The meeting seemed like it was going badly. The client’s face remained stern throughout the presentation, and at the end they were met with silence. Cue some uncomfortable shuffling.

Suddenly, the client spoke: “The first thing I’d like to say,” he said, “is that this is the most comfortable chair I’ve ever sat in. On that basis alone, I’d be prepared to award you the business.”

And so began one of the most successful, enduring client relationships in the history of advertising.

Of course, the story about the chairs is somewhat proverbial; and of course, the business was not awarded solely on the basis of the furnishings. But the anecdote contains an important lesson: the small, human touches make a big difference.

We call it ‘the emotional sell’. The emotional sell is knowing your client’s choice of coffee; it’s making sure the tech is working and the meeting room is clean; it’s remembering your client can’t stand seeing gifs in PowerPoint; it’s knowing the client prefers big concepts to detailed scripts. It’s also about making sure we consider the things that are important to them – like their budgets, or their priority media channels – as well as the things that are important to us.

You can get 99% of any presentation, meeting, or interaction right, but neglect the emotional sell and you risk failure.

Logically, you could argue, this doesn’t make sense; and indeed, there are plenty of advertising folk who reject the notion of client mollycoddling or of ‘theatre’: making a big show; playing music at the start of a meeting; giving out the client’s favourite cupcakes. If the work’s good, they argue, the client will buy it.

But this is simply not true. Just as consumers aren’t motivated through rational decision-making processes to buy the products we advertise, neither are our clients motivated to buy our ideas purely through logical arguments. As John Hegarty famously said, “Information goes in through the heart”. 

We spend so much time talking about the importance of tapping into people’s emotions through our advertising, but sometimes we forget to apply it to our own business. We give the client a latte instead of an americano; the tech fails; we embed a gif they hate; or we lose them by showing too much detail when they aren’t that way inclined.

It’s impossible to quantify the pitches lost by neglecting the emotional sell; the ideas ignored; the work killed. No client is ever going to stand up and tell us we failed because we didn’t ask about their kids; and the likelihood is, they don’t consciously realise it themselves. Indeed ’negativity bias’ is a well-known behavioural bias, meaning our brains are essentially hard-wired to remember negative experiences over positive ones. It means that even if one seemingly minor thing goes wrong amidst an otherwise perfect presentation, our clients are still likely to dwell on the negative.

So next time you’re gearing up to present a big idea and all systems are go, stop for a second and ask yourself: “Have we nailed the emotional sell?”. It doesn’t take a lot, but it could make all the difference.