In my business consultancy I spend a good deal of time interviewing the parties to client/agency relationships. In addition to the value I can add via feedback from individual conversations, it is fascinating to capture the general themes which surface from time to time or, indeed, which are constantly present.

I tend to complete my agency interviews with the question ‘if you could give client company X one piece of advice, what would it be?’ If I had a pound for every time the answer is a version of ‘be brave, be braver, don’t be afraid’, then I would have considerably more pounds than I do today.

Right now, bravery in the workplace is a popular topic. One of our industry’s key representative bodies, The Marketing Society, in pursuit of its purpose to promote the role of marketing in the business community, is wholeheartedly driving a brave agenda, taking the debate to a worldwide audience. Championing the importance of bravery in a commercial environment, the Society’s CEO, Gemma Greaves, is unequivocal: “Good is not enough – when you want to be great, you need to be brave”.

But what does this mean in practice? There are many faces of bravery, embracing leadership through to wider team design and dynamics. Clearly, brave thinking is laudable but insufficient. It needs to be backed up by brave action, shouldering the imperative to step up and speak up, whatever the pressure to play it safe. To this point, with growth proving harder to achieve in almost every sector, some marketers don’t regard bravery as brave at all. For them, sheer survival in business today requires bravery; it is, in truth, the only safe and sensible option.

This is high-level philosophy, however. From the blogosphere and beyond, I was able to find more specific guidance. Firstly, and reassuringly, Dr Emma Barrett, Research Fellow in Psychology at Lancaster University, confirms that we can all learn to be brave. With this in the bag, brave clients seem to facilitate their confidence to stand out by seeing the big picture, by focusing on the end goal. They are on top of their data, understand their customers, are curious about why their brands are adopted (and not) and work with people, including agencies, who challenge them, who help keep them brave.

This still begs the question, though, of what constitutes bravery on any given day. And this dilemma reminds me, from my time in advertising agencies, of the breadth of meaning associated with the word ‘great’, specifically in the term ‘great work’.

Returning to my ‘one piece of advice’ question, when addressed to clients the response often urges agencies to deliver great creative work. But, again, what’s the message here?

As an account handler, my experience was that clients could intend ‘give me great work’ to indicate everything from ‘slightly better than last year’ to ‘something utterly original that I have never seen before’. Significantly, this difference in interpretation was often widest between the client using the word and the creative director hearing it. The results of this miscommunication could be time-consuming at best, disastrous at worst.

In a nutshell, my approach to this issue was to corral all interested parties into a room for a couple of hours to explore everyone’s understanding of ‘great’. Following this revelatory sharing, we would then agree (not always quickly!) where we were setting the creative bar for the upcoming project.

Which brings me back to bravery. Like great, brave is not helpful as a generic. Both words are highly charged and can fire the imagination. For these reasons, they need to be clearly, and hopefully imaginatively, defined in their specific context. If an agency wants a brave client, what precisely does bravery look like for this brief, this project, this year? And how do the client and agency teams make it happen? In this way, problems with interpretation are minimised, expectations are carefully managed and mutual rapport and trust are maintained.

But here’s the rub. What agencies often mean when they request bravery from their clients is ‘please buy our more radical ideas’.  How clients can increasingly conceive bravery is ‘we will reallocate some of your budget to another part of the mix or we will look to bring some of your work in-house’.

Bravery is good. It showcases our species at its best. In business, it is associated with the most successful enterprises and outcomes. But, like great, it’s a heady word which holds different meanings for different people. One person’s bravery can be another’s ho-hum.

If you do want a brave client, it is important to be clear exactly what you’re asking for, in specific rather than general terms, and, in these testing times, be careful also what you wish for.