Despite always having had a love for cars, it wasn’t until my early 20’s that I realized they were more than just nice-to-haves. As a young advertising executive trying to make my way through the highly competitive industry, it dawned on me that driving a nice car could very well tip the scales in my favour. Thus with some help from my parents, I set out to purchase my first luxury car; a large sedan with a certain leaping cat ornament on the hood.

Despite not really being able to afford it, I justified it by creating a clever comparison. I thought about a scenario where two executives were pitching to the same client. One arrives in a late model, general market economical hatch, and the other arrives in a luxury sedan. The client sees both of them arrive, and in my mind would immediately assume that the executive driving the luxury sedan is the more successful of the two. Naturally, the actual pitch would be the deciding factor, but creating that first impression upon arrival could open the door to friendly conversation, and perhaps even create a more favourable opinion in the mind of the client.

Is this an accurate scenario? The answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no.

While the executive with the economical hatch might not place value on driving a flashy car, they may be more sensible with how they spend their money. They might have a family to support or be saving for retirement. They may also not be as reliant on large contracts to fund their lifestyles, affording them more quality time with each of their clients. Lastly, they might step out of their economical car in a $1000 suit, because how they appear to the client in person matters more to them than the means in which they arrive.

The executive who arrives in the luxury sedan, on the other hand, might scream “success”, but the client could just as easily get the impression that they are overpriced. One could also assume that more clients, and/or larger contracts are required to fund the perceived lavish lifestyle leading to less quality time with each client. Should this executive then step into the meeting wearing an outfit, not in keeping with their luxury car it could create a disparity between the image they want to portray and the image perceived by the client. This could cause some damage to their credibility even before they present the pitch.

One of these scenarios occurred a while back. I had set up a meeting with a prospective client at an outdoor restaurant. They arrived before I did and happened to see me parking my expensive-looking convertible. Midway through our meeting, the client said to me that my pitch covered everything they required, but that he was uncertain whether or not they could afford me. I was taken aback by the statement because, even though I was no longer driving a luxury car with the aim to impress clients, it still had an effect on how I was perceived. The client could also not have known that I had purchased the car for 1/4 of its original sticker price.

Thinking back to that first luxury car I now realize how ridiculous it must have looked. No early 20-something-year-old advertising executive should be driving a car fit for doctors and diplomats. The hefty fuel- and maintenance bills of owning such a luxury car took a toll on my finances and saw me becoming “that” executive who had to take on more and more clients while sacrificing the quality of the work I delivered. It was an expensive lesson to learn, but one I am glad to have learned when I was younger.

I have long since moved away from basing purchase decisions on the image a car portrays. Instead, I focus on safety, comfort and how driving the car makes me feel. Yes, I still drive a convertible and new clients will still, from time to time, strike up a conversation about my car, but I am more than happy to set the record straight. What’s more is that it is not leased or financed which frees me to take on fewer clients, and spend more quality time with each of them.

In the end, appearances may be important, but it goes beyond the material. As I got older and more experienced I came to realize that how you carry yourself matters more than what you carry. Fancy cars, expensive suits, and luxury lunches…clients see right through the smoke and mirrors. All they really want is reliable, quality client service. Deliver that, and the reward will be that sports car you’ve always dreamed about.