Let’s Agree to Disagree
Debate builds trust, and better work.
A number of years ago we were in the midst of a final interview on “pitch day” with a prospective CMO and his marketing director. We’d worked hard over the past eight weeks and had uncovered some compelling insights that we were looking forward to sharing later that day. The conversation was pleasant, but I realized we were about to be presenting a strategy that would contradict what this CMO had just asserted.
Since this was a bit of a chemistry test, I felt compelled to ask,
“How do you feel when your agency disagrees with you?”
Before he even spoke, the look on his face told us all we needed to know. I sat there, kicking myself for not asking that question weeks earlier. Knowing his reaction would have saved us a ton of time, resources and emotional capital.
You see, we don’t always agree with our clients.
In fact, we often disagree. And, our best clients encourage it.
After three decades in this business, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the most important pillars of a productive client-agency relationship—or, heck, maybe any relationship—is disagreement.
While it might sound counter-intuitive, healthy disagreement can often build trust in a client-agency relationship. Not the kind of disagreement we see in the political world these days, where our parties simply disagree in order to discredit the other side or preserve self-interest. Instead, I’m talking about critical thinking and rigorous debate with the purpose of getting to the best possible answer—or in this case—the most effective work for our clients.
In the short term, agreeing feels comfortable. But being comfortable in this business doesn’t get you very far. When you’re in the business of ideas and strategy, debate is critical, ensuring that strong ideas make it out alive and weak ones die. When working well, a “positive friction,” tests the strength of an idea. Much like lifting weights, without resistance, you’ll see no improvement.
Are there rules to effective disagreement? Sure. We’ve all heard the phrase, “disagree without being disagreeable.” But, effective disagreement is more than about being pleasant.
First, it’s important that debates are waged on equal footing without either side wielding its power over the other. This is the toughest dimension for debates between agencies and their clients. Because the agency knows that they serve at the pleasure of the client, and its role is limited to making recommendations to the client (the client’s role is to decide), it’s critical for the client to take the lead in open dialogue and discussion. This goes for bosses and subordinates, too. We all know who gets to make the final call, which means it’s even more important to keep the power within the debate as balanced as possible.
Second, challenge the idea, not the person. Debates should always be about the work, and only about the work—not the people creating it or managing it. While it’s impossible to keep passion out of debates, personalities should always be left out. Avoid saying things like, “you never…” or “you always…,” even if they do. And, cut each other some slack. Assume their interests are as pure as yours, but they just see the world a little differently than you do.
When you’re debating the idea, try to keep your assertions limited. Ask questions. Try to see it their way first. Draw them out. Listen. Ask more questions. Look to find out why something might work, not why it won’t. Be open to actually having your mind changed.
And, remember, you might not be right.
But, most importantly, these disagreements should produce no winners, no losers, no scoreboard, no grudges and no regrets. This is where trust is built. A partnership is formed between people and organizations if they feel free enough to have thoughtful, rigorous, passionate, and even emotional disagreements—can then set them aside—and agree on a direction and move forward together.
If you’re an agency—or anyone but the boss—and you’re never disagreeing, you’re probably holding back. You’re either too comfortable, or very frustrated. Neither of which is productive. And, you’re likely going to be let go, sometime very soon.
If you’re a client—or a boss—think about how you approach disagreement. Are you open enough to it? Do you embrace people challenging your ideas, or do you shut them down quickly? If no one ever disagrees with you, maybe it’s not because you’re so darned smart. Maybe it’s because you don’t let them. How do you know your ideas are sound, unless someone challenges them?
As I reflect on this, I have to admit that it might be difficult for people who work with me to disagree with me, too. But, I do expect them to, and I consciously work to facilitate a more open dialogue. I want them to challenge my thinking, as the people I value the most are the ones that can change minds.
I’m wondering though, if I’m right about all of this.
Someone needs to disagree with me, so that I might find out.
This piece was updated from an earlier article Tom published in AdAge.