If We Never Disagree, Fire Us

Debate Builds Trust -- and Better Work

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There we were, in the midst of an interview with a prospective CMO and his marketing director. Over the prior eight weeks, we'd come to fall in love with his brand and were looking forward to showing some pretty exciting work later that day. While the conversation was pleasant, I could tell that we were going to be presenting a strategy that would directly contradict what this CMO had just asserted.

So I asked him, somewhat apologetically, "How do you feel when your agency disagrees with you?"

All I can say is that the look on his face was somewhere between startled and annoyed. And it told us all we needed to know. I sat there, kicking myself for not asking that question five 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 the best clients encourage it.

After two decades in this business, I've come to conclude 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, disagreement is what builds trust in a client-agency relationship. Not the kind of disagreement we see in the political world, where our parties simply bicker in order to discredit the other side or preserve self-interest. Instead, I'm talking about rigorous debate and critical thinking in order to get to the best possible answer -- or in our case -- the most effective work.

In the short term, always agreeing might feel comfortable. But being comfortable in this business doesn't get you very far. In the land of ideas, debate is critical, ensuring that great ideas make it out alive, and weak ones die. I call it "positive friction," where resistance 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 its role is limited to making recommendations (the client's 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. One of the things I cherish about my relationship with our executive creative director is that we can -- and do pretty frequently -- disagree on a strategic direction or creative approach. But, we make the debates about the work at hand and are always able to come to a productive conclusion. Once we come to an agreement, we're unified, even if it's different than where one of us started in the first place.

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, it's probably not because you're so darned smart. 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'll have to admit that it might be difficult for some who work for me to disagree with me. But, I do expect them to, and need to facilitate a more open dialogue. I want them to challenge my thinking. The people I value the most are the ones that can change my mind.

I'm wondering though, if I'm right about all of this.

Someone needs to disagree with me, so that I might find out.

Tom Denari is president, Young & Laramore, Indianapolis, Ind.
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