Making Sense of Cultural Dissonance

So What if Your Agency Is From Mars?

By Published on .

Jennifer Patterson Jennifer Patterson
Does this sound at all familiar?

The agency spends weeks writing a presentation for a client. The agency thinks it's built a clear, concise argument. It thinks the goal is to inspire, think big, reach for the future! It presents the deck. It realizes the romance was for naught. The client's official feedback is: "Really, we only thought slide three was of any use."

Slide three is a flowchart.

Cultural dissonance has been in the news a lot lately. Barack Obama being labeled "elitist" and not "getting" white, working-class voters. The chief of JP Morgan, in a natty light blue silk tie flaunting his new sheriff's star in the face of bereft Bear Stearns employees. The Microsoft strong-arm wooing of Yahoo.

But the stories we hear less about are those culture clashes between agency and client.

In our little world, finding ways to know whether it's sonnet time or flow-chart time is often the key to good work and a good working relationship. Sadly, Mars and Venus cannot always be reconciled. But hopefully there's a way to find some middle ground.

Don't believe the hype
Turning culture clashes into embraces takes a lot of listening between the lines. In one new-business meeting, the client kept asking: "Challenge us! We want to be challenged!" We were elated! Then, suspicious.

We immediately moved the discussion to clarify what "challenge" actually meant. We broke it down: A pitch is basically a request for a makeover. Since we're a creative agency, "challenge" to us means saying: "Wear pink! Pink is your color!"

Some brave clients will truly embrace the idea that pink is their color. Others will insist they're ready for pink, but at decision-making time will look back into their closet full of neutrals and be terrified. In the end, and as we suspected, the boss was more of a beige kind of guy.

This wasn't the first or the last organization to have its words way out in front of its actions. But it helps to recognize the gap (or chasm) between the two and know the terrain you're navigating.

Look for land on the horizon
Let's face it, we're creative types trying to date numbers and process people. Some amount of cultural dissonance is inevitable. But there is a way to make it easier: Don't look for the organization, look for that one great person. Even in the midst of the choppiest ocean, a glimpse of land, an island to anchor at is often enough to make the difference.

A great client is translator, protector, advocate, therapist. One of our best clients in the last couple years was a guy who'd landed in a big company that had been more or less constant churn for the last 10 years. He took it all in stride, navigating the politics and organizational chaos. We did some good work with him despite the system, and the whole time he never lost the ability to call it like it really was, even if he couldn't make it better.

Embrace who you really are
One of the best new-business meetings we ever had was a guy with a start-up business, a web dating service. He was that overly suave type of guy we've all met at some point or another. Let's just say that between the agency tour and the meeting, he stepped outside to make a phone call to have the hotel decant an expensive bottle of wine for him. Um, yeah, thatT guy.

We went through the usual credentials and talked some about his business and incipient brand. Near the end of the conversation, he leaned forward, cocked his head and said: "You know, I really hate your space here." Jose (agency founder and foreigner) laughed, given that most people find our sprawling "Scarface"-style house on a canal (pool and iguana included) a refreshing change from cubicles.

But online-dating guy wasn't joking. He really did hate the space -- to him, he couldn't see how we could be professional in this environment. This dis was actually the best thing he could have said in the meeting. He left for his decanted wine. We went back to our iguana.

Real world, not ideal world
We're idealists in this business, and I think we all strive for a romantic notion of perfect agency-client harmony. Of course there are some moments where the planets align and the right collision of casting and timing can produce some of the best work. But for the rest of our relationships, the trick is to figure out who you can work with and who you can't. Trust your instincts. They're usually right.

For the clients you can work with don't expect perfection. Find your island, and start to build out from there. With a little perspective and commitment, you can find a way to walk a little more smoothly together and get some good work done.

There are also clients you can't work with. I mean, you can, but it will be painful and miserable the whole way and a relief when it's over. That's no way to spend 40-plus hours a week for either party. It doesn't mean there'll never be another client. It doesn't mean you need to give yourself a makeover. It means, don't be afraid to say no. In a time of shrinking bottom lines, sticking to your guns is a scary proposition -- especially for a small agency. But in the end, it will be worth it for your sanity and theirs.
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