Culture of Confrontation

[October 23, 2009]

One of the most puzzling aspects of working in this industry is the way agencies typically relate—or fail to relate—to their clients. Get a gaggle of agency people into one room and you can easily hear hundreds of stories about client relationships “gone wild.”

From outright antagonism to turn-on-a-dime revisions and hairpin schedule changes, the stories are practically a clinical study of hypertension. I’ve never been on the client side, but I’m sure the horror stories told by our clients about agency types would themselves fill several gigabytes of Kindleware. Why? The answer lies in our confrontational corporate culture.

Me, Myself and Them.
Considering how interdependent we are, it’s surprising to think how often we go our separate, siloed ways in the course of a project. Of course, I’d be the last person to say there aren’t times when the much-vaunted laws of synergy are inoperative. Everyone involved needs time and space to craft an individual response to the challenges each assignment presents.

The trouble begins, however, with the us-them mentality that arises, whenever deadlines are short, money is tight and the chronically understaffed work docket is ready to burst. It’s the kind of pressure that easily warps your vision, until you see everyone in your path as an obstacle.

The sad reality is, the toxic nature of our business makes it all too easy to forget that “they”—client or agency folk—have five senses, a brain, a heart and a sense of humor. As I see it, failure to acknowledge this is the root cause of so much occupational heartburn.

Epaulettes? Really?
I also see one source of that toxicity in the pseudo-military culture affected by American business. Somehow, despite the upheavals of the ’60s, “Women’s Lib,” and a so-called management revolution, the dominant voice is still Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry.

Now, the trouble with Dirty Harry is he thinks there’s a straight-from-the-hip solution to every problem. “Client Harry” doesn’t get why the agency can’t “Just Do It” and deliver a fleshed-out multimedia campaign in a month. “Agency Harry” doesn’t get why clients can’t “Just Do It” and deliver same-day comments. It’s a table-thumping, phone-slamming approach to collaboration that misses the point altogether.

“Winning” is for Losers.
Tell me if you’ve heard this one: Collaboration isn’t about winning or losing. Yet, in a corporate culture that puts so much emphasis on who gets credit, “being right” quickly becomes the only thing that matters. Once unleashed, it matters more than engaging consumers, building the brand—even more than actually turning a profit.

How do we remake this unhealthy us-them culture? Part of the answer lies in reworking the standard creative process model. I’ll share my ideas about that in a later post. At a more fundamental level, however, if you want to stop telling horror stories, you’ll have to start by acknowledging that “They” are people like you.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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