How to Disagree

If you try to go through your entire advertising career agreeing with everyone, you’ll probably have a short career that ends in a padded room. You just can’t do it. And you shouldn’t. Everyone likes a nice guy, but you can’t put nice in your book. Some of the best creative is the product of tension and disagreement. Shouting matches between client and agency, angry phone calls, directors threatening to storm off set, assassination attempts.

Part of your success in this business depends on how well you can disagree. How well you can sell your point of view. I’m not talking about being a great debater here, though there’s probably some overlap. I’m talking about settling difference without destroying relationships.

People are passionate in this business, which means that it doesn’t take much for disagreements to escalate into arguments, then fights, then worse. So whether you’re at odds with a partner, a client, a creative director, a director, or an account person, here’s a list of ten things I try to remember in hopes of keeping a disagreement from becoming a crime scene.

1) Don’t bullshit them. Be honest with yourself, and honest with whom you’re disagreeing. This one probably comes into play mostly with clients. They’re not stupid. They can tell when you’re making shit up, and it doesn’t help the relationship. If you don’t believe what you’re spewing, don’t spew it.

2) Pick your battles. Of all the thing you disagree over, some are more important than others. Don’t get in the mindset that everything has to be your way. You’ll have to give a little from time to time. Do it for the things that are less important to you. You hear a lot of talk about people falling on their sword for things, but the whole idea of that analogy is that you only get to do it once.

3) Look at it from their perspective. This is a good rule of thumb in any disagreement. Understand what they want out of it. Speak to the issue in their language. If you’re talking to a junior client who’s worried what the VP will say, show some concern for that. Don’t just dismiss it because you don’t care what the VP says. And if you’re arguing with a client, arguing that something is cooler, really weird, or sure to win a bunch of awards probably won’t get you very far.

4) Recognize when it’s subjective. A lot of this business is. If an argument’s getting heated, it can sometimes diffuse it to acknowledge that what you’re arguing over is a matter of taste. Both viewpoints are valid (though one may still be better).

5) Recognize who has the expertise. When I disagree with my art director on a visual decision, I will usually say my piece and then go with his decision. If it’s a copy decision, I expect the same. I rely on the expertise of my directors, editors, designers and musicians. When I disagree with them, but it’s in their area of expertise, I usually give them the benefit of the doubt.

6) Be respectful. Everyone is not equally good at everything, every opinion is not as equally valid, and it will become painfully obvious that everyone’s time is not of equal value. That said, everyone deserves respect. I don’t care if you’re the president of an agency talking to the person who delivers the plant food, treat everyone with respect and you will earn respect.

7) Recognize who has the final say. When I disagree with students about ads in their book, I usually caveat it with, “This is your book, so it’s your decision.” Then they can take my advice or disregard it. On the job, the creative director has the first final say. Then the client has the final final say. And when this person, the person with “The D,” as we refer to it sometimes (meaning “the decision”), has made up their mind, you might state once that you understand their point of view, but respectfully disagree. And then shut up about it.

8) When it’s over, let it go. Don’t brood over an argument that happened months ago. Be goldfish-like in your ability to move on. And if you turn out to be right, have the humility to not say “I told you so.”

9) You might be wrong. I think the most important thing to remember, and something that will hopefully give you perspective, is that there is a chance, albeit slim, that you’re wrong. It’s happened to me before. When you’re wrong, don’t make excuses. Just have the humility to admit it.

10) Do not burn bridges. I can think of very few issues that are worth ruining relationships over. Storming out of rooms, cussing people out, etc. may feel good for about 37 seconds. After that, it can do nothing but hurt your career. I know people who have quit agencies in spectacular tantrums, calling in an airstrike on the bridge as they crossed it, only to regret it two months later. If you do have a nasty argument, one that leads to the end of a job or partnership, try to leave it on good terms. No matter how big of an ass someone has been to me, if they apologize afterward, I’m willing to shake and bury the hatchet. I can’t stress enough how small this business is.

It really comes down to relationships. If you put in the groundwork, if you earn the trust and respect of those you work with, if you trust and respect them, and if you form a bond where you are genuinely concerned with their interests as well as your own, then disagreements shouldn’t be a big deal. They can actually make a relationship, and the work, stronger in the end.

And if you disagree with anything I’ve said, you can piss off.

3 thoughts on “How to Disagree

  1. Again, great advice. I spent a good portion of my career bitching… behind the scenes. I’m just starting to learn how to craft my disagreements (internal/external) with a solid defense of my creative before the review meetings.thanks…Chad


  2. All great advice. Thanks for spelling it out so clearly and succinctly.Just to add some texture…My favorite quote about picking battles actually came from a client. She would say, “that’s not a hill I’m willing to die on.” I’ve always loved that analogy and have generously plagiarized it in the years since.Jake Yarbrough (Jakeybro)


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