Lessons from the Master

I’ve been reading bits and pieces of The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene, and recently came across this story:

In 1502, in Florence, Italy, an enormous block of marble stood in the works department of the church of Santa Maria del Fiore. It had once been a magnificent piece of raw stone, but an unskilled sculptor had mistakenly bored a hole through it where there should have been a figure’s legs, generally mutilating it…So, despite the money that had been wasted on it, it gathered dust in the dark halls of the church.

This was where things stood until some Florentine friends of the great Michelangelo decided to write to the artist, then living in Rome…Michelangelo traveled to Florence, examined the stone, and came to the conclusion that he could in fact carve a figure from it, by adapting the pose to the way the rock had been mutilated. Soderini [the mayor of Florence] argued that this was a waste of time—nobody could salvage such a disaster—but he finally agreed to let the artist work on it…

Weeks later, as Michelangelo was putting the final touches on the statue, Soderini entered the studio. Fancying himself a bit of a connoisseur, he studied the huge work and told Michelangelo that while he thought it was magnificent, the nose, he judged, was too big. Michelangelo realized that Soderini was standing in a place right under the giant figure and did not have the proper perspective. Without a word, he gestured for Soderini to follow him up the scaffolding. Reaching the nose, he picked up his chisel, as well as a bit of marble dust that lay on the planks. With Soderini just a few feet below him on the scaffolding, Michelangelo started to tap lightly with the chisel, letting the bits of dust he had gathered in his hand to fall little by little. He actually did nothing to change the nose, but gave every appearance of working on it. After a few minutes of this charade, he stood aside. “Look at it now.”

“I like it better,” replied Soderini. “You’ve made it come alive.”

The statue was Michelangelo’s David. And there are a few very applicable things to take away from this story.

1) The first is a lesson in diplomacy. As Greene points out, arguing with a man like Soderini would have earned Michelangelo nothing and perhaps endangered future commissions.

2) Michelangelo worked with what he had. He worked “inside the box,” as Ernie Schenk might say. To bring this down to the level of what we do, if you know, in your TV spot, you have to show a big product shot and have someone say “Wow! This magic lotion sure does make my legs feel younger!” try starting there and building the spot around it.

3) Perspective is everything.

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.

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