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When Creative Differences Arise

Creative differences between clients and agencies are unavoidable. Even when you do everything right, sometimes, there will be conflict often rooted in personal preferences. That is at the heart of an exchange summarized recently on LinkedIn.

According to the writer, Justin Oberman, the post was an abbreviated recap of a real conversation between a client company CEO and a Creative Director (himself). Simplified for digestibility, the dialogue highlights an experience that can easily occur within any client-agency relationship, where subjective opinions are nearly impossible to avoid. Here are three takeaways from the post:

Trust in each other’s expertise

The exchange starts off with the CEO expressing dislike for an advertising tagline that the Creative Director has pitched and explained. There’s some back and forth where each party reinforces their expertise to the other before the Creative Director makes a declaration:

“… You make the product. We’ll make the ads. If the advertising we produce doesn’t work, you can fire us … But if we find that the product you make doesn’t appeal to people, we can fire you.”

The words reinforce the important notion that brands and agencies should be on equal footing within a partnership. If you are working with an external party for their services, you must remember the gap that they’re filling. They are not hired to cater to your every whim, but to deliver a service to you based on their expertise, regardless of whether or not it appeals to your personal tastes.

Resist being pressured into making changes or decisions you strongly disagree with just to keep a client happy.

On the flip side, hired professionals would also do well to remember their own strengths. Resist being pressured into making changes or decisions you strongly disagree with just to keep a client happy. As Oberman says, “They hire you for a reason. Don’t be afraid to show them why.”

Keep it real but respectful

It’s interesting to note, though, that the post also received its fair share of criticism in the comments. Many called out the Creative Director’s ego, arguing that the exchange was filled with arrogance when it should have been backed up by context and support.

In response, Oberman clarified that there was support (“the whole two hour pitch that happened right before this conversation”) and that the Creative Director’s words were filled with just enough ego to appeal to the CEO. “Tough, confident people are attracted to tough, confident people,” was one of the final lines of the post.

Both sides of the argument have their merits. There is validity in the idea that similar attitudes attract each other. For both brands and individuals, having a strong personality can be a powerful tool for finding like-minded people to work with, filtering out potential partnerships that would lack dynamic energy, and harnessing the power of disagreement to clarify what is at stake in a decision. The easy path is sometimes to pull rank: “I am the client and I am paying you so do what I say.” But this is no way to fully understand what is at stake with a particular decision.

When standing one’s ground, reading the room and acting with respect is imperative.

Sticking with our example, while the two personalities in this exchange were purportedly able to resolve the tension inspired by the exchange, there’s no doubt it could have gone badly if the CEO had different standards for the value of conflict or of social etiquette (cross-cultural exchanges come to mind here). When standing one’s ground, reading the room and acting with respect is imperative.

The bottom line? A strong ego can be great for attracting similar personalities but be careful around those you’re unsure would respond well. When in doubt, it may be a better default path to keep it respectful and rely on strong evidence rather than pure confidence to support your claims.

creative differences

Don’t let creative differences overtake customer demands

Ultimately, beyond the debates about ego or arrogance during the exchange, the final takeaway from this exchange is that all parties—the Creative Director from the start and the CEO after the conversation—had to eventually humble themselves before the customer. As the Creative Director asserted:

“… you don’t hire us to create ads you will like …You hire us to create advertising we think your customers and prospective customers will like … but importantly, respond to.”

It’s not easy to let go of personal tastes, but it is a necessary habit to cultivate in this business. The thoughts of a handful of executives shouldn’t have priority over well-researched efforts that align with customer demands. There are now advanced tools and resources that reveal powerful insights into consumer behavior, from who they are to what they value, which should be used over pure preference to design campaigns and customer experiences that resonate.

It’s not easy to let go of personal tastes, but it is a necessary habit to form in this business.

Relying solely on the subjective outlooks of a select few leaves room for (potentially disastrous) mistakes. Individual experiences are limited and cannot replace insights about consumer behavior derived from research or real-world results. When a team is united in their efforts to prioritize the customer over personal taste, it opens the door for more collaborative partnerships, more productive conversations, and better work overall.


Photo by James Heaton

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