ALIEN BABIES AND ALLIES: FOSTERING UNDERSTANDING AND NEGOTIATING CONFLICT WITHIN AN AGENCY
When I was around 5 years old I got into the profession of playground dealing. My goods: Alien Babies. As with nearly every childhood obsession, Alien Babies were useless parental pocket emptiers, consisting of a rubber alien submerged in gelatinous goo and encased in a plastic egg. My partner in crime did the dealing, I spread the word, and trading began.
Clients stretched from the seesaw to the swings and soon enough the playground had a roaring black-market of sci-fi spawn. However, just as we had begun, we fell short in our inability to communicate effectively and yes, my business partner traded my prized egg. There were tears, and there was trouble (despite showing promise, childhood dealing isn’t quite encouraged). But, I came out of primary school realising that internal communication is key, and that alien babies were no longer cool.
An advertising agency today isn’t far from a children’s playground. Managers oversee general behavior, media buyers sit reading and researching in the corners, and well, sometimes those account kids go and kick up a mess in the creative department’s sand pit. Advertising exists in its own retrospective microcosm.
“The one thing I can say about advertising is you don’t just do it as a job, you do it because you have a sense of passion. By it’s very nature there is always conflict.” said Joshua Lee, an account director at TBWA Vietnam.
Having moved to Vietnam this year as an Australian expat, Josh has experienced the initial stages of entering an establishment. Being the new kid to the playground can be tough, and the need to prove oneself is an evolutionary trait. Whereas some may feel the need to quickly woo clients, for Josh forging internal relationships is what always comes first when entering and working within an agency.
The advertising industry is service based, and therefore needs clients. Without clients there is no money, and it’s not rocket science to realise that without money, there is no agency. It’s this financial need that has driven much of the discourse surrounding client-agency relationships to become more client centric. “The client always comes first” and “the client is always right” are phrases that practically come as second nature to anyone in the industry. But, what of the internal relationships within an agency? Should an agency prioritize its need for a relationship with its client, or its colleagues?
“Trust within the company is a huge thing. Even more important than trust with clients” replied Josh. “In Australia the biggest issue I’ve always faced is building trust, and once you have that, your job becomes a thousand times easier”.
In their article, The Enemies of Trust, Robert Galford and Anne Drapeau support this idea, suggesting that internal relationships are far more “complicated and fragile” as a result of the nature of trust within an organisation. When dealing with a client there should be few communicative channels, aiming to create a sense of communication synergy and in turn, trust (Galford & Drapeau 2003). However, within an agency, messages are being passed around rapidly, from accounts to secretaries, to creative and managers. Messages can get lost in the mix, particularly when conflicting goals come into play (Galford & Drapeau 2003).
Accounts vs. Creative
This notion of conflicting goals is one that theoretically should not occur within an agency, but without relationships or a sense of trust, do occur. Most notably it’s where creative and accounts teams collide.
When asked of this stereotypical clash between creative and accounts, Josh simply conceded in an agreeable nod and shrug of the shoulders, “as a member of the accounts team, I just want to find an idea that the client will buy, but the creatives don’t want that. They want to do the first this and that, and to push ideas”. Both creative and accounts ultimately aim to please the client and prove the agency among the industry, but as Josh discussed, both parties can have potentially conflicting forces, pulling them away, or ideally together.
To have a more account or creative driven agency does not denote conflict and negative performance, however. Darryl Ohrt of Humongo sees agencies as being one or the other, and outlines that its not about substituting and neglecting each team, but about the “over-arching philosophy that’s typically driven from the top of the organization chart” (Ohrt 2010). Whether that be idea, or client goal driven.
Unless you’re the American government, conflict is generally thought of as a detrimental and unnecessary thing. In advertising, however, it can be argued that a touch of tension here and there can lead to more productive work. When asking Josh about pressure and creativity, he responded by informing me that the creatives “absolutely need pressure”, even though this can come with a little conflict.
Donna Ambriano from Ogilvy’s creative department, agrees with this, and encourages an “open dialogue (and sometimes yelling), and the knowledge that we’re more than employed at the same company. We’re on the same team.” (Ambriano 2013) It’s through creating mutual understanding, and outlining common ground that trust can develop (Tovey 2013).
It’s an idea that Josh supports, stating that “It’s not uncommon to have fights…Often creative will be like ‘whatever’, who is this guy, but when they trust that you’re in it with them, great work gets done.”
Resolving conflicts and balancing a company’s emotional quotient is easier said than done. Often it comes down to the way in which parties lead each other and use tactfully use criticism. The notion of transformational leadership, whereby the interaction between leader and follower is based on establishing goals and improving moral, is something I raised with Josh (McDowelle 2009).
Responding, Josh stated that when it comes to criticism, “everything has to be based on a really doable action”, and that any sort of berating can dissolve any sense of trust established, and without trust, how can a relationship prosper?
Working in advertising doesn’t mean that you have to be friends with everyone in your agency. Personality clashes are intrinsic to advertising’s nature, but that shouldn’t compromise trust and understanding. Working within an agency is about creating allies, not messing around with alien babies.
Marcus Thaine is a final year Professional Communication student at RMIT University. Next year he hopes to begin work as a copywriter and welcomes any conflict with the accounts team.
Galford, R. and Seibold Drapeau, A. 2003. The Enemies of Trust. Harvard Business Review, Iss. Feburary 2003.
Mcdowelle, J. 2009. A Contemporary Consideration of Transformative Leadership. Journal of Curriculum and Instruction, 3 (2).
Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide Blog. 2013. Working With Us: A Semi-Serious Take on the Account/Creative Relationship (From the Creative Perspective). [online] Available at: http://blog.ogilvychww.com/2013/03/01/working-with-semi-serious-take-accountcreative-relationship-creative-perspective/ [Accessed: 5 Sep 2013].
Ohrt, D. 2013. Is Your Agency Account-Driven or Creative-Driven?. AdAge, [online] 12 October. Available at: http://adage.com/article/small-agency-diary/advertising-agency-account-driven-creative-driven/146361/ [Accessed: 5 Sep 2013].
Principledselling.org. 2013. Building trust through understanding. [online] Available at: http://www.principledselling.org/2013/04/13/building-trust-through-understanding/ [Accessed: 5 Sep 2013].