Monday, November 03, 2014

Is It Okay To Argue With Your Boss?

The hierarchy in ad agencies isn't quite as absolute as in the armed forces, but it's not far off.

We're all bright, friendly, 'cool' people... and yet our decision-making is surprisingly dictatorial.

But if you think about it, this does make sense.

In fields like engineering, medicine, and finance - where there are actual facts that can be brought to bear - it's possible to make an objective challenge.

But advertising is mostly subjective. Our debates are more like one person saying "I like tomatoes" and someone else says "I don't like tomatoes, I prefer avocados."

So someone's got to make the decision, and the person being paid to make the decision is your boss, and that's it.

In a previous agency I once got a dressing-down for being "too challenging."

My ECD flipped out because I was so convinced an idea was great, I came back to him with it three times. (Along with other ones). Incidentally this was quite hypocritical because he would often tell account teams to "go back and try again" when the Client hadn't bought something, but he didn't seem to like the approach when it was applied to him.

Yet if you don't argue with your boss at least a little bit, and don't put your point of view across even if it doesn't match his, you will be viewed as a passive, spineless, yes-person. That is not good.

So my conclusion is that it's actually essential to argue with your boss. But you have to do it carefully.

A good tip is to ask questions. For example, if your boss tells you to fill a wheelbarrow full of shit, you could ask "Do we worry that the smell could be a problem?"

Another option is to fill one wheelbarrow full of shit and a second one with beautiful plants, and present both.

Re-presenting the same idea? Yes, but it's like a murder trial. You can put the case back in front of the judge, by all means, but the second time around, you have to have new evidence. A new spin on it.

Anyway, that's my POV, but I'd be interested to get yours. Is it okay to argue with the boss where you work? Have you ever gotten into trouble for doing it, or do you have a way of arguing that you've found effective and would be willing to share?


Anonymous said...

Lately i've been struggling with a similar dilemma...

What do you do when your boss asks you opinion, and you don't agree - but you know he/she is only asking you to gear you say yes? My boss asks my opinion all the time but it's painfully obviously what he's looking for is "Yes that's a brilliant idea, god you're smart" rather than "Nah I don't reckon that will work"

After banging my head on the opinion wall and getting nowhere i've found it's easier to just agree and move on. Yeah I do go through a tub of lube a week, but it's less painful...

Anonymous said...

Yep, definitely argue. Just make sure it's not on emotional grounds.

One day, you'll be the boss and you'll need practise being tough.

Anonymous said...


I disagreed with a CD once. Was retrenched 3 months later. CDs, in my experience don't like to be challenged, especially by older creatives. They feel threatened - their latent insecurities bursting out like the acne that they've just gotten over.

I've always been prepared to defend an idea, but unless the CD can find some way of making it their own, you're on thin ice.

Anonymous said...

Depends on whether or not the boss trusts your opinion when it comes to the work.

If they say no but can explain why an idea might be wrong, at least they're giving you an opportunity to fix it and get around it. That's the collaborative boss.

If they say because they're really are angling to get their own idea up then that's the cock-blocker boss. And if their idea is painfully shitter than yours, that's the cock you don't want to work for.

Parvez Sheik Fareed said...

If my boss doesn't agree with an idea, I usally ask why. Is it due to logical reasons or is it solely a matter of different opinions? If logical arguments can't be provided why my idea doens't work, I'll keep it in my drawer. And sell it to someone else someday.

Unknown said...

Hi Simon

I remember some of your heroic last stands fighting for ideas you really liked. As you say, the ECD you 'pushed back' to wasn't well known (and still isn't) for having his opinion challenged. And maybe that is the point. You get the big job (usually/sometimes/more than never) because of your track record on making the right decision most of the time.

The trick that worked best for me was letting him think that he had 'shaped' it from the turd it most certainly was, to the shinola it most definitely had become.

I think that you have to pick your battles. If you are always up on your feet, arguing the toss, it gets very tiring and irritating for the CD. But once in a while, an impassioned speech can go a long way.

It also reminds you that you are not a snivelling ass-wipe and can still locate your backbone.

Scamp said...

Hi Adam. Sounds like we agree. The ECD is there because of a track record of his instincts being right a high percentage of the time. In the case of that particular ECD, his instincts have been proven spectacularly right, on multiple, multiple occasions. And you can't legitimately challenge instincts.

In retrospect, I probably WAS too challenging. You don't want to be so challenging that your boss thinks you're a pain in the ass. I guess that's why I'm (belatedly) trying to provide some tips to young creatives so they don't make the same mistakes I did...

Anonymous said...

It's not what you say necessarily, but how you say it.

Scamp said...

Very true.

Anonymous said...

Now that any old douchebag is a CD or an Associate Creative Director or some godammed title designed to get them to work on the worst account in the agency for no extra money, we can't be sure they know what they're talking about.
Also how many people have you ever seen change their mind about something they already think. Never happens. May as well just agree and do something better. Or if you listen to the douchebag, worse. Be sure to blame them when the inevitable shit hits the fan though.

Jim Powell said...

Err - If an EDC is there because of their instincts - then you must be where you are because of your instincts and if you can't legitimately challenge instincts then it must make you wonder how anything gets done differently or improves, ever.

It sounds more like a conversation about a baboon colony than a human agency.

Nobody ever changes their mind? Are you sure? People haven't abandoned religions for example? People haven't changed their opinions on race? These are far more tricky changes then say an idea for an ad.

An ECD hasn't ever said ..humm on 2nd thoughts I think you may have a point here...

You have to concede either you ideas wasn't very good, or you didn't stand up for it very well, or middle managements is in crisis in advertising. It might be an and rather than an or btw.

Anonymous said...

The moment any ECD, or senior person in an agency, becomes beyond question, their judgment seems to go. I don't know why, but it just seems to happen that way.

Anonymous said...

A great article. Jim Powell's comment is incoherent. CDs do not change their minds and arguing with them is, in fact, pointless. What you mostly have to do is drink with them and make them feel accepted by the young and truly creative people. Laugh at their anachronistic jokes and attend all their social do's. Offer your soul up as cannon fodder and smile when it's rejected. Hold a deep and abiding love for all the things that he cares about and ask about his kids often and sincerely, like you really dig them as people. That's how you get ahead, it's not rocket science people.

Anonymous said...

Whilst I understand your point of view Jim, I think you're being naive.

Jim Powell said...

Naive that people have changed their opinions in the past? Didn't they?

You are right though anon one way to get ahead is to suck up etc just remember that you shouldn't be so naive to think they don't know you're doing it.

Strange that often people who comment on this (very good) blog (usually named anon) dislike the phoney arse lickers and the schmoozers but that is the very thing you advocate. Is that your tip for the top? #thiscountry

Anonymous said...

You should agree to disagree Jim. I get the feeling neither of you are going to change your mind on this one.