Agencies And Clients Can Agree To Disagree. Sometimes.

Over at Ad Age’s Small Agency Diary, President of Indianapolis agency Young & Laramore, Tom Denari, reflects on whether agencies and clients can disagree and still have a respectful relationship:

While it might sound counter-intuitive, disagreement is what builds trust in a client-agency relationship. Not the kind of disagreement we see in the political world, where our parties simply bicker in order to discredit the other side or preserve self-interest. Instead, I’m talking about rigorous debate and critical thinking in order to get to the best possible answer — or in our case — the most effective work.

In the short term, always agreeing might feel comfortable. But being comfortable in this business doesn’t get you very far. In the land of ideas, debate is critical, ensuring that great ideas make it out alive, and weak ones die. I call it “positive friction,” where resistance tests the strength of an idea. Much like lifting weights, without resistance, you’ll see no improvement.

Well, I agree and disagree a bit with Tom.

First, the title of the article is “If We Never Disagree, Fire Us.” It’s always a CEO or President of an agency that takes this attitude. Why? They’re the only ones who can ultimately determine whether an agency will stand up to a client’s demands on principle. And Bill Bernbach once said, “A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.” Employees who are lower on the agency rungs rarely want to be the ones to express disagreement with a client.

What he’s advocating is something people in the industry always talk about, but few ever do. You know, the whole but about, “let’s give the client what they need, not what they want.” Plenty of agencies have grown and made tons of cash by simply agreeing to whatever the client wants and then doing it. Only a rare few have grown by challenging client beliefs on a regular basis.

Denari is right that “positive friction” can benefit an agency/client relationship. But both sides have to understand that’s the way the process works — and they have to understand it from the first time the client and agency ever meet to discuss working together.



About Dan Goldgeier

Dan Goldgeier is a Seattle-based freelance copywriter with experience at advertising agencies across the U.S. He is a graduate of the Creative Circus ad school, and currently teaches at Seattle's School of Visual Concepts. Dan is also a columnist for and the author of View From The Cheap Seats and Killer Executions and Scrubbed Decks.