Authority always wins

Recently I wrote about the best advice I’d ever received. I thought I’d follow it up with one of the worst things a client ever said to me. 

I was on a call with a client who was unhappy with a piece we were at least three rounds into, still not agreeing on the right direction.

As I was talking through our decisions and lightly pushing back on the feedback I was cut off by the client who snapped: “Honestly, you just don’t listen. This is unacceptable.” 

And she hung up. 

I was stunned. Partly because I am not used to being hung up on (is anyone?). Partly because we were two or three months into our relationship and I thought the nature of our pushback was altogether consistent with our discussions on the strategy to date. 

Was I not listening? Was my ‘defender of the strategy’ stance coming across as overly defensive? (We wrote about this in The Art of Compromise)

Or worse: was I bad at my job? 

The role of authority in a service-first industry 

The root of the issue was that she didn’t buy into our authority to defend the strategy. She didn’t want to have to argue every time there was a request from Product or Sales or whomever to add something to a piece. She had decided that good service from us was for us to be Yes Men. 

Worst of all, she’d decided that good service from her was to be a yes man to her stakeholders. 

In other words, I had failed way before that phone call. Because I’d allowed my positioning as an advisor—and ours as an agency—to erode.

I was so clearly not a Yes Man, nor were the Velociraptors around me. But the relationship had come to a place where the client no longer wanted to be challenged. Not good.

I think if asked, most clients would say they want an agency with talented creative, sharp strategy and great service. 

That list leaves out the thing that probably hooked them on the agency in the first place: the agency’s authority. Its role as a trusted advisor.

Because, of course, the best agencies tell you what you really need, not just what you want. 

This is everyone’s challenge.

This isn’t just an agency/client thing. It’s just as important for every client-side marketer with stakeholders to align. Right up to the CMO.

Your positioning as a trusted advisor is one of your greatest assets. If you earn it and protect it, you can do almost anything. If you lose it… you’re screwed. You’ve become an order-taker.

Translate this to a different scenario: Say you’re in a restaurant and after ordering your food you ask for a specific wine. The sommelier politely says, “That wine is lovely but can I recommend this alternative that will complement your food better?” 

Do you go around the table to crowd-source everyone’s views? Does anyone at the table even want you to do that? 

No. Unless you’re trying to show everyone you’re even sommelierer than the sommelier, you take the suggestion. This is about finding the best wine for the meal. A trained expert’s view on this is quite probably better than yours (filtering, of course for what you already know you like and hate).

But here’s the really hard question. What can we – as client-side marketers, as agencies, or as sommeliers – do to get our stakeholders to trust our authority?

There are no shortcuts

One thing I’ve learned, the painfully hard way, is that there are no easy ways to gain authority. It just takes time and really good preparation*.

Most importantly, you need to deserve the trust. To have earned the authority. If that’s not true, all the tips in the world won’t help.

We’ve all seen people trying to fake authority by being bombastic and just shouting louder than everyone else. Generally, people see right through that. 

Authority comes from understanding what drives the business, the market, what the business has been up against and how this is reflected in its goals. 

An agency’s authority stems from our ability to recommend what marketing will work within the context of that client’s business. To leverage the client’s authority by using our own experience and expertise in strategy, positioning, content and performance marketing.

Personally it’s the part of my job that I like the most. The penny-dropping moment of ‘Ah! That’s how we can crack it!’ is awesome. It’s only made better when you talk a client through your idea and they love it too. 

Enthusiasm is contagious and authority is rarely questioned when everyone agrees there’s a solid strategy backing the ideas. 

Maintaining authority 

One of the trickiest things for a client-side marketer or an agency is to maintain authority over time. To not let it erode. 

Because inevitably we all start to surrender some of the authority that won them the job or the business: 

  • There are stakeholders that need appeasing no matter what. 
  • Priorities get muddied for an ‘everything is important’ approach. 
  • Everyone’s scared to ‘upsell’ a boss on a better solution because it costs more/takes longer than agreed. 

It’s a trajectory we all recognize:

  1. First, you’re a valued consultant: “Yay, this clever person is here to help solve our hardest problems! Hoorayy!” 

    And on your side: “Yay! A new challenge and a company that values my advice!”
  2. Then you’re a colleague: “This person knows our business, they don’t need a big complicated brief. They can surely just dive right in.” 

    You: “I’m not really sure what they want but I’ll give it my best shot.”
  3. Then you’re an incumbent: “I really wonder why she keeps challenging this, she knows the boss isn’t going to agree to that.”

    You: “Let’s not show routes 1 or 3, they always kill those anyway.” 
  4. Then you’re fired (or quit): “We’re just not getting the fresh thinking we expected when we hired you.”

    You: “You never take my advice any more. You don’t listen.”. 

In short: ‘Incumbent-land’ is a horrible place to be. For everyone. 

The successful client-side marketers and the best agencies are the ones who can constantly renew relationships, so the work stays interesting and you always have access to the most senior people. Everyone gets the good stuff. 

In ‘Incumbent-land’ you’re stuck doing the lowest level work because the executives don’t think you can be trusted with the most important briefs. 

Worth fighting for.

Once we surrender authority, it’s really, really hard to get it back. Then nobody in the team likes working on the account and the senior people regret hiring you. The work suffers. Your life deteriorates. The dog disappears. Goldfish dies. It’s a bad place. 

Maintaining authority – a company’s belief in your ability to offer great advice – means you can extend the time you spend in the first two zones. 

And that’s the happiest place to be. 



(If you liked this post I think you’d like A stakeholder through the heart too.)

Comments

I’m so glad you wrote this excellent post, Jess! I’ve always thought that an ineffective Marketing campaign, whether it’s because of creative or strategy, is often the fault of the client. It could be a bad brief, lack of buy-in beforehand from the right stakeholders, decision by committee, or not letting the agency do what they do best (and what you actually hired them for).

Please write more posts! 🙂

    Thanks Bernd! Sheesh, you’re making me blush. More and more I think stakeholder management is the number 1 factor for successfully getting something approved that looks like v1. It’s definitely a factor that doesn’t get enough attention!

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