‘My client really is a weapons-grade wanker’

BITE’s agony aunt Sandie Dilger, Chief Strategy Officer at TBWA\London is here to solve your workplace problems

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief


When Sandie Dilger, Chief Strategy Officer at TBWA\London, revealed that she was launching a monthly advice column her message was simple: ‘There are no stupid questions.’

As she explained: “If we could all be more open to asking and answering questions then I think it would make us better practitioners, more adaptable, more open to challenge and to be better leaders.”  

In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, the uncomfortable truth is that in some parts of the industry, we have normalised crisis culture. The ethos that ‘if you are not worrying you must be doing it wrong’ is a framework which is ripe for challenging. For it’s an ecosystem in which challenges and questions remain unsaid and a creative crisis of confidence is never more than one awkward team meeting away. 

Swept up in the to-do list, as organisations and individuals it is all too easy to lose sight of your ‘to-be’ list. Whether that’s wanting to connect with your industry, thrive as an introvert or reset a relationship with a tricky client. This month’s questions are a compelling reminder that a problem shared is a problem halved. 

Q: My client really is a weapons-grade wanker. They’re not only difficult to work with, pass the blame onto junior staff and consistently manage up at the expense of everyone else, but also give no real feedback and have no time for the junior members of the team. How can I help everyone deal with this, or better still, find a better way of working with them?

A: It saddens me to say that this is something that I imagine many people reading this find all too familiar. I’ve certainly been there but equally, have been part of client-agency teams that have totally turned their relationship around for the better and done some of their best-ever work as a result.

The first thing to say is that it is totally within your power to change things. I love the saying that ‘a relationship is a cup of tea that you can flavour how you want. You can use salt or you can opt for sugar’. The reality is that your client can likely feel that his/her team isn’t enjoying working on the account so that won’t be helping things. Firstly, I’d reset the team to view things through a more optimistic lens, seeing building the relationship as a challenge to relish rather than an impossible task. Choosing to add sugar to the relationship doesn’t mean that you need to sugarcoat things. In fact, showing your vulnerability, honesty and setting clear boundaries with the client will often mean they respect you and your team more. So much of the master/servant behaviour comes from insecurity and pressures (I know as I have been there myself and been put back in my box by my agency business lead) so having empathy or even compassion for the client and their situation can help to unlock things. In the end, client, agency relationships aren’t that much different to romantic relationships. If we choose to commit, to have difficult conversations and to make allowances for each other, then we are much more likely to succeed.

Q: I’m a mid-level strategist at a relatively large ad agency, I’ve been working in the company for just over a year. My main issue is that I struggle with confidence. I have ideas and opinions to put forward but as a naturally introverted person sometimes feel overwhelmed by the sheer noise of a room. I am aware that a huge role in the creative industry is to be bold and put fresh ideas forward. I don’t want this issue to hinder my career if it hasn’t already. It’s also something I haven’t voiced to anyone in my agency, through fear of being simply told ‘I’m in the wrong job.’ As I love the day to day and want to feel more comfortable putting ideas forward. Please help.

A: First of all,  if you love your job, it’s very unlikely that you’re in the wrong one.

Second of all, it’s a total myth that all of the ideas and great thinking happen in large meetings with many voices. In fact, In my experience, it is actually the total opposite situation. With this in mind, there are two things you can put into practice immediately.

1. If you’re not talking, then you’re probably listening. This is great as so many people aren’t. In my view, one of the biggest unsung skills of a strategist is “spotting” rather than necessarily originating ideas. Amidst all of the bluster and opinions, there will be a few interesting nuggets that those who are focussing on what they want to say next will have missed. Capture those nuggets, feed them back to the creative teams, use them in your strategy setups etc.

2. Create impact outside of the meetings. It might be through sharing those nuggets you took from the big meetings with the creative teams. It might just be building a great working relationship with them. Be generous with your time. Feed them with interesting things that you have come upon related to whatever you’re working on with them. This is the place to be bold and put new ideas forward. It doesn’t matter if everyone didn’t hear that it came from you as the people who matter will know.

Hopefully, these two things will build your confidence enough that you feel comfortable to share your thoughts in bigger, louder groups. One good way to contribute is to give yourself a really clear role in the team and thus the meetings. Be the one who has done the social listening or be the person who has paid particularly close attention to the research or brand tracking. This gives you an ‘expert’ role in the meeting outside of just offering another opinion and should help you to find your voice. Good luck.

Q: I am an ambitious and open-minded marketer. However, since Covid, I have found it difficult to feel connected to the industry. Where should I start?

A: There’s no doubt that some of the interactions and connections that we took for granted as part and parcel of working life have been eroded due to the shift in working patterns. The good news is that many of us are feeling this and as such, the marketing ‘networks’ both formal and informal are slowly springing back to life. My favourite way to stay connected is ‘little and often’, attending an industry breakfast or evening talk rather than having to clear the diary for a three-day conference. Organisations like the IPA and the APG arrange frequent talks, lectures and meet-ups and are a great place to start.

Follow people that you admire in the industry on Twitter. See who they are interacting with and follow them. Even if you’re only a Twitter ‘lurker’, it will help you feel part of informal industry conversations and help you to keep abreast of the latest ‘hot takes’.

Informal WhatsApp networks are a brilliant way to keep those ‘loose ties’ alive. I am part of a few that have been set up by ex-colleagues. We help each other out with challenges, recommend people and do arrange the odd face-to-face meet up every so often.

Finally, I’d encourage anyone to apply for the Marketing Academy Scholarship. One of the best bits about it is the 29 other scholars you spend the year learning with. I made my marketing friends for life on it and would be lost without the network.

Have a question for Sandie? Big issues or small friction points Sandie’s inbox and mind are open. She will be answering your questions each month in BITE. Email her your problems and challenges anonymously at: [email protected]

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