The Case For Mistrust Between Client and Agency (Column)

Maureen Juniper suggests you mistrust your agency or your client a little

Maureen Juniper is co-founder and partner at Praxis

Maureen Juniper

Riding a horse requires a certain level of trust. Trust me, I know. I’ve been around horses for most of my life, and I have fallen off enough to build up a healthy amount of mistrust.

That’s the funny thing about trust. Too much of it can be a bad thing. In my experience, whether you’re riding a horse or executing a brand marketing campaign, allowing for a small amount of mistrust in the experience is a very wise strategy to keep you alert and prevent you from taking a fall.

Recently, a California-based PR agency (RPA) partnered up with USA Today to reveal results of a survey of more than 140 ad agencies and marketing leaders on the subject of trust. The net-net: we don’t trust each other (who knew?).

After laughing out loud at the very funny teaser video produced by RPA (“The Naked Truth: An Unadulterated Look at The Client/Agency Relationship and What It Means for Creativity”), I got to thinking that trust is something we all aspire to have in all our relationships as human beings. In fact, many a good book has been written on the subject, including Pat Lencioni’s Getting Naked and David Maister’s The Trusted Advisor; but the truth is, it can be the basis for a lot of hurt and upset if we give it fully and then learn that we were foolish to do so.

So I say, mistrust your agency or your client just a little – not so much to stifle creativity or create strain in the relationship, but enough to ask the right questions, challenge the assumptions and ultimately ensure the smoothest ride possible.

I have a long-standing client who I’ve noticed trusts its agencies partners less and less. They may be offended to hear me refer to them as lacking trust, but it’s true and there’s a part of me that admires it. And while it’s frustrating to be on the receiving end of doubts and resistance to your ideas and recommendations, I have to admit that it does tend to make the strategy more informed and the end-result marketing campaign stronger.

Not to beat the horse analogy to death, but both my horse and I benefit from the mistrust in each other that we occasionally share. I would say that I trust her 95% of the time, and that the 5% of the time that I don’t, makes us a more effective team. I stay safe by riding her in a way that anticipates and accepts that she’s going to make mistakes (and possibly hurt me in the process), and she learns by trial and error. It’s a win-win.

People find the concept of mistrust to be very offensive. I say, get over it – we have good reason not to trust each other 100% of the time. We live in a world where mistakes are extremely costly and happen in seconds – clients have every right to protect themselves by questioning us and sometimes not quite believing us. In my book, the ones who do so are smart and perhaps far less likely to make mistakes.

In the words of Isaac Watts, “Learning to trust is one of life’s most difficult tasks.” Maybe that’s because we’re not meant to do it 100% of the time.

Having said all that, I would encourage people to work on more important values in the client-agency relationship, like respect, honesty and fairness. If you can make these the foundation of your relationship, a little bit of mistrust here and there will simply keep everybody on their toes.

Remember, we’re all trying to achieve the same result – a clean stall and a happy, healthy horse. I can choose to trust my horse to help me clean the stall, or I can be a realist and pick up the pitchfork.

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