Why trying to sound smart may make you look dumb.

It’s a big meeting. You’re either trying to win the business, trying to show you deserve to keep the business, trying to sell a campaign, or all three. So you want to sound smart. Here’s why I’d like to suggest that the very effort to seem eager and intelligent may not be having the desired effect on your audience. And that like a lot of behaviors you’ve been taught, “Sounding Smart” could well be overrated.

Somewhere along the way unspoken yet understood rules of how the agency is supposed to behave in meetings were formed. These rules, which apply to everything from pitches to conference calls, have been passed down as “best practices” by agency people through the years. Somewhere along the way, the rules solidified into something approximating absolute truth. Which is unfortunate.
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Now, I’m not saying that the way agencies conduct business is wrong. Hardly. But due to the nature of my new company, I now have the luxury of hearing at least as many pitches as I deliver. And I’m more often sitting beside my clients than across from them. And what I can tell you, is that there are certain accepted—heck, encouraged– agency behaviors I believe are self defeating. And chances are, you have a few people on your staff exhibiting these behaviors on a regular basis. In fact, you may even be applauding them.

The first of these actions is what I’ll call, Five-Hour Energy Enthusiasm. You know who I’m talking about—the man or woman who hits the conference room like an NFL linebacker sprinting out of the tunnel. They want you to know just how pumped they are about this project. In fact, they’ll often say, “We’re so pumped about this project!” This message is typically delivered in a voice that’s an octave too high and more than a few decibels too loud. You’re excited to have work—we get it. It’s the price of admission. But it’s not that this tenor is unnecessary. It’s more that it comes off as either insincere or, worse yet, desperate. Marketing executives want to work with folks who have some level of calm– People who expect to be included in high-level strategic meetings and are more eager to show what they can do than they are to convey their level of enthusiasm for being allowed into the room.

The second self-defeating behavior, is the need to share one’s alleged expertise early and often. Don’t get me wrong, if your agency does not display a high level of competency, there’s really no reason to hire you. But the analysis you came up during your two weeks thinking about the business is often cursory and simplistic, even when delivered in an English accent. And those brilliant ideas you pinned on the wall in the war room—There’s an excellent chance the client has already seen them. Possibly twenty minutes ago, when the last agency made their pitch. Which is okay. The only time you look bad, is when you preen and pontificate about how brilliant your stuff is. Present it confidently but casually, and the power of the idea will come through without all the baggage. Plus, if there’s a tie, your agency will get the nod because you behaved like you have lots of ideas this good.

Now, with the proliferation of new and proprietary technology and media, there is a need to have someone in the room who can explain things like best practices when creating an asset for an Android-based operating system or what type of functionality to build into a social program for maximum pass along. The problem is, experts tend to spend a lot of time talking and very little listening. Which means that somewhere around the twentieth minute of any given meeting, they typically go from informed colleague to pain-in-the-ass showboater. If you feel the need to include someone on the team who is steeped in particularly relevant knowledge, give them clear parameters as to what you do and don’t want from them in the meeting. And remind them that a client who leaves wanting more is way better than one who leaves wanting earplugs.

The final behavior worth noting and avoiding, is what I’ll call, “Oh yeah, we do that, too Syndrome.” Alec Baldwin’s “Always Be Closing” speech in Glengarry, Glen Ross is probably my single favorite piece of movie dialogue ever written. But it’s exactly what you shouldn’t be doing in today’s market, despite the obvious temptations. Look, I understand that industry lines have become blurred and that your company has both the skills and resources to take a larger piece of any given marketing pie than the one you’ve currently got. But before you try to expand the size of your wedge, first, ask yourself, “Are we honestly best-in-class in the new area we’re trying to colonize?” If the answer is, “No,” focus on doing your part really, really well, before you try to drink someone else’s milkshake. (For those keeping score, that’s two movie and two food references in this paragraph.) Second, consider how you’re coming off to the client. Chances are, you’re not letting them know you’re “eager to take on more” as you’ve rationalized. Instead, you’re communicating that you’re not a good team player and more interested in lining your pockets than doing what’s best for the business. It’s possible that someone will also come to the conclusion that you’re delusional about your group’s abilities. (In my Ground Zero days, I remember trying to convince clients that yes, of course, we had international resources. It made my pancreas hurt to say it and I always left feeling silly and disingenuous. Which is exactly how we looked, I’m sure.)

One closing thought: I’ve found the smartest people in any given room are rarely the ones jumping at the bit to show their hand. True wisdom comes from listening, processing, asking questions and, ultimately, forming opinions. So, no matter where you got your masters or how many tech or creative conferences you attended last month, don’t be in such a rush to display the grandiosity of your thinking. What comes out of your mouth in a first meeting may not be quite as genius-laden as you think and everyone will appreciate your insights even more if they build off the knowledge that can only be acquired with time and connections to the people sitting on the other side of the table.