The Creative Diplomat: Should We Always Tell It Like It Is?

Hans Holbein 'The Ambassadors'

Hans Holbein 'The Ambassadors'

‘A diplomat who says ‘yes’ means ‘maybe,’ a diplomat who says ‘maybe’ means ‘no,' and a diplomat who says ‘no’ is no diplomat.’

Charles M de Talleyrand, French Diplomat at the time of Napoleon

Some time in the late ‘90s, I was in Buenos Aires at one of those awkward international meetings where competitive Agencies share their work in front of their Clients and are obliged to make polite remarks about it. I found myself saying that the competitor’s ad was ‘very interesting.’ This prompted an angry response from my Argentine Client:

‘What is it with you British and the word ‘interesting’? I used to think it meant you were genuinely interested in what we were discussing. But now I understand it means nothing at all.’

Fair cop. I guess I had been trying to be a Creative Diplomat: neither encouraging, nor critical; neither flattering, nor rude. And ‘interesting’ is just one of those words that come in handy in such situations.

‘To say nothing, especially when speaking, is half the art of diplomacy.’

Will Durant, American Writer

On another occasion I attended a global summit with some rather opinionated Regional Clients. I was perplexed when, in the meetings that followed over the next few days, my Regional Clients were uncharacteristically subdued and taciturn. As we sat in the airport departure lounge preparing for our respective flights home, the Regional Clients congratulated each other on an ineffectual and therefore, for them, entirely successful global meeting. They had escaped without making any firm commitments or agreements. They could now return to their market and get on with making their own decisions without interference.

‘When an official reports that talks were useful, it can be safely concluded that nothing was accomplished.’

JK Galbraith, Canadian Economist

I guess we all recognise the dark arts of diplomacy. We may dismiss them as political ploys and dishonest deceptions. But each one of us has probably engaged in them to some degree. Sometimes we need to be diplomatic in order to get the job done.

In the world of creative commerce we often nowadays celebrate authenticity, transparency and straight talking. This is the spirit of the age. ‘Our business is open and honest.’ We want to ‘keep it real’; to ‘tell it like it is.’ But these things are easier said than done. In my experience creative people are not entirely comfortable with unfiltered frankness – particularly when you’re discussing their ideas.

This is, of course, completely understandable. We’re all sensitive souls when it comes to our own efforts and outputs. We take things personally.

‘But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.’

 WB Yeats, Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

In my early years in advertising I was taught that one’s first response to any idea should always be positive. Negativity, if appropriate, could follow once you’d demonstrated a certain amount of respect; and preferably in the form of a question, not a statement. This is good advice.

So Creative Diplomacy continues to be very much necessary in our industry. Progress must be negotiated; affection must be earned. The quiet word; the gentle suggestion; the knowing glance. The mediating message; the subtle adjustment; the thoughtful gesture. These are behaviours we should recognise and encourage. They are part and parcel of a human business that runs on relationships and emotions. They are integral to the art of persuasion.

‘Diplomacy is the art of letting the other party have things your way.’

Daniele Vare, Italian Diplomat

Of course, sometimes diplomacy comes with a pang of guilt. I was once briefing a very talented editor on a film that a Client needed for a forthcoming sales conference. The film had to be ‘breathtaking and awe-inspiring’ as is the nature of these things (as well as fast and cheap…). The editor nodded and showed me a few sample clips: Apollo rockets taking off, Vesuvian volcanoes erupting, that kind of thing. They were just what was required. The editor said, ‘Yes, I know what you’re after. You want it to be completely vitriolic.’ I could see that in his head ‘vitriolic ‘ was suggesting all the right things and so I chose not to correct him. ‘Yes, vitriolic. Exactly!’ And as we reviewed his work over the following week or so, we agreed that it was indeed brilliantly ‘vitriolic.’

Some months later the editor called to upbraid me. ‘That’s not what vitriolic means at all, is it?’ ‘Well it meant the right thing to you at the time.’

I always rather regretted that incident. Whilst diplomacy demands that we concentrate on outcomes, occasionally one’s conscience yearns to ‘tell it like it is.’

‘If you want something to play with
Go and find yourself a toy.
Baby, my time is too expensive
And I’m not a little boy.
Tell it like it is.
Don’t be ashamed to let your conscience be your guide.’

Aaron Neville, ‘Tell It Like It Is

No 126