“The most influential people in my life are probably not even aware of the things they’ve taught me”. – Scott Adams

We’ve all experienced them. The “difficult” types who’ll ask that unnecessarily awkward question, seemingly looking to undermine you and torpedo your work. Those who don’t realise the negative impact of their behaviours. The ones who have a fearsome reputation for being unreasonably demanding. The men and women with unchecked egos who think that they’re so bloody brilliant. The ones who believe that they’re the only star of the show.

You might think that they’re easily classified. Do their insecurities compel them to show off their supposed superior intellect? Are they sociopaths who simply want to derail you? Or are they over-promoted brown-nosers who aren’t equipped with the necessary experience or capabilities to be in that role? Just being their own glorious selves – unmitigated arseholes? Some are none of the above – they’re actually just raising the bar.

I speak with knowledge and experience. Allow me to share some examples:

  • In an ad agency role, I once got a non-brief from one of the alleged rock stars of the client’s marketing team. All they said was “I need a Christmas promotion to drive sales”. Nothing about the efficacy of previous promotions, no business objectives, nothing about target audiences, channels, price points, existing campaigns, competitor activity, timings, budget, or action standards.
  • One of my Finance Directors used to wait for our Marketing Director to be away at a global brand conference or something similar and would then launch raids on our budgets. I’d get summonsed to go upstairs without time to prepare, then had to stand on the Persian rug and defend my previously approved research budget to the waistcoated bean counter.
  • Having generated fresh, commercially-relevant African consumer trends which were enthusiastically received by the regional marketing team, the key sub-Saharan marketing directors, their brand teams and our ad agency – I was sent to present the trends to the African Exec (all MDs of key African markets). Quite quickly, a heated conversation broke out among them – excluding me – about how the trends were complete bollocks. Even worse was that my weak boss – the one who ultimately decided to send me there – did nothing to support me.
  • A small team of us had taken an overnight flight to hear pitches from ad agencies bidding for one of our flagship global brands. At the end, our boss sat there and – with liberal use of the word “I” – declared that they were going to fly back to London, that they’d reflect on all the pitches and that they’d then make the decision about who’d get the business. The rest of us looked at each other, wondering just why we’d bothered making the trip.
  • After debriefing a large, very expensive quantitative consumer segmentation study in South Korea, the local MD stood up and loudly declared that the survey findings contradicted his drinking experiences. Right – his biased, shit-faced recollections trumped the opinions and lived experiences of thousands of Korean drinkers. WTF. Seriously?

I could go on, but I want to focus your attention on the positives and praise these “difficult” bastages. Why? They taught me valuable lessons and helped me become better at what I do.

  • The alleged marketing rock star taught me to stay focused on delivering what my client needed to the best of my ability, regardless of their inadequacies. I learned to step into the void created by their poor performance and turn it into a positive learning experience for me. It also inspired me to write great, comprehensive briefs for my agency partners.
  • The Finance Director fond of raids on my budget taught me to stand up for projects and investments that I believed in. And to be able to articulate – at a shareholder value level – why and how my research projects were contributing to the business. And if I couldn’t defend my budget under cross-examination, the truth was the business could probably deploy the budget more effectively elsewhere.
  • The African Exec taught me a valuable lesson about context and the vast difference between engaging with brand marketing teams versus general managers. I needed to better understand their priorities, tailor my messages accordingly and deliver it in a way that mattered to them. My weak boss taught me that you should never remain silent when your team is crashing and burning because senior people are abusing their positions and demonstrating bad behaviours.
  • Similarly, the South Korean MD taught me why it is important to engage early with senior internal stakeholders, to manage their egos, to co-opt them to protect the worth of their research investments and to offer them the opportunity to make themselves look good by supporting the delivery of insights that would drive commercial success.

Oh. What about the self-important boss at the end of the ad agency pitches, I hear you ask? Well, the honest answer is they were just a twit (thumbs up to spellcheck). We all knew that tosser wasn’t high enough up the food chain to make any solo decision. I still draw on them as a role model of how not to behave.

So – the next time you encounter these sorts of “difficult” people, simply smile and quietly say ‘thank you’ as they try to ruin your day.

Using a positive mindset, you’re going to grow, because of them raising the bar!

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