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The Truth Lessons

What seems like a lifetime ago, I worked in advertising for a fellow named Tracy. He would occasionally tell the story of how he had won his most prominent client, an established and beloved grocery chain in Utah. While I'm sure he had caressed the story over the years, the underlying lesson was characterologically Tracy.

Most ad agency pitches involve disturbing flattery, embellished capabilities, quasi-truthful storytelling, culminating in an arc wherein the presenting agency proclaims itself as the prospective client's savior. Tracy's pitches generally bypassed these vomit-inducing techniques.

The Story

Tracy described the day as cold and rainy, filled with numerous stressors before arriving for the pitch. By the time he had made it to the front door, he and his presentation materials were wet, cold, and generally miserable.
He painted a picture of a man who would have been content to turn around, go home and watch baseball from a warm bed if his agency hadn't needed this new client.

Being the last agency to pitch is precarious. Either the recipients are bored out of their minds and no longer paying attention, or the agency benefits from the primacy effect, leaving a longer-lasting and positive impression.

As I remember it, Tracy was the last to pitch. The way he described himself walking into the room was nearing on pathetic, like Charlie Brown walking home in the rain after another embarrassment by Lucy.

The client's decision-makers included the two brothers running the company. One asked Tracy, "How are you doing?" I forget the exact reply, but it was along the lines of miserable, not good, or generally shitty. All I know for sure is that his answer was honest and atypical for an ad man.

After a day filled with self-indulgent pitches, the brothers had heard the magic words. Somebody who can be honest, knowing it would probably cost them the account business, demonstrated the integrity they desired in a partner. He had earned the business.

The I Don't Know Lesson

After leaving that agency, I found myself back on my own drumming up business for my agency. New business is easiest to generate from old business, so I called up my friends at a sizable action sports company to let them know I was out on my own and looking for clients. Within the month, my agency became their digital agency of record. I was once again on my way to independent prosperity.

I was already friends with the owners of the company, their tech team, and senior management. Visits to see them were fun, and I honestly forgot I was doing work while I was there. I could not say the same for a prickly data manager named Melissa. I dreaded having to interact with her. I had thought she was out to get me and that her goal was to sabotage my agency because I had a direct connection to ownership that didn't run through her.

Introducing a new way to sell and creating their first e-commerce system wasn't without technical complications. Every technical task became an arduous endeavor, with Melissa insisting on absolute accuracy across the entire system.

How could somebody who was so unlike the typical web leaders of the day be so well-versed and connected? Melissa had talked about a background working for other companies who sold online, but I didn't believe her. So I would sit there, begrudgingly listening to her babble - in one ear and out the other.

Then, it happened. We messed up BIG TIME. It was the kind of mistake that should have been the end of our working contract. The client ordered me to report to Melissa in person, post haste. I believed she had won the honor of firing me directly.

On my drive to their offices, I thought of all the ways I could avoid taking responsibility. I wouldn't blame other people, but I would use every possible system irregularity to justify the mistake. I had my list ready as I went in and sat down next to Melissa.

My first mistake was attempting to speak. Melissa, seeing through my nonsense and already knowing I wasn't great at listening, stopped me instantly. She then took the rare opportunity of my humbling to teach me the greatest lesson I've ever learned in business.

"Tell me you don't know what went wrong," she demanded. "I honestly don't know what went wrong," I replied. It was the truth. I didn't know exactly where the process broke that caused the issues. I felt a considerable weight instantly lift off my shoulders. It was such a relief that I no longer cared that I was about to get fired.

To my shock, she proclaimed, "Good, now I can work with you." Instantly, we became a team who could work together to better the company. It was as if the years of mutual frustration had never existed.

Melissa had learned long before I met her that mistakes happen, systems crash, and sometimes the unexplainable happens in the digital world. What she was looking for was an honest broker, somebody who could collaborate and who had the integrity to say, "I don't know." In a world where everyone claims to know the answer, "I Don't Know" is a refreshing perspective.

I soon realized her abrasive nature was the manifestation of an equal devotion to the company that had been part of my life for so many years. From that moment, I craved the opportunities to learn from her and regretted the times I had ignored her.

A couple of years later, after this once golden client had become one of our smaller clients, we parted ways. The lesson learned remained: Be the person with enough integrity and confidence to be able to admit you don't know something.

I've had to rely on this lesson numerous times over the next decade, as sure enough, mistakes happen, systems crash, and the unexplainable occurs. Each time it happens, I shift into panic mode and prepare myself to lose the client. Without fail, I'll approach the client with humility and honestly admit the mistake, and accept responsibility. If I don't know what happened, I tell them that. Every time I've relied on honesty, my agency took another step into the collective folds of our clients. Companies crave honest brokers to the extent they are willing to partner with you to work through mistakes.

I can confidently say that my agency became successful because of these lessons.

That lesson was also applied to my personal life and served as the beginning of my transformation into somebody who can accept responsibility for things I've done wrong. It was the snowball that's turned into an avalanche.

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