A Level Playing Field


Stephanie Alcaino

August 1, 2022


 min read

Exploring the invisible effects of culture in client-creative dynamics. 

Hello clients, hello creatives. Have you ever found yourself at odds with the person you are working with? Did you ever wonder what caused the breakdown in relationships? If you've ever asked these questions then this article is for you. From miscommunication, diverging opinions and unmet expectations; we navigate through some of the cultural reasons that turn the best collaborators into adversaries. 

Although there are many reasons that can break down professional relationships; culture is often an overlooked cause. As humans we tend to underestimate how much our experiences shape our perspectives and the assumptions we hold. Cultural misunderstandings tend to occur when two people are speaking the same language but saying two very different things. 

What is culture? 

“In the language of Clifford Geertz, culture is the means by which people communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about attitudes towards life. Culture is the fabric of meaning in terms of which human beings interpret their experience and guide their action.’” – Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Cultural Diversity in Business by Charles Hampden-Turner and Fons Trompenaars

At Oddigy we explain culture like it is a software system. It is something that is invisible, but governs how each computer behaves, functions and responds to interactions. In every context, whether it be a new country, a workplace, an industry or even a family home, you will find 'culture'. Ultimately, culture is a collective phenomenon, meaning it is something created by people for people. Culture is shaped by the values most important to its people. These 'values' are invisible like the coding that shapes a software system. However, what is visible are the behaviours and interactions of its people (like the visible desktop and display of a computer). When we interact with others we sometimes expect them to be working from the same culture as ourselves until conflict begins to arise. 

There are often two ways cultural interactions can be approached – cross-culturally or inter-culturally. To harness the relationship between the client and the creative, we need to shift our working objective from a cross-cultural one to an inter-cultural one to achieve the best creative work that serves the client as well as the creative’s vision. 

Creating a level playing field 

So what's the difference between cross-cultural and inter-cultural interactions? Cross-culturalism is about dealing with or offering a comparison between two or more different cultures or cultural areas. If we were to use sport as an example, hockey players would hold a particular culture that governs how they train and play versus basketball players who would have a completely different way of training and playing. Interculturalism is about what occurs in the shared midpoint between two or more cultures. Using the example above, this would become about creating a level playing field for players from both sports to play in a game where they both can thrive. 

In the case between creative and client, it is about taking two cultural viewpoints and bringing them together into one level playing field – where they both know the rules of the game. To achieve this, each person must hold a level of self-awareness of how their cultures shape their perspectives, language, assumptions and how those perspectives might interact with another’s.

“The point here is that, when examining how people from different cultures relate to one another, what matters is not the absolute position of either culture on the scale but rather the relative position of the two cultures. It is this relative positioning that determines how people view one another… cultural relativity is the key to understanding the impact of culture on human interactions.” – The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business by Erin Meyer

A creative would have years worth of experience as let's say, a graphic designer, and therefore has innately learnt the culture of design and its language, whilst a client in need of a brand identity for their law firm would be coming from an entirely different culture with unique perspectives inherited from their law experience. Maybe the designer believes in a more fluid way of approaching project meetings, working out ideas until they are refined – where the value is placed within the freedom of exploration. However, the lawyer might be more used to working to precise meeting times. This is where creatives and clients can fall into the trap of not acknowledging these cultures at the beginning of the relationship, and thus they become the source of miscommunication. If we proactively enter these relationships by acknowledging the difference in cultures and establishing clear joint expectations (such as how meetings will be run), we are then able to build a playing field that works for both teams. 

“Over the past several years, my team and I have learned something about clarity and the importance of hard conversations that has changed everything from the way we talk to each other to the way we negotiate with external partners. It’s simple but transformative: Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” – Brené Brown 

The effects of miscommunication

Clients and creatives can fall privy to the battles of miscommunication. This is where clashing assumptions turn the best of collaborators into an ‘us and them’ dynamic. 

“The concept of "othering" is pretty much the same as demonstrating the ingroup/outgroup effect. And a foundational process connected with this effect is outgroup homogeneity. We see members of our own group as varying wildly from one another in all kinds of ways. Yet we see members of "other" groups (often defined by grossly arbitrary criteria) as showing less within-group variability. Them? They are all the same!” – Psychology Today

What this means is that we begin to reduce the ‘them’ into the ‘other’ and we stop treating them with empathy and curiosity – therefore, collaboration becomes non-existent. Psychologist Susan Fiske and her colleagues from Princeton University conducted a study in which they carried out MRI scans to observe student’s brains and how they respond to people we classify as ‘other.’ When the students were shown images of people belonging to extreme outgroups (such as drug addicts) there was no activity in the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain which should light up in response to socially significant stimuli, meaning that the students considered them ‘less than human’. Later in her research, Fiske learnt how this process could be reversed, by asking simple questions such as ‘what kind of vegetable do they like?’ 

“The question has the effect of making the person back into a person, says Fiske, “and the prejudiced response is much weaker.” – ‘Born prejudiced’ by Mark Buchanan, New Scientist

Miscommunications can happen to the best of us. If miscommunication arises we must remain open, curious and ask questions. In most cases, these situations occur when one another’s values have been misplaced (think about the aforementioned meeting scenario). During these times is not about fighting your corner but collaboratively identifying the cause of the miscommunication whilst remaining curious and empathetic. The goal should always focus on interrogating the problem and not the person. 

“The important distinction between the two views lies not in their relative 'correctness' but in their implied connotations of value.” – Prejudice: Its Social Psychology, by Rupert Brown

When curiosity remains as the leading goal in client-creative relationships, it can stimulate a desire to ask more questions and ameliorate the final outcomes of a project by harnessing the diversity of perspectives that exist in the room. 

What are the benefits of diverse perspectives?

There are two main reasons why diverse perspectives are essential to the creative process. Firstly it promotes critical thinking and secondly, it can catalyse innovation. 

Two diverging outlooks are extremely fruitful when it comes to creative work. It offers the opportunity for critical thinking to happen – allowing for a deeper assessment as to whether the work is fit for purpose. Creatives can bring a comprehensive understanding of their craft and carry a sharp eye for creative innovation, whilst clients bring a deep knowledge of their industry, and the audience the creative work is intended for. Without diversity of thought, we risk digging our heels firmly within our own biases. 

“If everyone in our social circles thinks as we do, we become more rigid in our thinking, and less likely to change our beliefs on the basis of new information. In fact, the more people listen to people who share their views, research shows the more polarized their views become.” – Harvard Business Review

For innovation to occur, diverse minds and stimuli must be present. Creative innovation exists when more connections are available to connect and build new ideas from. The joining of industries, professions as well as personal experiences, clients and creatives together have a better opportunity to build unique ideas than if one were to take control and lead from a singular perspective. 

“When you get a team with a wide range of perspectives brainstorming together, it really opens people's minds to possibilities they hadn't thought of before. This cultivates fresh thinking. Add to this the cross-fertilization that naturally occurs as one idea triggers another idea, and it can lead to the discovery of what Johansson calls the "intersection point," where two diverse ideas meet to form a new and novel concept.” – Forbes

Working with those that think differently for us sometimes may require additional navigation from both the client and the creative. To achieve high-functioning and fruitful relationships it is important that both parties take the time to create a level playing field by building clear expectations at the beginning of the working relationship. If miscommunication occurs, remain curious, ask questions and listen attentively to find the route cause of the misunderstanding. By realising the benefits of critical thinking and innovation, we might be more open to creating a roundtable where the client and creative hold an equal voice. 

Oddigy is a culture-aware creative studio designing brands, strategies and campaigns. To hear more about what we do please email hello@oddigy.studio