Trust Relationships Over Data - Fifth Letter
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No One Ever Got Fired For Hiring I.B.M. Unfortunately.

Trust Relationships Over Data

In this time of big data and the information age, it should be easier than ever to make smart choices when selecting a creative team to work with–or at least to make the best choice from several good options. Yet, according to the latest findings from AgencySpotter, an online marketing matchmaking platform, the average length of a partnership between a CMO and an outside creative team is only three years. Considering that it can be time-consuming and risky to hire an outside team, I understand the inclination to be rational and hire a team based on facts and data. Hire the team that specializes in your industry. Hire the team that shares meticulously recorded ROI data. Hire the team that has won the most awards. Or has big-name clients. Or the famous creative director. This approach is certainly easier to defend to higher-ups. After all, no one ever got fired for hiring IBM, right? Check the boxes. Take the safe path. But this approach doesn’t appear to be working, otherwise there wouldn’t be so much turnover between CMOs and the creative teams they hire.


Don’t get me wrong–facts are good. Data shows us when we’re headed in the right (or wrong) direction. It helps us set goals and benchmarks. It can chart our customers’ buying habits and can be turned from a spreadsheet into beautifully designed graphics that make our presentations to stakeholders pop. We love data and facts and being rational. But when it comes down to it, choosing a creative team isn’t like buying a car or a computer. It’s less about checking boxes of qualifications and more like dating. It’s a relationship choice, not a transaction. Unfortunately, it’s harder to defend relationship choices than transactional ones. So, how do you get everyone on board when you’re leaning toward a less obvious, less safe option?


Trust me. I’m not talking about rainbows and unicorn posters.


“Trust your instincts.” “Follow your heart.” “Go with your gut.” So many clichéd inspirational posters! But only one of these over-used mottos is more logical than it sounds. Do you know how to tell the difference between them?


Instinct. Emotions. Intuition. Three very different things.


Instinct is automatic, programmed into our DNA. You may have heard that someone has “great instincts” and this is why they’re so successful. This is impossible because we all have the same instincts. Birds fly South for the winter by instinct. Puppies root around on their momma’s bellies to find milk by instinct. Instincts are not replaced by new ways of doing things. They stay the same because instinct is more for self-preservation and will likely keep you from taking risks that could lead to new ideas and innovation.


Emotions are easily manipulated, which can lead to making regrettable choices. This is not the same as making a choice because it “felt right”. Sometimes the right choice makes us “feel” very “not right” (fear! Run away!!!) And sometimes the wrong choice makes us feel really good about ourselves (pride) by associating ourselves with winners and the elite, for example. Separate your emotions from your decisions and it will be much easier to defend your choices than you expect.


“Intuition” is often used interchangeably with “instinct”. But intuition is a higher mental process than instinct. It is not programmed into our DNA and is not automatic and will often lead us to decisions that go against our instinct for self-preservation. Intuition is sometimes confused with emotion because we often describe our intuition with the word “feel”. Emotions drive us to make safe choices (fear) or rash choices (pride) while intuition is built over a lifetime of experiences, forming relationships, interacting with other humans and storing away subtle cues and information into your subconscious. This soft data gets reworked and refined and recalculated with each new experience without any mental effort. Experience, intuition, wisdom–call it what you want. It’s a valuable tool that helps us to push past that fear to head toward the unknown or root for the underdog. The difference is intuition can be the driving force that makes you overlook your emotions in order to make progress.

I’m not saying that the next time you need to hire a creative team you should ignore facts and data. But when an agency wants your business, they’ll only give you the data they want you to see—the good stuff. To get the whole truth we should give as much validity and credibility to our intuition as we do to traditionally “rational” processes. If we’re not willing to do this we may as well hand all decisions over to AI. It will do a much better job. Instead, take the time to gather the soft data your intuition needs to make a choice with complete information, not only lists of skills and awards and services and benefits. Have many conversations. Meet for coffee. Hang out and have a beer. Tear up your old checklist and try this one instead:


  • Do they listen when I talk?
  • Do they ask insightful questions?
  • Are they more interested in talking about my job than they are their own?
  • Do they tell great stories?
  • Do they have a quick wit?
  • Do I enjoy talking to them?
  • Do they challenge my assumptions?
  • Are they willing to disagree with me or do they tell me what I want to hear?
  • Will they push me out of my comfort zone?
  • Do they admit when they don’t have an answer but already know how they’ll find it?
  • Do I trust them?


Put in this extra effort to gather the information you need to let your intuition work. Go with your gut. You’ll make better choices that you can confidently defend.


Jan Badger, Shape Shifter at Fifth Letter, is handy when you want to start a fire and fills many roles including making sure projects deliver on time and on budget. Contact Jan at