Working with divas

November 20, 2016

An agency is a highly-charged environment of time pressure and people pressure. The nature of the work requires a group of intensely-passionate, creative individuals to work together to produce an effective, impressive creative product, and - sometimes - sparks will fly.

Just to make this pressure-cooker environment even more challenging, you may also have to deal with an unpredictable diva (man or woman).

Diva-ness can present itself it various ways, but he (or she) will usually exhibit one or more of the following personality traits:

  • Controlling tactics.
  • Demanding.
  • A negative attitude.
  • Wanting to take all the credit.
  • Wanting special accommodations or treatment.
  • Complaining loudly when someone doesn't like their work.
  • Blaming others for their shortcomings.
  • Inspiring quick action and focused attention.
  • ...or all of the above!

A diva usually always has an inflated sense of self-importance (ego), and he can most often be found in the more creative and senior agency roles. Although ego will come across in a negative fashion, it's a double-edged sword as you need your creatives to have a high level of confidence. You need them to be able to say "my creative work is amazing; it is the only solution you could ever need; and you have to buy in to it." You need them to back themselves and their work 100%. That's the type of confidence that will help you to sell your agency's creative ideas to your client. However, working with a diva can be intimidating and downright scary at times, especially when you have to work alongside them every day.

Although you may get caught in the crosshairs of a diva outburst, it is important to remember that his eruptions usually have nothing whatsoever to do with you personally. It is more likely that he:

  • Cannot handle stress well.
  • Does not like having his creative or strategic choices questioned, and will fervently defend himself.
  • Has low tolerance or patience levels.
  • Has very strong opinions and is not afraid to express them.
  • Is trying to exert his authority (real or perceived).
  • Is used to getting his own way.
  • Has a very high opinion of himself and his abilities.
  • Is usually highly gifted in a specific area, and would like you to know it.

Even if you don't like your diva's working style, you may still be able to take some inspiration from him. A diva is usually extremely talented, hard-working, and hungry for success. Understanding how your diva ticks will go a long way to figuring out how best to work with him.


Diva vs account manager survival tips
  • Accept him warts and all. Your diva is unlikely to change, therefore you can either feel pummelled by his antics or learn to focus on the positives of working with such a creative person. Divas are known for staying calmer with their allies, so if you work hard to build a relationship with him - demonstrating your support and trustworthiness - then hopefully you will be rewarded with his forbearance when it counts.
  • Don't get sucked into playing his game. You'll need to maintain the high road, and try not to be affected by his tantrums and power-plays. Whatever you do, try to maintain a professional demeanour and resist delivering fire-for-fire. Your diva needs to see that you are strong, resilient and that he cannot manipulate you with his behaviour.
  • Remember you are his equal. No matter what position he holds within your agency, you are equals - you are equal human beings, of equal worth, and should give each other equal professional respect. If you are doing your job well, there is no reason you should feel inferior to a diva.
  • You are on the same team. For successful outcomes everyone needs to be playing on the same team and working toward the same goal. You may need to bring your diva back in line with the team's objectives, so it's best to talk with him using non-emotive speech, stating your client's business needs and the agreed-upon creative direction.
  • Make it all about him. If you are finding it difficult to get buy-in from your diva, try framing the request or task so that it is all about him. If you make the personal benefit to him clear, and play to his "centre of the universe" outlook, he is more likely to want to come along for the ride.
  • Speak with confidence. The type of person a diva will respect is one who talks confidently and from a position of authority and knowledge. Even if you are a junior account manager, you will still have a good understanding of your client and their requirements - and that is your advantage that you can leverage.
  • Ignore diva behaviour. Even if you are shaking in your shoes, if you visibly buckle under the weight of a diva's outburst, you've lost the bout. The best way to push through is to ignore his juvenile behaviour and try to converse in a sensible, logical manner.
  • Empathise. Divas are emotive and emotional people, therefore, your diva needs to feel that you are on his side as much as you are on your client's side, and so it is in your best interest to empathise with your diva (note: this does not necessarily mean that you have to agree with him or validate his behaviour).
  • Listen carefully. When your diva is being a diva it does not automatically mean he is wrong. He may be saying something quite valid, but it may come across in an obnoxious tone or delivery style. Therefore it's important to listen carefully to what he is saying, rather than just mentally dismiss his words along with his antics.
  • Present alterations and comments with unapologetic authority. Your diva may view you as either a handbrake to his creativity, or as someone who comes in and changes his creative work. Being the voice of your client, you need to (gently, but firmly) stand your ground, ensure that alterations are presented succinctly and with good reasoning, and then ensure that all the alterations are carried out as per your request. You do not need to apologise for presenting changes. If your diva pushes back, listen to what he says (he may have a good point), weigh up the matter, and then proceed as you thinks is best.
  • Make your diva look glorious. Your diva's most explosive displays will often revolve around something that makes him look bad (e.g. missed deadlines, substandard briefs, or incorrectly-supplied information). He will expect you to do your job well so that he will be seen in a positive manner and get to revel in the limelight.


    Why does agency management permit diva-like behaviour?

    Is your diva really good at what he does? Does he get results? Is he well-awarded? Bingo! When agency management is focused on the bottom line, if a diva is uniquely talented and a major contributor to that bottom line, then divas are almost always worth the trouble to keep around.

    By the time a diva is "all grown up", their behaviours and attitudes can be pretty well set, so it's often easier to let your diva be a diva as long as his output is of the standard that your agency requires.

    Unless someone very senior (and/or very brave) tells your diva to pull their head in and behave, you'll just have to figure out how to work in harmony with him. Once you realise that your diva may throw his toys at you, but not necessarily because of you, dealing with this unconventional person should become easier.


    What if the diva is a direct report?

    When you have organisational authority over a diva, you are in a much better position to address and (hopefully) eliminate unwanted practices.

    You will need to sit down with your diva and go over his job description and agency expectations. This is the time to highlight what is and is not acceptable workplace behaviour. If you do not address his diva-esque moments, you run the risk of losing good team members who are perhaps not as equipped to handle his outbursts as you are. 

    You'll also learn when to pick your battles, and insulate other members of your team from having to go into battle themselves.


    What if the diva is your manager or the top dog?

    It can be a pretty unpleasant situation if you are working in the pocket of a diva, especially if his critical attention focuses on you. There may be no other choice but to capitulate to his whims to keep from rocking the boat too strongly.

    If you feel undermined, bullied, micro-managed or if he overrides your best ideas, you can certainly try addressing these issues. If nothing changes, then all you can really do is smile, continue to do the best job you can, learn all that you can, and let the negativity slide off your shoulders. If the situation is really bad, you may have to start scanning the job vacancy ads.

    If the situation is bearable, then ask good questions and deliver good results. Make your diva-boss look as good as you possibly can and try to ensure you remain an ally rather than a victim.


    What if the diva is your client?

    The best way to deal with a diva-client is to try and get to know him as well as you can. If you can get inside his head you'll begin to understand not only what he wants, but why he wants it. Once you do that you will be able to look past his diva-behaviour to see his agendas, his motivators, and his fears, and figure out the best way forward.

    Yes, your diva client will expect you to bow to his every wish (which you will usually have to do), but remember that sometimes you will only gain your client's respect when you show a bit of backbone!


    The good news

    The good news is that a diva is rarely in "diva-mode" 24/7. They will have their moments of being fabulously annoying, but they can also have moments of normality and vulnerability. It's in those peaceful times that you can work on building a rapport that will - hopefully - safeguard you (and your sanity) for the future.



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