Sue Unerman
Oct 28, 2015

All workplaces must have a few devil's advocates

Even the starriest among us need the truth told, otherwise they run the risk of believing their own hype, says the author

All workplaces must have a few devil's advocates
Sky 1's new comedy drama You, Me And The Apocalypse gives a starring role to Rob Lowe as the Devil's Advocate.
What a job – I mean, the actual job. I hadn’t realised until watching the show that this was a real job at the Vatican in Rome. For nearly 400 years, from 1587 until 1983, it was the role of this man to pick holes in the evidence for canonisation of saints and to look for real proof of any miracles. Guess what happened when the position was reduced in influence by Pope John Paul II? Nearly 400 more saints confirmed in his quarter-of-a-century of popedom than those confirmed during the terms of all the other 20th-century popes put together.
Look around your office. Where does your devil’s advocate sit? If you don’t have one, you should worry.
There will undoubtedly be too much belief in "advertising miracles" and too many people on their way to media sainthood for the long-term health of the organisation.
The analytics teams can be a good place to find devil’s advocates. Trained in examining empirical evidence of the success of communications plans, they allow the truth to emerge from neophilia and gut feel.
More than once, I have turned to them for evidence to argue against existing prejudices. Is daytime TV worth it for anyone under 70? Is there any point in advertising in the summer? If we do a cut-down of the ad, will it lose all its brand effect? (Yes, yes, no.) They need their own devil’s advocates, though – don’t get into a situation where nothing new gets through because it is unproven.
Most people I know would hesitate to act on the advice of an astrologer or a tarot-card reader without taking a reality check. We don’t believe in the stars or the signs like we used to. We do, however, like to follow the herd, as Mark Earls puts it. There are times when claims made on a conference platform or by those talking loudly sway media people to choose a medium that may be unproven but is on-trend at the expense of an unfashionable one.
Don’t believe the hype without questioning it. That includes the hype about the people around you. Building a reputation is a crucial part of building a career in our industry but, in some instances, it can be at the expense of other arguably more crucial characteristics. Can you think of anyone you know who is a bit shaky in some areas of the job while having a superb reputation for networking? The kindest thing you could do for them is to be their devil’s advocate and have a quiet word. Even the starriest among us need the truth told, otherwise they run the risk of believing their own hype.
Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom (@sueu)
(This article first appeared on


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