Agency war rooms—why violent language is ruining the fun in our jobs

In his Harvard Business Review article, “Stop Using Battle Metaphors in Your Company Strategy,” Frank V. Cespedes writes that battle metaphors are “not suitable because business, unlike a war or battle, is not primarily about defeating an enemy. Business is primarily about customer value.”

When our process is littered with language that trivializes war and death, it chips away at what should be a positive and open exercise toward getting our best ideas made. It’s needlessly excessive for us to wake up every day to news of real death and tragedy—war in Ukraine, earthquakes in Turkey and Syria or a mass shooting in the U.S.—and then log on to our laptop jobs and have that same language analogized in the context of, say, an ad for a low-cost auto insurer.

Semantic drift—the change of language and word usage over time—is exactly why most of us don’t second-guess how we shoot down a team or person’s idea in the room. It’s also why I don’t think twice about how I’m writing this piece up against the modern definition of a deadline (a specific time), not the original definition of a deadline (a physical line that Civil War prisoners could not cross or they’d be shot to death).

It’s worth noting that advertising is very far from perfect. Violent language is far from our most pressing issue. People of color are still vastly underrepresented; there are far too few non-white cisgender males in leadership; and shocking amounts of time, energy and money are thrown around by companies to sell products when it could be better allocated to help solve severe global problems.

I’m not suggesting we eliminate every phrase I listed earlier. But since this industry affords the rare privilege of getting paid to come up with fun ideas in a process that should also be fun, we need to eliminate at least some of the killing. Here’s what I propose:

Don’t work out of ‘war rooms’

It’s just as easy to call it a “pitch room” or “social room,” depending on the room’s purpose. (A previous employer of mine called them sandboxes because they’re meant for play. That’s a completely opposite end of the spectrum that I cannot support—but I digress.)