Wade Sturdivant just wrote a post for the blog AdPulp about the art of taking criticism. Yup. That’s a tough one.
No one likes criticism, no matter what they might say. Some learn to survive it, others learn to feed on it, even if it is like swallowing a cactus and passing it whole. No one thrives on it. But for creatives in the creative industries, it is a meal we must learn to eat.
About the only way to handle criticism is to recognize that you are not the work. Yes, you have put chunks of yourself into the work. Yes, you have fully invested yourself in creating the best work possible. But you and your work are not identical. And if you can’t get to that mental place, this isn’t your calling. (Note: I have to continually remind myself of this, so I’m not saying it’s natural or easy.)
One thing Andrew Keller of Cripsin talks about is that there are always more great ideas to be generated. His approach is to outlast the critics by coming up with yet another round of great ideas. I think every creative needs to think that way. The trick is to never give in and deliver a bad idea just because it would sell.
I always say, we solve our clients problems, but we do it to our own standards.
Now, that doesn’t always work, because it presumes a client who is rational. Or a creative director who is rational. We all know about making such presumptions. However, there is another aspect to this question.
Rules of engagement can be established, whether it’s internally or with clients. The best scenario is to establish them before any creative presentations, when the heat is not on and when people are more likely to agree and commit to such rules.
This is where a cover article in Wired comes in. It’s on the phenomena of the feedback loop, and how powerful it is in changing human behavior. The poster child example of this is the “Your Speed” radar sign on the side of the road. I noticed just last weekend how powerfully I was affected by the one in Linnton, Oregon. I slowed right down when it showed me how fast I was going. Not that I didn’t know I was speeding, but the sign triggered a reaction in me that I didn’t really understand. But I did react.
Well, the article in Wired understands. The reason these speed signs have been so phenomenally successful is because when people are doing something they know they shouldn’t be, and their attention is called to it in a non-punishing way, they tend to want to correct themselves. That’s the feedback loop effect. But the key here is the word “non-punishing.” Because a traffic cop pulling people over and slapping them with a mind-bending ticket has been proven to not work. But the radar signs do.
So, if you can ask for rules of engagement with either your creative director or your clients, and if, during a presentation when they start ranting about the various hallucinogens you must have been doing when you came up with the concept you just presented, you can remind them of those rules. And if you do it in a peaceful Zen-masterly way, often, or at least sometimes, they will try to pull themselves together to honor the rules they’ve agreed to.
Now, I’m a pretty passionate person, and I’m the first to say how hard it is to be rational in the way the Sturdivant recommends. But I keep trying, I keep working on it. And it can be learned, with enough persistence and some foolish hope. The key is to keep trying.
We asked all our employees to remind others within our agency of our commitment to behaving in a certain way. I still remember the first time a young account person mustered the courage to tell me how my tone and behavior was making him feel. Wow. I slowed way down. I felt horrible. He was right, and he had reminded me in a way that worked.
Thom Walters, who spent 6 years as head of global strategy at Wieden, and who is a consultant on branding and internal culture and organization, is the total guru of this approach. He teaches workshops on negotiation that give people a really smart way to do this.
It’s worth trying.
That said, Thom was part of our team when we were presenting a big brand re-launch campaign to a large mid-western client, which I still consider the worst meeting of my career. Or my life. Or my next three lives, if the Hindus are right.
We hadn’t established the rules of engagement up front. So we tried to ask for a different way of engaging right in the meeting, but the clients were absolutely resolved to continue beating our presentation with baseball bats until the last ounce of blood had been driven from its flesh. I’m talking a full-on, fear-based destructive attack. (I’ll confess, things had gotten so brutal that I was not exactly a Zen master at that point.)
So, this approach doesn’t always work. But sometimes it does. And I believe it’s worth the effort. Good luck.