Don’t take it personally …

I’ve been surrounded by creative people all my life, and I am one, myself.  And I’ve never known one, including me, who isn’t sensitive and easily hurt.  Guess it comes with slapthe territory.  We do lay our souls bare for everyone to see, after all.  And stomp all over.  Who wouldn’t be insecure?  So needless to say, today’s Daily Post resonated with me:

“Tell us about the harshest, most difficult to hear — but accurate — criticism you’ve ever gotten.  Does it still apply?”

Of course this could be taken any one of a number of ways.  The way you dress, the colour of your hair, your weight, your cooking skills, your breath, your driving, whatever.  But seeing as how we’re all here to share our creativity — be it writing or photography or art or baking or crafting — I thought I’d talk about how it feels when people criticize our work.

Having worked in the advertising industry as a writer/creative director for more years than I care to think about, I am VERY familiar with criticism.  While it sometimes feels like you’ve been slapped in the face, I have learned to develop a thick skin and take it for what it is:  An opportunity to improve something.

What I’m talking about, of course, is constructive criticism.  A very different kettle of fish than mean-spirited people who seem to take pleasure in being hurtful.

When I first started in the business it was hard not to just dissolve into tears.  I’d get a brief and go to work.  Slaving over a headline, or brochure copy or a TV commercial script or an ad or whatever the project entailed.  Which, in itself, isn’t easy.  And then there I’d be, excited to share the work.  Proud of the effort I’d put in.  But quivering, none the less, because it really does feel like judgement day.  There’d be all these eyes staring at you.  And very few smiles.

Hands shaking, voice barely a whisper, I’d have to stand there and read the copy aloud.

Will they like it, or won’t they?  I’d feel like a prisoner, facing the jury, awaiting a verdict.  Would the idea live?  Or die?

And trust me, there was never just one round of approvals.  Even if your creative supervisor liked it, it still had to be seen by the creative director.  Then it would have to go to the first group of suits (account executives in ad agency lingo), and then the senior suits.  Then there were the junior clients.  And the senior clients.  Then the clients’ legal team.  You could find yourself revising work ten times.

You’d either get to the point where you stopped taking it personally, or you could end up in rehab.

Two instances, in particular, really stand out for me.  Both happened when I worked for Ogilvy.  I was already quite senior, maybe a group head.  First time I was writing a direct mail package for a luxury cruise ship line, Silversea I think it was.  This was a true labour of love for me and I really threw myself into it.  After the letter was written, I went to present it to the account supervisor.  I couldn’t wait for him to see it.

He shit all over it.

Understand something.  He wasn’t being cruel or nasty.  He wasn’t necessarily being objective, either.  He’d envisioned a totally different approach from the one I’d taken.  Suppressing tears, I heard him out.  Not that I had a choice.  As I left his office, practically bent in half in pain, I was stopped by the President of the agency, who’d been walking by his door.  I really did look like I was about to pass out so she took me to her office and asked what was wrong.

She asked me for the brief and the letter I’d written.  She read both carefully.  Then we talked about the account guy’s comments.  Then she talked me down off the ledge, whipped out a binder of the world’s best sales letters and sent me on my way.  After I’d read through most of those letters I was as inspired as I’ve ever been.  It took me about three hours to write one of the best letters I’ve ever written.

Considerably better than the first.

The next time I was working on a financial services client.  A trust company.  Very dry.  I was writing a piece of collateral.  A brochure on investing.  The client wanted to pack it with complicated information.  My first challenge was to figure it all out, myself.  Migraine-making.

But I plowed through it all, rolled up my sleeves and went to work.  Took me the better part of a week to get it done.  Presented it to the suit, who had a few minor changes and we took it to the client.

Some clients have to see the work before they know if their strategy is the right strategy.  This was one of those clients.  After seeing the work, which they admitted was good and on brief, they decided their strategy was wrong.  Back to the drawing board I had to go.  It was a toss up whether I was going to blow the clients’ brains out or my own.

Interestingly enough, even though my first version was good, the second was even better.  The client was right.

Anyone who knows me, or has worked with me, or for me, will tell you the same thing about me.  My desire, my mission in life, is to be the best I can possibly be.  And constructive criticism goes a long way in helping me get there.

Personally I have never met anyone whose first draft of anything is so perfect, it can’t benefit from some crafting or even a second look.  The success I’ve had in my career is not just because of some talent I was lucky enough to have been born with.  It’s because of all the people I’ve known, worked with, and worked for who have taken the time to spend quality time reading my work and critiquing it.

Thank you one and all.

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55 thoughts on “Don’t take it personally …

      • Yes, I do. I’ve got plenty of similar stories to share. One creative director in particular tried to “teach” me how to write exactly as he wrote. At one point, I reminded him that I wasn’t him and I would never be able to think exactly as he did. After that, he seemed to review my work differently and appreciate what I could do. Another CD wanted humour in everything (I worked on B2B tech accounts and financial services) and felt the great insult he could fling at me was that I wasn’t funny. Needless to say, I did learn a lot from them.

      • There is always a lesson to be learned. For the record, though, I think the CD who wanted your financial services copy to be funny was dead wrong. Money isn’t funny.

  1. This is a great post. Getting back up after being pushed down is one of the hardest things to do. For me, my biggest downfall is being too critical of others. I need to work on it!!

    • Thank you. Yes, there is a danger of being overly critical. So good for you for keeping tabs on yourself. I’m often too critical of myself. That’s taken some work as well 🙂

  2. They always say we are most disappointed when things don’t live up to our grand expectations of what they might be . . . that “this is great and totally on brief but I imagined something else” is the hardest work criticism for me to hear!

    • I agree, which is why it got to me the way I did. What made him right and me wrong? I suppose I could have held my ground, but I try to keep an open mind. And I have to admit the revised letter was so much better, I couldn’t stay pissed at the guy. What’s really interesting is, the revised letter was not his approach either. But it was so damn ‘right’ he forgot all about his approach. It would never have happened if he had not criticized the original letter.

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  8. Even though what I was scribbling prior to taking time to de-clutter was nowhere as intense as what you were writing I know where you are coming from – Why’d I stop? answers the question I asked in relation to missing your posts.

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  12. Having papered my house with rejections letters, I certainly do appreciate good constructive criticism! But when you’re writing fiction, you’d be surprised how many alleged “constructive” criticisms one can get. It really takes an experienced writer to shift through the comments and decide which to listen to and which to ignore. I now have a couple of writing friends whose comments I take very seriously, mainly because I trust their insights, knowing them so well. But even they can occasionally go off course – ex: wanting me to change my story to a story I didn’t write, didn’t mean to write, have no interest in writing – and when that happens, you have to listen to yourself. This all takes enormous experience, and faith in yourself. Which is not to say I don’t keep an open mind when these trusted writers critique my stories. In fact, I have rewritten nearly every story in my book based on their critiques. And the stories are much better for having listened to them.

    • I agree. Of course in my business you don’t get to choose who to listen to and who to ignore. You can, and should, always have a rationale for what you’ve done and why, but at the end of the day if you get away with only making 70% of the changes you are on a major roll.

      • I know what you mean. Part of my job is writing session descriptions for our conferences. But it helps that my coworkers know I’m a professional writer so I sometimes get my way:)

      • Oh, I sometimes get my way as well. But like I said, in advertising everyone has an opinion and a lot of them stick. C’est la vie. You get used to it. And also like I said, most times the work is better for it. Even if it was good before.

      • I realize the difference in our work situations is you work with creatives, and I don’t. And yes, yes, many voices offering opinions, nevertheless 🙂

      • I wasn’t so much thinking about your work. It was more about the difference between being a copywriter and writing a book. Despite having to deal with a literary agent, editors and publishers an author still has more control over what he/she writes than an ad agency writer. At least I think so. I’ll find out when my book’s finished I guess 🙂

  13. “The success I’ve had in my career is not just because of some talent I was lucky enough to have been born with. It’s because of all the people I’ve known, worked with, and worked for…” This is right on. People change, inevitably, but it takes the parents, teachers, employers and the environment around us to determine how we change. Any how, love this post!

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  15. After our shared experiences, in the past and more recently, this post definitely resonated! Great perspective and a reminder to always focus on being as constructive as possible when providing feedback (in any form and to any one)…

  16. Great post. I agree – any creative endeavor can’t possibly be done alone. My critique partners have certainly helped make my creative writing stronger. Sometimes it’s hard to swallow, but giving it a little time is the key to digesting all the feedback. And 90% of the time I follow their suggestions. I’ve found the pieces I like best end up quite different than the original draft, as with your second example above.

    • Thank you. I am always amazed at the things other people see that I often miss. It’s easier when you are not emotionally invested.

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