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 the 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.