The hidden cost of craft and defending creative work

Jon Phillips, a business director at Crispin Porter & Bogusky, highlights effective ways of responding to creative feedback from clients.

Bucintoro at the Molo on Ascension Day by Canaletto
Bucintoro at the Molo on Ascension Day by Canaletto

I would never claim to be a sophisticated man. Nobody who has their own recipe for Chicken and Mushroom Pot Noodle should (extra soy, dash of Worcester and a dollop of one of those chilli sauces you can only get in Brixton corner shops). But, on occasion, I will seek out some art.

Near to my house is a gallery that has two paintings I particularly like. One is called Bucintoro at the Molo on Ascension Day by Canaletto and I love it because each detail, from the gondolas to the architecture, has been given as much attention as that great golden ship.

The other is a Rembrandt called Girl at a Window. I like it because when the artist hung the painting in his own window people mistook it for a real girl, so good was the likeness. While it is less intricate than the Canaletto, the background is just black and grey, it definitely has its own power.

That skill of knowing what will deliver that punch – a flurry of highlights like the Canaletto or one big highlight like the Rembrandt – is one we’d do well to hone when it comes to advertising.

Craft, we’re rightly taught, is king. But too often I believe we interpret that to mean everything is important, so we expend energy on the periphery when it is the highlights of our work that should be getting all of our attention.

When everything matters equally responding to creative feedback can become an endurance sport as every point can trigger a protracted discussion. But putting aside the time, effort and money those debates can consume, I believe the greatest potential cost is to client relationships.

Imagine for a second being consistently told that your opinion is wrong, as happens when rebuttals become routine. Would you thank that person for pointing out the error of your ways and fall meekly into line? Or would you become more convinced you’re right, mandate your request and resent the person for not considering what it is you have to say?

If you persistently disagree with somebody all you are effectively saying is "I’m not interested in your opinion. I know better than you. Please just do what I want". For a group of people who are paid to understand the effect of communications on others it’s ironic that we fall into that trap so often.

So learn to recognise when something really matters and when it doesn’t.

If your work is a Rembrandt and you get a comment on the background, embrace it. Do it immediately. Do it with a smile on your face. If you can resist the urge to argue every point not only will your client feel valued but you’ll find your word will count double when you speak up to protect a highlight.

If your work is a Canaletto and the details really do matter then defend them at all cost. Just do it in the right way. All anyone really wants is to feel important, so first and foremost go to great lengths to make sure you don’t undermine the person giving you feedback.

Fight the instinct to start on the defensive. Too often we launch immediately into impassioned monologues or self-righteous emails explaining why the feedback would turn a lion into a turkey. Instead, try to listen intently and show empathy for their position. Then take time to properly evaluate their arguments and try to do so objectively. If you pause and think, you may even come to realise that they are right.

If that’s not the case and you need to pursue the point further then provide opportunities for the other party to save face. Nobody likes to back down so offer some exit routes. Perhaps there are some aspects to their argument you do agree with or perhaps their thoughts would be absolutely right but only if the circumstances were different.

Ultimately, if you want to have any hope of someone being receptive to your point of view you have to show them the courtesy of properly considering theirs. Do that and you’ll have a much better chance of your work hanging in the advertising hall of fame.

Jon Phillips is a business director at Crispin Porter & Bogusky