Creative Reviews Without the Heartburn: Part 1

At the UW-Madison Graduate School of Business for Executive Education, I teach the creative communications portion of the marketing communications class. The method I developed for reviewing creative work — my "Gem" method — is the result of 30 years of trial and error in reviewing thousands of ads. It applies to any created piece of communication: ads, brochures, Web sites, press releases, etc. Here’s the Cliffnotes version:

I "émettre un gaz intestinal" in the general direction of the French for giving us the word "critique." It practically demands that you be a critical ass. Unfortunately, criticism totally de-motivates a creative team.

The true objective of a creative review is not to criticize or cut away all the bad parts, like carving a sculpture from a block of granite. "The Gem Method" is akin to unearthing, cleaning, and polishing a gem of an idea. The objective is to identify the best creative work, inspire the creative team to make it better, discover useful principles about why some things work better than others, and get a clear agreement on next steps (who will do what by when). I like to state these objectives at the front of a meeting: "We are here today to…" Time spent on anything else is a big pontificatious egofestering waste of time.

A creative team should always provide options. Range leads to quality, so preferably three ideas, as most people get confused or overwhelmed when reviewing more than three.

The person who creates the work and the person who evaluates the work should never be the same. Don’t play creative and suggest headlines or colors. You must walk into the creative review without a sense of what the final ad should be. (If you have an ad in mind, just direct someone to create it. Don’t waste the creative team’s time and emotions giving birth to new ideas for you to slay.) You must clear your mind of expectation before you review the work. Take a moment to forget that last bad meeting or that next worrisome project.

Be present. Bring some joy into the room.

I’d like first to state that we are here today to choose the best work, not critique, that we are excited to see the ideas, and that we must pretend we are the customer, not the client or agency. I like to start with a reading of the message strategy to remind people who we are talking to, and what the criteria for success are.

Let the creatives offer feedback first, then low-ranking client folk, then high ranking client folk, then you. This ensures that the low-level folk don’t just clam up after the 900-pound gorilla makes a proclamation. They often have valuable points of view. I view the creatives as the greatest experts on the creative idea, because they’ve lived with it the longest and they know how it can be modified.

Ask the creatives to present the work twice. Once to get a general impression of it, non-judgmentally, and experience it as the target market would. Second, to note to yourself specific issues. This lets you experience the ideas initially in a gestalt way, emotionally, without a critical mind — as your audience will experience it. This helps avoid the classic overthinking that kills so many great ideas.

Then ask the creatives to recommend their best work, and the best work of each team, and explain why. In essence, they kill their own work so that you are not the bad guy, and it gives them some control. Should you disagree, you are the hero, saving a piece of work they rejected.

In general, there is usually 90% agreement on what constitutes the best stuff. Get the rest of the stuff off the table and out of sight, never to return. You’ve just saved a ton of time. And you’ve done job one, which is to identify the best work (usually a minority of the total ideas presented). You’ve narrowed the creative choices in a way that motivates the creatives.

This is a very different meeting from a critique that consists of laborious lists of what reviewers don’t like and defensive arguments from sullen or angry creative folks.

Next month, I’ll cover the best ways to give specific feedback on whether the creative work is on strategy, whether it has a powerful unexpected idea, ways in which the craft or execution can be improved (writing, graphic design, etc.), and how to deal with technological, financial, and political limitations.