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How to review creative (without being a jerk)

Cartoon image of a jerk reviewing creative

By Randy Mitchell

The marketing manager was a notorious jerk.

Every Friday morning, he would stalk into the center of the creative department and scan the room slowly. In his clenched fists was a crumpled stack of storyboards, web layouts, ad proofs and radio scripts—all submitted earlier in the week for his review. Then he would erupt; loudly spewing his molten creative criticism around the room. No one was spared and nothing was positive.

Until he had an epiphany.

On this particular Friday, the marketing manager was already beet red as he stared down the copywriter. Everyone averted their eyes as he launched in on his toxic rant.

“YOU…this is your radio spot. Don’t try to deny it. Now, you listen closely…this radio spot is not like the other work I reviewed. It’s just…different. Can’t say why. Don’t care why. But for some stupid reason, I can’t stop thinking about this radio spot…”

The marketing manager paused. He inhaled slowly and his eyes got very wide. His voice started to waver.

“Like I said…it’s different…it stuck with me…and…and…don’t change a word.”

With that, the marketing manager dropped the script on the copywriter’s desk and slinked back to his den. There was a moment of shocked silence, then all the other creatives applauded. The jerk had finally seen the light. Different could be good. Memorable was the goal. And nobody got hurt.

The lesson of that story applies to anyone who reviews creative work in person or remotely: You hold the ultimate power. You can make the work even better, or you can be a jerk. The difference is in the approach you take.

Admittedly, creative reviews tend to be very subjective. But if you begin with the right approach, you can remove bias, silence your fears, and focus in on what matters.

 The following are life lessons from a long creative career. They are also simple insights to help ensure the best possible creative gets produced without being a jerk.

  1. Trust the brief.

This is lesson number one for a very good reason: The creative brief is an insurance policy. It protects the agency and the client from wasting time, burning money and damaging the relationship. If the brief is informed and clear, it removes any uncertainty. Either the work is on strategy or it isn’t.

The brief should guide your review when it comes to evaluating these key questions:

  • Did the creative demand attention? (concept)
  • Did it deliver the main message? (content)
  • Did the information flow well? (design)
  • Did it make the key differentiators clear? (storytelling)
  • Could it only come from the client? (branding)
  • Does the target know what to do? (call to action)

One last point: Some people may try to convince you that creative briefs don’t matter anymore. They may even insist briefs restrict creativity. But any smart creative wants one. It’s our insurance policy, too.

  1. Become the target.

When you review creative, try some role playing. Will this software simplify life for me, the IT manager? Can this ingredient cut prep time for me, the foodservice operator? Does this packaging streamline production for me, the plant manager?

In short, see the work through your target’s eyes. They will be the ones who conduct the ultimate creative review.

  1. Embrace the unexpected.

“Creativity is seeing what others see and thinking what no one else has ever thought.” Great quote. I’ll tell you who said it in a moment. But first, let’s apply it to the subject at hand.

Homogenous marketing is wasted money, especially in B2B. Good ideas are ones that will not be ignored. They don’t have to be shocking or clever or strange. They simply need to be original and thought provoking. If the work makes you stop and pay attention, then rewards your interest, that’s very smart marketing. And judging by the quote above, Albert Einstein would agree.

Now, let’s bring it all together for your next creative review. When you pass judgement on the work, make certain it’s based on guidance (trust the brief), relevancy (become the target), and courage (embrace the unexpected). You won’t be a jerk, but you will get the best work.