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Blog. Do clients view their competitor’s work more favorably?

The issues clients have critiquing creative work and how you can get your best concepts approved

Posted by Liam Farrell

Critiquing creative work is one of the hardest things for a client to do and it is also the make-or-break moment for all creative endeavor; either they ‘get it’ or they think your a ‘lil’whack’. So how can you assist and help your client to see the relevance in your thinking? Read on and find out!

Judgement is considered by the Buddha to be one of the main causes of suffering. It calls into question both the judge and the judged. It can be quite needless and often destructive but we all do it (save for a few rice-hungry folks with a love of flowers and tangerine bath gowns) and none more so than designers and their clients.  It is my contention, born of years of observation, that many clients, when critiquing creative work by their competition, do so more favorably than when they review their own agency’s concepts. 

This is most likely rooted in human psychology as we are our own worst critiques and the little voices in our heads (you do have one, don’t you?) are constantly jibber-jabbering on about our failings as humans. Maybe this extends to others in the same way that parents chide their own children harder than they would ever consider critiquing the behavior of another’s. Perhaps this also extends to the creative outpouring of a client’s agency? It bothered me enough to blog about it so let’s see where this goes and what drops into my mind from the collective unconscious.  

Client’s critiquing creative work has always been a thing of intrigue

I was working at Saatchi & Saatchi the first time I became aware of this phenomenon. As a young buck with a desire to prove himself I had just been properly deflated by a withering and feckless client review of my annual report options. In my mind he didn’t get contemporary graphic design. My inner voice rebuffed his critique, agreeing with the outer me that anything sans equine, aquiline or cameline visual elements would also have been summarily dismissed for their blatant lack of cultural cliches. 

Any hopes of a creative peace were shattered when he offered comment on overly nationalistic annual report for their arch rival, which was laying around near my desk. Utilising a national flag for the cover of an annual report for the national monopoly was definitely ‘base camp’ on a soaring mountain of creative opportunities that my competing designer could have explored. To say this designer took the safe route to the goal would be kind. I think they gave up after a few rounds of something more interesting, or more likely, they were briefed in a very ‘directive’ fashion by the client (agency politesse for “do what the fricken client says, okay?”) 

What crushed my soul into the chopping mat on my desk was the client’s seemingly innocent question of “why couldn’t they have something like that?” Try as I might to be polite, it escaped me (my friends would say, I never had ‘it’, for ‘it’ to escape) and I had to remind him that, had we “presented such a bland and gutless response to his annual report brief (he) would have rejected it”. Funnily enough, in a rare moment on inward reflection, he agreed.

Learn how to influence your critics

As some one more famous than me once said, "everyone is a critic". How you manage the criticism and positively influence your critic's review of your concepts is the mark of a powerful agency creative.

Judgement is the root of all suffering
Siddhartha Gautama

Why do some clients find critiquing creative work difficult?

I was set on a mission to discover why this phenomenon existed. What caused it and what, if anything, could be done to eradicate it? I needed to know why clients had a disproportionate or sometimes inverse appreciation for their competitors work. After several years researching this phenomena and coming up against a lot of similar examples, i was left with a few reasons… for one, clients are people and subject to the inner doubts we all suffer. Secondly, they judge others less harshly than themselves and this can eventuate in the critique of their own work even if this is done on their behalf. Thirdly, clients are rarely confident in their ability to review concept-level work but feel able to critique finished products from others. 

Critiquing creative work; a few simple rules

Beyond finishing concepts to production standards, we found a few ways to save concept work from damning critiques and needless changes. Firstly, provide plenty of examples of similar sector-associated work or benchmarked brands you know they appreciate. Secondly, ensure the preamble to your concept presentation contains lots of references highlighting on-brand. So when your concept pops up on screen, they are buying into the idea already. Thirdly, win your client trust over time, by delivering creative works that gain acceptance by their peers. Share what you know from your field in your presentation preambles so the client ‘feels your experience’ and that you have ‘done your homework’.

Learn how to critique creative work by using similar and familiar things

New ideas are shocking. They have never been done before, right? Well no, not really. "Nothing new exists under the sun", so go and find things that are similar, present them in a preamble to the reveal of your 'whacky' concept and help your client to review them in a new light of familiarity.

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