Taking It Personally: In Advertising, Criticism Is 100% Guaranteed.

Recently, after presenting to a particularly difficult client, a colleague in the media department turned to me and said, “Wow. You creatives really get beat up. I don’t know how you handle the constant criticism.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that—almost always from someone outside the Creative Department—but it reminded me how surviving in Advertising means getting used to a level of criticism most would find unbearable. Alas, in a business where there are few guarantees, the constant threat of having an idea trashed, trampled and otherwise trod upon by dwarves is one of them. But hey, that’s what we signed up for and if you can’t stand the heat…

Of course, you could argue that thanks to the proliferation of comment threads on blogs like this one, the phrase “everyone’s a critic” has never been more true, thus we’re all thicker-skinned these days. That is, until you realize how often the threads deteriorate into yet another juvenile playground argument of the “Am not!” “Are too!” variety. Plus, most online criticism manifests itself as anonymous carping anyway, so it’s really not the same. Nope, in Adland not only do you have to be cool with taking a lot of criticism, you’ve got to learn how to take it live and in-person, then come back for more.

And that’s not all. Because just when you’ve mastered the fine art of taking it, you’ll find you’ve risen high enough on the org chart to be managing other people and thus (you guessed it) giving it out yourself. Which is why every Creative Director is the epitome of diplomacy and tact when it comes to critiques, right? Yeah, didn’t think so. So given all that, here’s my take on how to handle criticism no matter which end of it you find yourself on. Please let me know what you think. (As if I have to ask.)

Giving It

Start by mentioning something you like.
Sure, this one’s been turned into a business cliché by the patronizing and superficial among us. But when used sincerely and intelligently, the idea behind it is right-on. Even if you have to dig to find something good to say about someone’s work, doing so before tearing it to shreds is almost always the best way to ensure your harsher comments get a fair shake. It just comes down to manners, really. Why be an obnoxious oaf if you can avoid it? Which leads to the next point…

Style Matters
Should you be blunt and bruising or nice and nurturing? I’m sure we’ve all had run-ins with both. Personally, the rational approach always works best with me. And I’d say being blunt is always preferable to dancing around the subject. Colorful language is fine too, if that’s your style and you can manage to keep anyone from calling HR. Just don’t throw a tantrum. Temper tantrums in the office only make people remember how ridiculous the tantrum thrower looked, not what they were mad about. So save the Scared Straight approach for someplace else. This isn’t the Army or the NFL or the UFC or even the ILGW. It’s an ad agency full of college-educated adults surrounded by tastefully over-engineered office furniture. Something tells me there’s a better way to motivate a group like this than for the ECD to act all pouty and shouty and put-upon.

Consider Your Audience
Everyone’s different. A wide-eyed, broke 23-year old who’s chomping at the bit to make her mark is going to require a different approach than an ACD with two kids who just got back from another shoot in LA. So before delivering your comments, take a second to frame them in a way that makes sense to the person receiving them. It’s a lot easier to get someone to do what you want when you know what their current motivation is. (That motivation always goes beyond “Doing good work,” by the way. That’s a given. But what’s below the surface?) People are specific, unique entities. You’ll be surprised how much you’ll get out of someone by simply acknowledging their reality before you try to get them to see things from another point of view.

Getting It

Consider The Source
Is your critic credible? Do you respect them personally? Professionally? Have they done any work you like? If yes, then listen to the criticism and learn. If no, then nod politely, mock them silently in your mind and move on. More to the point: just as you should always listen to those you respect, you should do your best to limit your exposure to those you don’t. Especially if you’re at the Jr. level. This business is crazy enough without having a flaky boss to deal with as well. Like the old saying goes (which is not really an old saying as much as something I simply used to tell myself when I was younger), there’s nothing worse for a good student than a bad teacher. So if your boss is a hack, a jerk, a Dave Matthews Band fan or some unholy combo of all of three, get out now before his or her bad habits become yours. Your future self will thank you.

Don’t Get Defensive
Let’s assume your critic is credible. If so, then it pays to remember that cool critics like this one are on your side. They’re actually there to help and they wouldn’t waste their time if they didn’t think you had talent. (Especially in today’s downsized, time-crunched world.) So take the critique like the compliment that it is and listen. Chances are, you’ll learn something while maybe bonding with someone a little higher on the food chain, which is never a bad thing. Besides, even Hemingway and Fitzgerald had an editor. (Same guy for both, by the way: Maxwell Perkins. Amazing.)

Keep A Grain Of Salt Handy, Take As Needed
As we all know, creativity is subjective. One guy’s brilliant idea is another’s derivative waste of time. But even the best bosses make mistakes. So try to strike a balance between taking your critiques to heart and taking them in stride. And either way, get used to it. Because while technology changes, trends fluctuate and clients and agencies come and go, the need to criticize the work will always be with us.

About Wade Sturdivant

Creative Director/Copywriter at The Richards Group, Wade spent his formative years in Chicago (DDB, Leo Burnett) and has worked on accounts as diverse as BMW, Firestone, Bud Light, McDonald’s, Kellogg’s and the U.S. Army.


  1. Criticism is something that rarely becomes easier to take, no matter how long you have been getting it.

    • Here I must disagree. It’s something you learn. Like downhill skiing. Of course, not everyone wants to learn how to take criticism, for it can be an uncomfortable slope. But like Wade says above, when a person you trust cares enough to help, listening is the least one can do.

  2. Nice post. I think too a very useful way of engaging in critique (both ways: giving it, and discussing it) is to make sure everysinglething is answering the larger strategy. We went this way because… it answers this part of the strategy. We looked at it this way because… it reinforced this angle of the strategy. It helps when setting up creative work internally (to acct teams), and when presenting to clients. It’s not bulletproof because as you say a good portion of the magic will/should always be subjective, but it can help keep the critique aligned and (hopefully) moving the project along a productive path (even if there are revisions to be made.)

    PS And as has been said here, ‘trust’ is key in keeping collateral damage of what could be a “charged” discussion down.

  3. Douglowell says:

    David, I agree. It’s totally learnable, just like pretty much everything else in life. Where I personally get in trouble with this is when I confuse myself with my work, or my agency’s work. We are not identical, even though the work often comes from someplace very deep inside of us.

    I think that what Wade says about channeling a rational response is hard, but it’s very important. (And I’m a person who is way passionate.) But somehow, our task, whether facing a client or internally, is to talk rationally about something that is very emotional. Because if the work isn’t emotional, it will fail.

    Yet our conversations need to have the calm of a Zen master. I try (and many times I fail miserably) to be all Zenny, but what’s important is that I keep trying. It’s not an issue, from my experience, that is ever settled in one’s career. It’s something most of us have to keep working on.

    I think there’s something useful in a Wired cover story I found on feedback loops. They talk about the magic of those radar devices that say “Your speed” and then show you that you’re speeding. They work. And they work because they point out, in a non-punishing way, exactly what’s going on. And most of us humans want to correct something that’s out of whack.

    I have tried, and sometimes successfully (and sometimes I’ve gone down in a blaze of unglory) to point out to a client a less destructive way to talk about issues with the work. If it allows them to correct their behavior without feeling completely pounded themselves, it can work. Which is exactly the premise behind the “Your speed” devices.

    Juicy topic. Thanks for the post.

  4. I’ve read recently (based on research whose source I can’t seem to locate…NYT?) on how ending a critique with positives is the most effective approach, rather than beginning a critique with the positives. The thinking is that the recipient of the criticism remembers that last part of the discussion, so if it ends with praise, that recipient is more likely to feel motivated, validated, and eager to implement the criticism.

    Perhaps starting AND ending with something you like is foolproof. Great article, Wade. 

    • Wade Sturdivant says:

      Love that idea, MsD. Makes perfect sense, and now that you mention it I’d imagine the most constructive critiques I ever received ended just that way. Great point.