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“I dunno. They just sucked.”
That was the answer I got, and from a friend I’ve known for 20 years no less.
We had gone to a concert—an old band from way back that I plead the fifth on revealing—and we were on our way out, ears ringing, walking to our cars.
I knew exactly what sucked about the concert. The lead singer’s voice lost that pyrotechnic upper range he used to have; the veins bulged like tree branches from his neck as he strained to hit those notes from younger days. The sound guy was mentally asleep at the soundboard, because there were times the bass was so over-the-top loud, I could feel it in my thoracic cavity. Yet, somehow, there was still a charm there to the band. But perhaps that’s just my sentimentality talking. The concert acted as a sort of springboard to reflection—about my life, the years that had passed, and all the things, people and places that had come and gone.
I never got anything more from my friend, though, beyond, “They just sucked.”
That night confirmed something I’ve been noticing for a long time, both in marketing and in our culture. The art of critiquing is becoming as rare as a lost da Vinci.
Yes, I just called critiquing an art, because to me, it’s something that’s a true talent—one that can be developed over a lifetime and can be incalculably valuable.
Let me explain what true critiquing is. It’s not condemning, making fun or just having a vapid opinion on something. We have far too much of that going on, everywhere. Critiquing is mentally dissecting a work—digging in, pulling up all the roots and stones, immersing your hands in the dirt, and examining all the bugs up close.
Critiquing is understanding what’s going on with something, deeper than aesthetics or production value. It’s seeing the intention of the work; its point of view (or lack thereof); getting its message and how it fits into the bigger picture.
And just as important, it’s understanding, specifically, why it’s working or not for you.
As someone on the creative side of marketing, I run into really bad critics all the time. They give direction like, “Make it pop more.” Or they reduce the critiquing process to a numeric or letter grade: “Hmmm. That’s a B+ to me.”
Those initial responses are OK. They really are. But there needs to be something of more substance after that.
Many times, when pressed, people hone in on details, trying to figure out what’s really bothering them. They’ll say, “Uh, I think it’s that green. I don’t like it.” So, you change the green, and the piece is “still not working.”
Our industry, in my view, probably loses hundreds of millions of dollars a year because of poor critiquing. Think of how many rounds of creative an agency goes through when a client can’t quite put his or her finger on what he or she wants. At best, it’s frustrating. At worst, it wastes serious time and money.
The best critics I’ve ever worked with also happened to be the most amazing marketers, too. Instead of, “It needs to ‘pop’ more,” they say something like, “Our audience is fashion-forward. They’re into trends, and they bore easily. What concerns me with this layout is that it looks a lot like something that was floating around a year or so ago. This is a new product, and the layout needs to be very cutting edge, or our audience will ignore it.”
Now we have something to work with.
Here’s the awesome thing: Critiquing ability can be improved with practice. I work on this every day myself. When I like or dislike something, I just don’t leave it there. I think about WHY. What is it, exactly, that’s bothering me… turning me on… leaving me high and dry… boring me… enchanting me. The more specific, the better. Then, I work on articulating those thoughts, insights and emotions so they’re crystal clear.
Your initial reaction matters, but you can’t stop there. Instead, explore it! Dig deeper, and you may be surprised what insights reveal themselves to you.
– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group