Gif by Ander Hernando
How does a creative team in a pressure cooker environment navigate feeding back on each other’s work, day after day, without drawing blood? Gabberish co-editor, Jess Lilley, and her creative partner, Jim Walsh, give an honest appraisal of how they tackle it.
Conventional wisdom tells you to give feedback by delivering bad news in a shit sandwich, with something positive on either side. Problem is, you’re still left eating shit and wondering if the rest is baloney. Better to be straight up with a creative partner if something isn’t working. Dishonesty leads to false hope and faint praise can be damning. Speak truth and prosper, I say. On the flip side, if something IS working, get super excited and give it a FUCK YEAH sandwich. Much tastier.
Being direct works well for Jim and I (at least, I think it does. I hope he agrees or it’s gonna be awkward as all hell).
The dialogue between us is always built on a robust and respectful interrogation of ideas. For me this is really important, both the interrogation and the respectfulness. If it makes it through this incubation period, your thinking is only going to come under greater scrutiny with every new person who sees it. It needs to be challenged right from the get-go for any chance of survival.
But this can only end well if it comes from a good, trusting place as opposed to cock blocking and ego driven competitive arseholery. That shit is the worst. Plus, you have to be as ruthless with your own work as you are with someone else’s, and be prepared to bring a love parade when they uncover gold dust.
When Jim doesn’t like something he goes a bit ‘nice dad’ on it, challenging all the weak bits in a calm and methodical way as though gently letting down a small child. It can be temporarily annoying but it’s not the worst way to kill your darlings.
That said, I’m probably quicker to challenge or dismiss things than Jim is. He is more patient with initial thoughts if there is a thread of value in it. He’ll keep mulling it over or he’ll find a piece of storytelling reference that gives it traction. This is why he gives great feedback to younger creatives. He gives them tools they might not have yet to make more of their initial ideas.
I like that Jim comes at a brief from a very different angle from me so we each open up a new world of possibilities for the other. When something resonates for either of us we can’t help but start riffing off it straight away. I value his opinion immensely. We support each other and I think we implicitly trust each other so we can push to get to the work that we both want to make.
We believe in each other’s radar for snuffling out a rough diamond, and each other’s ability to see sense when necessary.
But when it comes down to it, I think the reason our working relationship works is because we like each other. It’s basic but important. Work is one aspect of who we are. We can get focussed and intense about it but we can also put it all aside and have a fucking good laugh for ten hours.
I’ve got three kids and one of the positive things about having kids (there’s only a few) is that they remind you of how we all used to be. Their innocence allows them to speak their minds without consequence. They haven’t been conditioned by the world just yet to think twice about telling the truth or feeling any guilt from doing so. Their gut reactions are only moments away and whether I agree with them or not – that my cooking is disgusting, my face looks like a poo got sick, or that they love Mummy more than me – is incidental. Kid feedback is the best. It’s the best because it’s instant and it’s to the point. And they still love me.
I haven’t asked her how she’s done it yet, but somehow my creative partner, Jess, has managed to channel her younger self and now tiny Jess, using adult Jess’s body as a host, is roaming the agency giving ‘straight to the point guiltless feedback’ with reckless abandon. No one is safe. Like some sort of Wordzilla, she breaths truth fire on sub-par scripts and ideas as creatives, account management and Uber eats couriers run for their lives.
I met Jess for the first time two years ago. We were chucked together as a creative team in the hope things would work out. I think they have. And I think they have because inner child Jess doesn’t mess about and gives her honest opinion within seconds. Sometimes before I’ve even finished my sentence.
Getting to the point quickly is something I greatly appreciate. No bullshit just an honest opinion.
I don’t always agree and I’ll fight for something I believe could be good, but getting to the core of whether something is crap or not saves us all in the long run. Jess is great at this and does it with respect.
I was joking about Jesszilla. In this crazy industry, the worst thing Jess could do is tell me what she thinks I want to hear, that yes ‘I am a genius and this is the best idea she’s ever seen.’ What I actually want is her honesty. That’s why I’m asking. I’m the kind of creative who needs to bounce ideas off someone and she’s someone I trust.
Let’s love it and craft it or kill it and move on.
It’s a key factor for me, in both asking for and accepting feedback - the respect I have for those I’m asking. In an industry where everything can change within seconds, solid relationships are the thing to hang on to. When you surround yourself with people who don’t just want to make great work but do so with respect, then you’re on to a winner. We’ve all heard it before but it’s true. Mean to the work, nice to each other.
Jess is about as good at Indesign as I am at Word. Shite. Which takes me on to my next point. Working in a team where each individual has a clear set of skills makes everything better. The work, the ideas, the relationship. Seeing Jess write, present and articulate our thoughts better than I could ever do, only strengthens our bond. When there are clear roles the relationship gets stronger and the trust grows. And when this happens you know that any feedback that person gives is from a good place. Not a place of hierarchy or ‘that’s not how I’d do it’.
So the best advice I can give when giving feedback is to tell the truth with respect. But don’t be a ‘pleaser’, as the pain of the truth hurts less than the pain of lies.
Jess and Jim are Creative Directors at Leo Burnett, Melbourne.