The C Word - Bright Blue Day

The C Word

‘A great influence in my career to date has been ‘The Art of Client Service’ by Robert Solomon. Solomon proposes 58 ‘things’ to help you get ahead in your career, in particular the Ad Exec talks of the importance of ‘checking oneself with a long hard look in the mirror.’ That got me thinking about self-awareness in Client Service but also about the ‘C’ word.

That’s right the thing that upsets people more than anything.


The ability to criticize stems from discernment – the “power to see what is not evident to the average mind”. John Adair, ‎Business & Economics

Discernment is something I think we should strive for as modern professionals. For me it is the ability to offer insightful criticism in a way that is accurate and immediately useful.

However, in order to pass measured judgement, you also need to be able to take it.

Writing this post as a fully-fledged agency suit, I can most certainly say I can take criticism. For me, being able to take criticism without taking offence and readily apply learnings is a key skill that you are likely to learn throughout your career.

However, fear, borne out of many different motivations means that criticism is often given and received in a clunky, awkward way and this only results in unclear direction for the next stage of the project.

The fear of avoiding insult or injury in the workplace is particularly common, and stems from the society we live in. Society often associates criticism with discomfort and unfamiliarity which ultimately bleeds into our professional lives and disables us from offering criticism in a meaningful and pragmatic way. More commonly than not, we dumb down critique to avoid uncomfortable situations.

Criticism is very much an essential aspect of critical thinking, and intelligent critical thinking is something that is undoubtedly missing in our society. The danger of not offering criticism is living a life ruled by mediocrity, meaning if you’re not likely to receive or give criticism, you might be a little bit mediocre – a sentiment Aristotle perfectly surmises in the following quote.

“Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing and being nothing”. (Aristotle)

How to receive criticism; constructive or otherwise.

  • Objectify – take ownership, but depersonalize and disassociate emotion. Don’t take things to heart, be professional, rational and considered in your receipt of criticism and your response.
  • Reframe – negative feedback in a positive way; I’ve acquired quite a collection of reframing instances, it’s something we deal with every day working on campaigns you feel immensely proud of that don’t quite hit the brief – the trick is to unpick the critic in order to dig a little deeper…. put yourself in the client’s shoes, think about why it doesn’t hit the brief and what changes can be made to ultimately improve and ensure you do hit it.
  • Take it! Criticism, like failure, should be something we embrace. When we are steadfast in our ideas and bellicose in our actions, staunchly defending our art because we are incapable of taking on criticism. Embrace it, welcome it with open arms and think of taking it as a method for self-improvement.

  • Keep Calm – defend your ideas passionately but not aggressively.

While you may often be the recipient of criticism, you might also be expected to give it. Delivering constructive criticism is an art of its own.

How to deliver constructive criticism.

Criticizing for the sake of having an opinion is unsurprisingly prevalent in agency life. There are many good clients/peers who are able to offer criticism through evaluation and observation, which ultimately lends itself to improvement. However, there are also many a peer/client who offer judgement which can often be interpreted as negativity.

So, how do you offer constructive criticism and make it meaningful?

  • Be self-aware – In the words of Ice Cube ‘Check yourself before your wreck yourself’. Be increasingly self-aware; consider the content, form and delivery of criticism. Empathize, put yourself in their shoes. If you’re delivering via email, draft it and take some time to reflect etc. 
  • Content – Before dishing critique, think about what you are really saying. Are you offering constructive criticism, or just being a messenger of judgement/bad news? Evaluate the work or situation that has been presented, work out what your observation is and how it could lead to advancement/improvement. Don’t be that bad messenger.

  • Form – consider the best methodology based on the situation, content and individual you’re dealing with; phone, email, 1:1 chat- impersonal vs. personal. Consider the individual and their communication style/personality

  • · Delivery – Frame it positively; reframe negatives as an opportunity for improvement. Highlight something they do well, how they might do something better, and how that will benefit them/those around them. Promote discussion, and offer solutions not problems. Be calm and assured in your delivery. Offer the individual reassurance and position criticism as a skill to be acquired/developed, not a personal failure.

Again, the key to long-term success and healthy workplace relationships with genuine, open and honest discussions is:

  • Follow-up & Appraise – whether giving or receiving criticism, follow-up with the relevant individual and evaluate the outcome. This is an opportunity for continual improvement and a chance to build rapport/strengthen a relationship. Be collaborative, open and honest.

In short, bring light into situations, take criticism gracefully and more importantly, give criticism responsibly.