Internal Review: the Silent Killer for Creative Work

A couple weeks ago I had a fairly inspiring conversation with Joe Mellin of Microsoft. Our conversation covered a number of topics, but one way or another we ended up discussing our internal review process for videos which are still “under construction” here at Metamer Productions. Joe suggested I write something up on how we review work, so blame him for the following. 

I’ve always seen my role as one of shielding Creatives so they have the space to do their very best work. Let me explain:

Creatives, whether they be Video Editors, Copywriters, Designers, Art Directors, Motion Graphic Artists, Videographers, or really any other “artsy” professional, will without fail put themselves into their work on every single project. They can’t help it. Art is so personal, even art for money. I’ve made hundreds (thousands?) of films in my career and there’s not a single one that doesn’t feel personal to me. So what happens when a Creative is making something they believe is truly great, but their team disagrees? Read on. 

Truly great Creatives understand that real creativity is creativity within boundaries. Anybody who’s sat down to a blank page with the intention of writing “something” knows what I’m talking about. It’s so much easier to have guidelines, boundaries, and (gasp) rules. 

Creative work in Advertising is by definition creativity with a goal: to meet a targeted audience with relevant messaging, on-brand visuals, and actionable information. It’s incredibly difficult and great Creatives thrive on that challenge. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be frustrating. 

The typical process goes like this: 

First, a creative brief is assembled and approved by a client. That first step is no small task but for the sake of brevity let’s gloss over the nuances. 

Next, the project team internally discusses vision, scope, visual language, brand identity, and everything else that informs the creative process. Then, everybody gets to work, right?

This is in fact where creative agencies diverge in their approach and where Metamer becomes truly unique. To give a bit of background: I monitor and approve ALL creative work which is developed under our brand. That’s a full-time job in and of itself, and as CEO I’m quite busy doing C-Suite stuff nearly 100% of the time. So how do I manage to review literally everything? Here’s how:

I assign a lead Creative to every single project. Not a Project Manager, not a Producer, a true Creative leads every single project. And it’s always the individual who is going to be doing the lion’s share of the work on a given project. So that means a Video Editor might be heading up a major project for a Fortune 100 company or international NGO. 

Why do I do this? Because that individual is going to be most intimately familiar with the nuances of the project for its duration. They will live with the project, and its client, for the foreseeable future. So why wouldn’t I trust them to lead it? If I’ve done my job right, I’ve hired capable individuals who know how to run with the ball. So as the saying goes, I “get out of their way.”

And when I say “get out of their way,” I friggin’ mean it. I tell my people that I don’t want to see anything, ANYTHING, until they believe the work is ready to show the client. Scary! 

As I’ve humbly mentioned, I’ve got a ton of experience. And I have not once been anything but super excited to begin a new project. In fact, all great Creatives are excited at the beginning of a new project. It’s my #1 job to keep my Creatives excited about their work because that’s how we can ensure their work is as good as it possibly can be. Nothing is more deflating to a Creative then a meddling boss critiquing incomplete work. Allow me to explain with a hypothetical: 

Let’s say Metamer lands a big, important video project for a major client. We go through the process and assign a video editor as the lead on the project because the work is predominantly of an editing and motion graphics nature. Our editor dives in, starts pulling awesome takes, dropping in bites from an interview next to one another and making magic. Then, on day 2 I ask to see what they’ve got and, panic attack.

Our video editor is an artist, and artists hate showing incomplete work even if they say they don’t. There is a universe of intent in their mind complete with a partially- or fully-formed vision of the final product. So what if I come in to review then say, “hey you know what would be great, if 0:14 and 0:54 were swapped, and we’ll drop in a 3D map there at 1:05, and then definitely let’s prioritize picking a music track because that’s how I like to work?” They immediately deflate. 

Creatives are sensitive souls. Empathy is our currency so we take it really personally when someone doesn’t “get” where we’re going with the work. Especially if that person is our boss because then we feel like we have to do what they say, even if we know our idea is better. And even if I sing their praises, but for the wrong reasons, they will still lose their enthusiasm. 

And now our video editor is pissed, and sad, and maybe any other combo of negative emotions. They take more breaks, lose efficiency, and begin to be drained by the project rather than energized by it because it’s no longer truly theirs. Creatives want ownership and personal accountability. Premature internal feedback, even of a positive nature, is self-defeating. The project is now tainted for our video editor. 

So I don’t want to see anything unless my lead insists they need guidance, then I’ll look at only the section they need help with. But I’d rather not because if they work it out it will be better. It’s that simple. 

There is no room for ego in Creative work. In Advertising, we’re telling our clients’ stories, not our own. We have to be grateful for that trust. We don’t want to let our clients down. I’ve learned that the best way to get the absolute best work is not just to trust my Creatives, but to empower them with ultimate trust. This I do because no matter how much work I’ve done on landing the project, building the brief, and communicating client vision to the team, once the work has commenced my project lead has done far more thinking on the project and thus understands it better than I do. 

So then when our video editor completes their rough cut, and excitedly comes to me for review and approval, we sit down and look at it together — just the two of us. Only at this point do I offer feedback. And let’s be clear, I always have feedback. It’s very rare that the video is immediately ready to be sent to the client. And guess what? My Creative is always enthusiastic and receptive to my feedback because I’ve given them the space to explore and experiment. They in fact want my feedback at this point. It’s a very different thing to review work in this way than to critique while in-process.  

As rare as it is that I will have zero feedback, meaning the work is perfect and ready to be sent to the client, it is far more rare that a client has zero feedback on a rough cut. Never happens and rightfully so as this also is a completely different proposition because clients are supposed to have changes. Of course clients know their needs and requirements better than we do! Remember, no room for ego here. 

This isn’t to say that clients are always right. Once we’ve sent along our rough cut, it’s our job to effectively communicate why we’ve made the decisions we’ve made and to discuss our reasoning with our clients. That’s part of the fun! If we can’t convince our client that we’ve made a good call on something, then it wasn’t a good call. Clients know what they need their audience to see, hear, and (most importantly) do. No chance we’ve got a better understanding of that then they do. Nada. 

And when we receive client feedback, guess who’s leading those calls and discussing client notes? That’s right, our Creative lead. And this has a couple benefits: first, they know their ideas and justification better than I do. Second, if our Creative is to be promoted and “level up,” they gotta know how to speak to clients. It's my job to make sure they are not only developing technical and creative skills, but also working their way up and developing the skills they need to advance in their careers.   

There’s an old saying in video production that the first cut is always the best. I disagree with that but understand the sentiment — here again is an ego-driven argument: our ideas were better than theirs and all the changes the client has requested after the fact make it worse. Bullshit. Excuse my French. A great video is a video the client loves. That is all there is to it. 

Internal review is where a lot of Advertising agencies get it wrong, in my humble opinion. Senior and executive leaders often feel they need to do something, anything, at every step of the way. We’re the bosses for a reason, right? Because we know best! But the truth is that most of the time we don’t. That’s why I hire great people: so they can tell me what’s best! And that of course frees me up to do all the other executive-y things which characterize my day-to-day. 

Are you a leader of Creatives? A Creative yourself? Both? What do you think? Am I crazy, crazy like a fox, or on to something? Please let me know.