How To Give (And Take) Constructive, Helpful Criticism On Direct Marketing Ideas, Concepts, Design, And Copy
By Robert W. Bly

H.G. Wells once said, “There is no human urge greater than the urge to change someone else’s copy.” And Ken Weissman, a colleague who ran a general advertising agency in the 1980s, once told me, “Subjective judgment is the bane of the advertising industry.”

Direct marketers give each other opinions every day: Consultants tell clients they are doing everything wrong and should follow the consultant’s advice. Editors complain that marketing’s draft is full of fluff, and that marketing doesn’t understand the subscribers. Copywriters ride roughshod over clients, point to portfolios of controls for other products, and say “Don’t change a word; I know what it takes to make winners.” But can they guarantee a winner for that particular client and product, right then and there?

In her book The 7th Sense (William Morrow and Company), Doris Wild Helmering presents criteria to distinguish constructive (i.e., helpful and useful) criticism from nonconstructive (i.e., petty, denigrating, and useless) criticism. Her criteria are meant for general criticism of creative work, but certainly apply to creation and evaluation of direct marketing campaigns.

According to Helmering, constructive criticism has three components:

1. There is a contract between the people involved. The person who is making the critical comment is involved with the project, has some authority, and has been invited to do so.

2. The negative feedback addresses a specific issue (e.g., “This package ignores the current slump in tech stocks” vs. “This stinks.”).

3. There is direction for change (e.g., “Why not talk about why now is a time to pick up good stocks at bargain prices before the market picks up again?”).

To be constructive, your criticism must have all three components present.

Inappropriate criticism, on the other hand, has one or more of the following characteristics:

1. It is uninvited. There is no contract. It is unsolicited.

2. The feedback is nonspecific or broad based.

3. The commentary is without direction for change.

A recent Dilbert comic strip gives a tongue-in-cheek illustration of inappropriate criticism:

Boss: “Everyone says our Web site is ugly.”
Web master: “Really every person on Earth said that? Even Tibetan monks?”
Boss: “Maybe it was just one person.”
Web master: “And you confused him with the entire planet?”

Give negative criticism in a positive way

When giving negative criticism, say what you like about the work before you say what you don’t like. This preserves the recipient’s ego, softens the blow, and ensures a positive working environment.

In a course I took while an employee at Westinghouse, my boss Terry Smith taught the following method for criticizing creative work. First say, “Here’s what I liked” and recap at least three positive points. (If you look hard enough, it’s impossible not to find at least three good things to say about almost anything.)

Then, say “Now, if it were mine to do....” and proceed with your list of specific criticisms. This phrase implies that what you are telling the recipient is your opinion, and not an accusation of incompetence or shoddy work on their part.

If someone gives you inappropriate criticism, especially comments that attack you as a person or demean you as a professional, say to that person, “Is there a purpose for you saying this to me?” This alerts them that you are aware of their demeaning tone and you want it to cease.

Also keep these points in mind:

We direct marketers like to brag that our discipline isn’t subjective like general advertising because test results prove what works. But the process of creating and determining what to test in the first place is loaded with subjective decisions at every step, from initial copy and concept through design and list selection.

By giving criticism more effectively during the creative process, we can help ensure a campaign or package that has the best chance of proving successful in the test phase -- and therefore the best chance of being rolled out profitably.


Robert W. Bly is a freelance copywriter specializing in conventional and Internet direct mail. He can be reached by phone at 201-385-1220 or via e-mail at His latest book, Internet Direct Mail: The Complete Guide to Successful e-mail Marketing Campaigns (coauthored with Steve Roberts and Michelle Feit), will be published in October, 2000 by NTC Business Books.

Bob Bly
Copywriter, Consultant and Seminar Leader
22 East Quackenbush Avenue, 3rd Floor, Dumont, NJ 07628
Phone (201) 385-1220, Fax (201) 385-1138