Rahul Jauhari
Guest Article

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Feedback Failures

Or how to avoid becoming someone who no one wants to show work to…

In my respectably long hike of twenty four years in advertising, I have come across less than a handful of people who knew how to guide someone in turning a nugget of an idea into something spectacular, who could kill an average idea without shattering the fragile morale of a creative-in-the-making, who could reject a strategy and yet send the presenter back doubly charged, raring to return with something greater.

Sadly, the vast majority, who have the exact opposite effect in that much hated event called ‘review,’ happen to account for 99.99999% of all the people who populate advertising agencies and client offices.

The Feedback Failures. The often well-meaning but utterly misguided souls who have led to ‘guillotine’ and ‘review’ assuming similar stature in the unofficial dictionary of advertising and marketing terms.

What is more often than not doled out in the name of feedback is actually directionless criticism, confusion and discouragement.

Rahul Jauhari
Rahul Jauhari

Forgotten is the fact that the fundamental purpose of feedback is to improve something that’s unfinished – an idea, a campaign, a strategy deck, a plan, a product, whatever.

Feedback, in its truest form, seeks to transform the average into good, the good into great and the great into exceptional.

While the infinite galaxy of Feedback Failures has trillions of stars, my attempt is to throw light upon an exceptional few. That you will have met at least one of these specimens in your last review, I can bet my last INR on.

1: The Chief Justices of the Supreme Court of Feedback

The deck has been presented. The campaign has been shared. The presenter apprehensively rises to his feet. A spell of pin drop silence is followed by the delivery of a sharp, incisive, crystal clear judgement: Mazaa nahin aayaa.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Feedback Failures

These Lordships and Ladyships never provide clarity or direction. What they do supremely well is deliver judgements and pronounce sentences from the seat of relative authority. You don’t need to be the biggest boss to be this kind of a Feedback Failure. You just need to be relatively senior to the poor soul who just presented his/her ideas.

While the Chief Justices of the Supreme Court of Feedback live for moments like these, numerous juniors have been known to pray for their imaginary death by poisoning, drowning, road rage, radiation or worse, castration.

2: The Heavy Metal Fans of Feedback

Remember the film that won gold at Cannes in 2017? Why can’t we do something like that?

The short answer to this band of Feedback Failures is as follows: In 2017, in the United States alone, 72 billion USD were spent on advertising and PR across close to 38000 business categories. Of the millions of ads that were produced in the year across the globe, a few hundred were considered good enough to be entered in the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Of these, about 10 made it to the shortlist in that category and finally one was judged to be good enough to be awarded a Gold Lion. Besides some exceptional thinking and brilliant execution, neither of which you are capable of providing or appreciating, it also required budgets that go beyond the pennies you have earmarked to spend. So no, kind sir/madam, we can’t do something like the film that won gold at Cannes in 2017. We simply can’t.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Feedback Failures

The Heavy Metal Fans of Feedback love the sound of their own voice. They rarely add value to any piece of work. What they do manage to achieve, is to effectively belittle the efforts of many a fledgling creator on the back of someone else’s work. And that is the exact opposite of what feedback is intended to do.

3: The Lehenga Shoppers of Feedback Chowk

If you have ever accompanied your mother, aunt or sister to Chandni Chowk to choose a wedding lehenga, you will be able to spot this breed of Feedback Failures from a mile away. Present what you sincerely believe is the hottest idea you have come up with in your entire lifetime and they will come up with a stock reply: That’s it? Can’t we see some options?

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Feedback Failures

The Lehenga Shoppers of Feedback Chowk can rarely put their finger on the right one. They are no purveyors of fine work. They simply seek solace in numbers and live in the eternal hope that one of the many ideas will click.

4: The State Appointed Coroners of Feedback

As the corpse of a murdered idea lies still and exposed on a metal table, these masters of dissection, captains of chemical analysis and fathers of modern forensic science are the first ones to rub their hands with glee and start with the oft repeated line: Let me tell you why it won’t work.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Feedback Failures

A very clear line runs between criticism and feedback and the State Appointed Coroners of Feedback thrive on the left side of it. They will, with practiced precision, enumerate every conceivable reason why your idea won’t fly. The font size, the client’s idiosyncrasies, the agency’s precarious financial position, the possible social media backlash, the negative mood of the nation, etc. But they will never, ever tell you what will actually make the idea work. No sir. That’s for you to figure out. Itne paise main itna hi milta hai.

Besides the dissected corpse of an idea, the State Appointed Coroners of Feedback usually leave behind a completely confused bunch of people, who, in their wildest dreams, couldn’t have imagined that their creation was capable of the kind of damage that had just been pointed out to them.

The exceptions to the rule…

It will be unjust of me to not point out the ones who actually do not merge with the herd. Two gentlemen in particular, from opposite sides of the table, who I have had the privilege of working with and who I hold in the highest esteem.

Diwan Arun Nanda…

DAN to many, advertising legend to the industry at large. But to me, Mr. Nanda has been someone who could walk into a room filled with a bunch of people struggling to find the answer to a complex communication problem, simply show an alternative way no one had thought of till then, raise the level of thinking in the room and leave behind a re-invigorated, excited bunch who could suddenly see light.

He never lectured anyone. He simply opened minds by showing another way. His stories, as told by numerous creative legends who flowered under his leadership, are the stuff of legends in themselves. In the 18 odd years that I have spent in the Rediffusion group, I have never seen him run down an idea or a person. I have only seen him make people believe in the greatness they are capable of.

Harish Bhat…

Client, author and brand custodian of Tata Sons Private Limited, Harish sir, as I like to call him, is someone I have closely interacted with in the course of work. What sets the man apart is his ability to make you feel like a valuable partner at all times.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Feedback Failures

No, Harish Bhat does not buy everything you say. But when he does say no to an idea, he explains why it does not work and then goes ahead to suggest another one that might. I may have changed a script scores of times, but not once did I feel the next version was a compromise. It was always sharper, better, greater.

I have seen him listen to every point of view in the room with equal interest and seriousness, never mind the designation of the person giving it. I have seen him ever so gently correct a young inexperienced member of the team with the kind of patience I wish I had.

To say the least, I always left a meeting with Harish Bhat feeling richer. Even if it was one where my idea didn’t fly.

Author’s Note…

While there are many kinds of Feedback Failures apart from the ones mentioned above, and I am sure you can add to the list, the point to remember is this: there are shades of all these four in each one of us. Shades that emerge when we are tasked with the responsibility of giving feedback. If we recognise that shade in ourselves, call it out and correct it, chances are, the next time we do that ‘review,’ we will leave behind a clearer, motivated, maybe even inspired individual or team at the end of the session. Which is exactly what good feedback is intended to do. So good luck with that and in the spirit of this article, I look forward to your feedback at rahul.jauhari@rediffusion.in

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Feedback Failures

(The author is joint president and chief creative officer, Rediffusion.)

(Design Credits: Piyash Ghosh)