The Art of the Creative Review

Seven questions to bring out the best ideas

Anyone who’s ever reviewed creative work knows the process itself can go well… or not so well — regardless of the ideas themselves. Why is that? Well, because coming forward with a creative or “out of the box” idea takes guts. And depending on the agency or company culture where these discussions are taking place, it can leave creative teams feeling vulnerable and exposed. Ever hear the expression “Here’s a crazy idea”? That’s fear talking. That’s someone’s way of saying “please don’t judge me too harshly for what you’re about to hear.”

The people bringing you their ideas may be excited, but they may also be nervous about how you will react, and how your reaction will reflect on them.

What this says is that the environment (or culture) in which ideas are presented and reviewed matters. And if you’re in the position of reviewing the ideas of others, you have a powerful opportunity to influence that environment and encourage creative thinking.

So, whether you are a creative director, account supervisor or marketing manager, here are seven questions to not only bring the best ideas forward, but also ensure that the team bringing them to you have the confidence to keep going.

  1. What’s the assignment?
    Before you actually start reviewing the ideas at hand, ask yourself – and the team – to summarize the assignment as you both understand it. This grounds everyone in the task at hand and ensures that the details of the undertaking are top of mind. Now you’re ready to see and hear their ideas.

  2. What’s your gut reaction? (shhh… keep it to yourself)
    Everyone has an immediate reaction to work; a visceral response that’s hard to ignore. This type of reaction is important and informative. But when it strikes, don’t speak it out loud — at least not right away. Give yourself a moment to soak in the details — both in the idea itself and in the way it is being presented.

  3. What speaks to you more: The idea? Or the way it’s executed?
    Not all executions are the best vehicle for the idea they are carrying. Some executions can actually obscure a powerful idea fighting to be seen. Distinguishing between the two can be crucial to bringing the strongest ideas forward.

  4. Is your reaction subjective or objective?
    Is the design, illustration, color palette or tone of voice off brand? Or just not to your personal taste? There’s a big difference. And often we all need to remind ourselves that the way we feel about the work is not necessarily how our target audience(s) will feel.

  5. How does the creative team describe the idea?
    Listen to the way the creative team expresses their idea. Sometimes the good ideas in their heads don’t quite make it into the execution. Or it could be that the execution itself is overshadowing the good idea inside it. Other times, one idea may be tangled up with another that’s fighting for attention. Good creative direction can spot hidden ideas and distinguish between competing ideas to bring the best thinking forward.

  6. What is it about this idea that works?
    It’s often tempting to discuss all the ways that an idea is not working (or at least not as well as it should). But focusing on what doesn’t work can not only kill a good idea that simply needs more development, but it can also dampen the team’s spirits, and even stifle their future creativity.

    What’s far more productive is to identify what is working (even if it’s something small) and ask how the team can make that even stronger. This does two powerful things: first, it gives the team something to focus on, sharpen and distill. And second, it motivates and empowers them to keep going, to keep pushing forward — not only with this idea, but with every idea they develop.

  7. What needs to happen to make this idea bullet-proof?
    They say good is the enemy of great. Ask yourself… what barriers may be holding the idea before you from greatness? How might they be overcome? And because truly great ideas can sometimes come with risk, what needs to happen to ensure buy-in at the highest levels? Asking yourself these questions will help propel your team’s ideas further and go a long way to ensuring success.

That moment when you identify and seize upon a powerful idea is exhilarating. When you do, be inquisitive. Coax it along. A great idea doesn’t always start out that way. It’s more like a flower; it needs plenty of rain, nutrients and sunshine to flourish, grow and blossom into something beautiful and strong. As the gardener, you not only have the opportunity to grow the strongest ideas, but to grow the strongest creative team as well.