There you are, stood up in front of an entire room of C-suite types, creative directors, marketing execs, and project managers. You’ve spoken at length detailing the design strategy you’ve crafted after tens of thousands of dollars worth of research, testing, competitive landscape analysis, stakeholder interviews, and internal revisions. This work is SOLID. All the experts at your agency have been telling you so for weeks. The whole team has been pumped for this presentation. As your last words hang in the air you scan the room for reactions and…
Oh God. It’s happening. They don’t like it. They don’t GET it.
This is the time to let your professionalism shine through. You set the tone.
Invite raw feedback.
In my experience, a presentation gone sideways is usually heralded by a deeply uncomfortable silence where “we love it!” should have happened. Regardless of how tender and fragile your emotions surrounding your work actually are, assure the client that you want to hear their unvarnished thoughts. Open up the dialogue by telling them that feedback is the most crucial element of the creative process and the sooner you can arrive at the crux of the issue together, the sooner you can work to solve it. Which is true.
If you can draw out all the most savage comments while you’re still in the room together you give yourself an advantage in two ways. Firstly, this roast of your work is going to go down whether you’re present for it or not so it behooves you to get it started while you have an opportunity to address the issues being raised. And secondly, brutally honest communication is a genuinely intimate activity. While scary, entering into an unveiled conversation together builds trust.
It’s important to remember that if you work for an agency the client has likely hemorrhaged money into this project and there are a fair number of emotions at play about it. If they don’t like the creative work they’ve just seen they’re likely panicking on some level. These emotions need to be addressed before anything else can be seen clearly. Have the emotional intelligence to let these folks get things off their chest.
Don’t become defensive.
Now that you’ve told them to take the gloves off, take the punches. A neutral, concerned face and a soft, “Okay,” is all that’s needed here.
Direct the discussion.
It’s easy to let the dialogue get out of hand and end up standing awkwardly at the front of a room of people engaged in spirited sidebar conversations. Encourage the client team to express their thoughts to the group one at a time so everyone’s input can be heard.
Be sensitive to who the client stakeholders and creative decision makers are. While it’s important to give everyone the opportunity to weigh in, not all opinions are equal. Make sure the folks who have the authority to set direction have the most airtime. If Brian from the mail room thinks you should make everything purple, acknowledge the contribution respectfully and guide the discussion back towards those with skin in the game.
Provide structure to the feedback.
A mentor of mine once gave me invaluable advice. He said, “Instead of the client giving you a fix, ask them to describe the problem they see.” For me, this was a game changer. It is YOUR job to provide a design solution to a problem, and only you have the requisite skill set to do it well. Hearing feedback in the form of an amateur fix conceals the actual problem that needs your attention. How many times have you dutifully carried out your marching orders from a client only to hear that they still don’t think it works?
Defend the work (maybe).
This is something where you really need to take the temperature of the room and decide if it’s going to make things better or worse. If possible, quickly revisit the parts of the strategy that your team felt were particularly successful in meeting the client’s goals, especially where design decisions were influenced by best practices or user behavior. You want to make very clear that each decision you made over the last several weeks creating this strategy was the product of careful consideration and research. Frame this dispassionate defense in such a way that the client feels comfortable and has the opportunity to engage with you to debate the efficacy of your solutions.
If defending the work gets people overly heated, drop it.
Most importantly, thank the client team for taking the time to discuss the work and for their candor. Explain that as they take the next few days to noodle more on the work and provide additional feedback, you will be heading back to the drawing board armed with all the invaluable input from today’s meeting. Stress the collaborative nature of the creative process, and remain upbeat. Assure them that this setback gave both teams a great opportunity to roll up their sleeves and work through some tough issues, and that puts us in a great place to move forward. You’re excited to come back with a fresh version for them to review!
Figure out what the hell happened.
Was the creative brief off the mark? Did your team fail to understand what the client was looking for? Was there a sudden shift in leadership on the client side and this new guy hates everything his predecessor asked for? Or did you just mess up and the design execution was genuinely shitty? Circle the wagons and figure it out. Until you know where you went wrong your chances of a repeat disaster presentation are high.
Every great designer I know has been on the pointy end of a harsh critique, and as nerve-wracking and demoralizing as it is it’s possibly the best way to hone your poise and ability to think on your feet. If you stay positive and open to the lessons to be learned in each meeting gone sideways, the presentations you tanked could end up being some of the most valuable to your growth as a designer.