Reacting to Creativity

Effective feedback is itself a creative act

Tim Brunelle
10 min readMar 15, 2024

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Ideas are fragile, critical, essential things.

And they live in an unending relationship with feedback.

Two elements in a primordial dance: An idea. A reaction. A revision. A reply. Rinse and repeat.

Done well the dance is effortless, appreciated and additive. It can change the world.

How often do we do it well?

Knowing how to react to creativity, to provide feedback which enhances and nurtures ideas so its creators can act effectively on your behalf is really hard.

Companies, brands and careers stumble and fail at it.

Let’s figure out how to fix that.

First and foremost, feedback needn’t be emotional

We learned terrible habits when we were young. Emotions got linked with ideas. Self worth got tied up in ink, pixels, words, performances and creative expression. But wait — don’t we need ego and emotion to unearth brilliance? We certainly do. But the process does not require us to weld our creations to ourselves. Unless you want to become the lead character in a tragic biopic.

We are not our ideas. (And yet, we are.) The ideas are not the people who created them. (And yet, they are.) Such is the conundrum.

Learned detachment is critical for idea people.

I’m remembering an ad agency conference room early in my career. We were reviewing campaigns. The intemperate Creative Director dismissed the work of my partner and I with a gesture, then clarified, “you suck.” A finger pointed unmistakably in my direction. A senior art director interjected — surely the CD didn’t mean this personally? The work sucks, not the person? “I do mean him!” our leader exclaimed. “He sucks!” (Years earlier, my mentor, Bill Miller, had taught me a prescient lesson: The business of creativity is learning to survive rejection.)

Learned detachment is also critical for those tasked to react. They soaked up the same unfortunate lessons, and lug the same unnecessary baggage. A suggestion:

  • Professionals avoid prefacing — Never begin a creative review with “I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings,” or versions of “I know everyone put a lot of hard work into this…” Here’s the truth: You don’t have that much power or insight. No one does. Initiating a creative review with faux attempts to protect what you imagine are the emotions of others is a waste of time. Get to the work — that’s hard enough.

Thank goodness for books including Crucial Conversations, Creativity, Inc.,Thanks for the Feedback and Radical Candor which provide valuable instruction for emotional objectivity in the realm of business. Books like these map out healthy process for evaluating the emotional qualities of creativity while remaining detached from our own emotions and the emotions of those who created it.

The 10x Attitude: “What an idea can be” is 10x more valuable and efficient than “What it is”

Let’s say it’s early days in a creative journey. If you look at a headline, layout, edit, or concept and see potential you’re on the right track. If, however, you look and see mistakes — watch out, there’s a trap.

It all starts at the beginning, long before we briefed the assignment to create. Before strategy was defined. Before a business issue was identified. It starts with a mindset — do you embrace potential, or fear? It really is that simple. Carol Dweck’s “Two Mindsets” frames this challenge as Fixed vs Growth (her book is invaluable). If we set out on a path towards gaining the most advantage possible from creativity, we must assert a Growth (or “potential”) frame of mind early, and remind ourselves often.

If we seek creativity’s advantage, we must preserve “the oxygen of optimism” detailed in chapter four of Adam Morgan and Mark Barden’s A Beautiful Constraint. In early days of creative problem solving it is too easy to look literally, to not see past Photoshop comps or loosely formed attempts at expression. It’s far too easy to miss the point entirely, and therefore miss the potential. Morgan and Barden offer a solution: “CAN-IF.” When reacting to creativity in early stages, always frame input this way: “We CAN do this/make this work/embrace this concept…IF we [and here’s the hard part — now you have to think creativity to maintain enthusiasm].”

We all spent entirely too much time as children focused on a kind of accuracy that was meant to prepare us to work on a factory floor. We were trained to follow precise rules, the better to keep the factory humming. Large swaths of modern business benefit from the literal approach. But not creativity. A literal environment fails to set up or nurture success when our roles and our deliverables are to find, polish and evangelize ideas no one has seen or heard before.

Okay, I see your hand raised. Thank you for your patience. Yes, but what about accuracy and brand guidelines and craft? Excellent points, all — but for much, much, much later in the creative process. A keen, discerning eye is invaluable once we’ve entertained concepts, and focused on a singular direction. Uncapped too early in a creative process, the red pen will quite literally (and quite easily) destroy economic value.

Ideas which outperform the status quo (and become the new status quo) come from the realm of the potential, not the literal.

Everyone has taste — some just have more practice using theirs

If you find yourself in a role with creative feedback responsibilities, you’re in luck. Now you’ve got the best excuse to visit art museums, eat at new restaurants, attend concerts, subscribe to Communication Arts, and watch all those Oscar nominations. And you get to talk with others who love those subjects, too. Because part of your job description, written or implied, is to have taste.

Do a search for “good taste quotes” and you might decide taste is unnecessary, foolish, or as Edith Sitwell put it, “the worst vice ever created.” It is also a wildly efficient skill we don’t teach or evaluate enough. It’s a skill of increasing value in the age of AI.

Fortunately, you were born with taste. We all were. But it’s ridiculously easy to unlearn. Just mindlessly embrace the status quo.

In the context of business, and the task of reacting to creativity, Taste can be defined as containing:

  • Experience in Art and Design 🎨 (i.e. their histories, periods, styles, the elements which define one type versus another, and perhaps most important — a point of view on what leads to cultural impact). The creative components of successful business — brand standards, cultural relevance, photography, film, writing, et al — have roots. You need to know where they come from. You don’t need a degree, just curiosity. You can’t sit on the sidelines.

Taste is also about being:

  • Operational and Action-Oriented ✅ In the context of business, taste is also translation and the operationalizing of ideas. It’s about recognizing concepts don’t magically come to life in all the nooks and crannies of a corporation. Taste is the ability to inspire and educate, to bring teams along for the journey, to convey benefits of potential — despite the allure of the status quo.

We are born creative.

Which suggests we are also born with an ability to relate and react to creativity on par with origination itself.

It’s just not taught that way, or supported. But it’s there.

If we think about the practice of feedback as a creative act in itself, we’re on the right track.

Avoid leaping

We were taught how to rush to judgement. We were taught to cut corners and leap to tactics. The arc of efficiency suggests me just telling you how to solve the creative issue saves us time, gets to the point, and most important — moves us quickly away from the uncomfortable soil of humility. One of my youngest son’s doctors said, “The hardest thing for any doctor to do is nothing. We’re trained to take action.”

The ouroboros that is creativity and feedback is lopsided. All wholly magic and foggy charm juxtaposed with a muscular razor’s edge of action-oriented precision. One side comfortable in uncertainty, the other adamant we solve now. This is learned behavior.

We can unlearn it.

We can talk openly about resisting the urge to take matters into our own hands. We can talk openly about the anxiety produced by creativity which hasn’t yet landed. We can return to and interrogate the assignment itself to see if that’s where the problem really lies.

Actionable feedback doesn’t dictate, it fertilizes, it opens doors, and keeps the “oxygen of optimism” flowing. It takes practice and finesse, and desire.

Creativity is dangerous. Act wisely.

My second favorite book in the world is Robert Grudin’s The Grace of Great Things. The pulled quote on the back cover reads,

“Creativity is dangerous. We cannot open ourselves to new insight without endangering the security of prior assumptions. We cannot propose new ideas without risking disapproval and rejection. Creative achievement is the boldest initiative of mind, an adventure that takes its hero simultaneously to the rim of knowledge and the limits of propriety. Its pleasure is not the comfort of the safe harbor, but the thrill of the reaching sail.”

When a marketer asks for creativity, they are asking to leave the comfort of the safe harbor. To believe otherwise is foolish, never mind inefficient. How else do we propose to attract necessary attention? To convince customers of our benefits? In reacting to creativity we are reacting to change itself. We should not be surprised if it acts in unfamiliar ways. We got what we asked for.

So we’re back to a mindset.

In the dance which is creativity and feedback, we must re-mind ourselves of the circumstances we’ve created. We asked for the new, the persuasive, the differentiating. Our reactions to the work should be rooted in the knowledge we are actively and deliberately “endangering the security of [our own] prior assumptions.”

The economics of feedback

It sounds like a Tim Ferris anecdote, but I can’t confirm it. The myth goes like this: A professor hands out a grade below “A,” which prompts Tim to schedule a meeting to learn why. A four hour meeting. Maybe it was only an hour. But here’s the point about economics: For the professor, the “cost” of giving Tim anything less than an “A” in the future might end up being a lengthy meeting.

Economics are in everything. Especially feedback.

Orson Wells read a line of ad copy into the microphone. A disembodied voice gave a response. Wells reacted, “The right read… is the one I’m giving you.”

Legend has it the ad writer Mark Fenske once told an account executive or client, “I get my ideas from God, so don’t make me change any of them.”

If you’ve never worked in creativity all of this might sound childish and silly. Unprofessional, even. But I’ll wager those impressions miss a very important point:

Reacting to creativity HAS TO have a price, otherwise it wouldn’t be creative.

If brilliant, career-changing ideas were free for the asking, would we notice? Would they have the potency and qualities to change things? There has to be a reason so few ideas truly impact the world. I suspect one criteria is the price that must be paid to extract it.

So now what? Earlier I suggested avoiding prefacing — attempting to protect feelings ahead of (what you know will be) negative feedback. Such tactics are unproductive. Similar advice applies to the economics of feedback. The professional understands they are on a two-way street, that feedback is a conversation which will be negotiated. Barden and Morgan’s “CAN-IF” structure provides one resourceful solution. How else might you prepare yourself, your team, your collaborators to price the economics of feedback?

10,000 hours of “why” versus “how”

Feedback is the unpracticed skill which can unlock incredible creative and economic value. It starts by acknowledging this skill is challenging to learn, but you’re learning.

Avoid the leap. Ask for time to reflect.

Then be as creative in discerning an actionable insight as the work you’re reacting to. Don’t solve “how,” but ask “why?” Why do you feel uncertain? Why isn’t this idea aligning with expectations? Are your expectations off target?

Maybe the assignment is ill defined. Maybe we don’t know enough about the target audience. Maybe we’re not imagining the target audience in the most useful way. Maybe we’re trying to solve a problem marketing isn’t meant to solve.

Maybe the creative solution on the table is the right thing to do but you don’t know how to say that?

It’s okay to say, “this isn’t working.”

But it’s critical to say, “I need X amount of time to think about why so I can give you actionable feedback.”

What = “actionable?”

Actionable feedback isn’t exhaustive or exhausting. It is rarely granular. It isn’t prescriptive. It accepts a responsibility to negotiate with and inspire better creativity. It looks for what works, and amplifies those qualities. Actionable feedback accepts there likely isn’t a perfect solution, yet we can and will decide anyway. Because actionable feedback is confident enough to know this is how the process works; and it wouldn’t be creative if we weren’t a little or a lot bit uncomfortable. Actionable feedback defers to take action.

The practice of professional feedback has at least three elements. First, it is candid. Second, it clearly and concisely pinpoints the problem’s root, rather than prescribing a solution; it identifies the source of uncertainty. Lastly, it is human. Admit when you’re struggling to grasp the intent or inspiration behind the work.

You’ll figure it out soon enough.

Or your competitors will.

Originally published in two parts (one, two) in my newsletter.

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Tim Brunelle

I'm a creative enterprise leader, teacher, and entrepreneur living in Minneapolis.