Craft Topics – Bad Work
Is a bit of a mystery. Because we don’t like to talk about it do we? But it happens. Statistically a proportion of the work we do has to be below par. So deal with it.
Except on the whole we don’t. In a service business bad work rattles around giving rise to bad word of mouth and creating patterns which all too often repeat themselves.
Here’s the first cause of bad work and this is an easy one. Other people. Or as Jack Black in School of Rock would call The Man. The system. You can see a turkey long before it gobbles but once the process is rolling it is very difficult to turn the process. Mostly we try to stop the assembly line and start again. But turkeys emerge relatively late in the development process when the client and senior suits have agreed the direction. So if you want to make a rep for yourself being a turkey spotter things get very heavy very fast. Its easier to let the turkey flap its way out of the shed. There will be recriminations of course but across the entire team. If you give advanced warning you become the scapegoat for being smart enough to spot the turkey but not smart enough to have wrung its neck. There is also a nasty tendency for people to get labelled as turkey producers – not that they survive long. And it is on the whole unfair to label people because a team ought to be able to root out turkeys. But deadlines and politics keep the turkeys going. The only remedy for reducing the incidence of turkeys is to develop longstanding relationships where people can talk plainly and trust has built up. This curiously enough is not a quality of many account teams which are thrown together and where personnel are changing continuously. It’s not fair to blame the client for turkeys. After all we have to hatch them before the client buys. And very few clients brief us to produce turkeys do they?
The second cause is the client’s brief. Half of all complaints are the customer’s fault says Philip Crosby. But they don’t like to be told do they? They know what they’re looking for. And even when they don’t they believe they’ll recognise it when they see it! And by definition all work which doesn’t fit these rather narrow criteria is bad. Right? Well I would argue no. Off brief work isn’t bad. It’s just off brief. It’s ridiculous to call a spanner a lousy screwdriver. I think agencies beat themselves up over this – largely because they have to whinge at each other – there’s no where else they can get it out of their systems. Miscommunication
Thirdly there is miscommunication. Its different from bad briefing. It’s ambiguity. Everyone is using the same language but actually we mean different things. The trouble is that at the start of a project there is a need for consensus and it can be very irritating to keep challenging what exactly is meant. But in my experience this accounts for more bad work than anything else. It is particularly problematic when working across communication disciplines. I remember a telephone conversation with a brand manager for a charity for a project about brand reputation where the deliverable was a PR communications plan. We agreed with each other for 100% of the time but it was evident that we were both becoming increasingly alarmed at the language the other was using. It could probably have been ironed out but neither of us wanted to take the risk. When I first worked in direct marketing at ehs there was a policy of hiring progressively one person from client side, one person from advertising and one from direct marketing. And we were warned to challenge and that not everybody would always understand what we were saying. There’s a lot more leakage between communication disciplines but there’s also still a lot of ambiguity. I’m convinced that most of the projects where the parties haven’t been satisfied with the result have come unstuck because of miscommunication and unfilled expectations. When I first wrote this I used the planning playing field as a check whenever I worked in a different discipline to check the business model of the project I am working on. Now I use the planning hexagon which references 6 different types of communications which have different underlying assumptions attached to them. Usually this keeps me out of trouble. The client won’t articulate the business model they are using because they take it for granted.
Fourthly there is inexperience. Coming fresh to something gives you the opportunity to do something new and different. It also means that you are likely to make basic mistakes which someone with even a little experience in the area would not make. This does result in bad work but as long as there is time for amends it is correctible. You just need someone who has got more experience to check your work.
Lastly – there is the rather sensitive matter of just not being very good at something. I know I am going to sound like Prince Charles but there is such a thing as talent. And you will do some things a lot better than you do others. There are some things you can do but will struggle to do. The wider your range the more you will be exposed. Specialists always have an advantage because of their focus. But if you are a generalist you have the compensation of crossfertilisation and broader experience – but you will also have weaknesses. You pays your money and you makes your choice. Like turkeys this is bad work which you can anticipate. But you’re unlikely to get any better at it unless you practice. Which is why you will be tempted to say yes and have a go. What you also need is a rigorous reviewing procedure afterwards to decide whether you did in fact improve or whether you repeated previous mistakes. You’re not supposed to practice on your clients but we all do it!
What to do about bad work? Well I try to ask my clients for feedback. Always. And the feedback I get is always helpful if sometimes unexpected. And having got the negatives out of the system they are more likely to use me again. I’ve never had a client so unhappy that they refused to pay. But you do wonder why certain clients don’t come back. That’s why the feedback form is useful – it flushes this out potential problem areas. And of course I get a lot of positive feedback as well. Which is great for testimonials! I append my feedback form which I use for the planning and research projects I do. I’m supposed to have designed another one for when I do facilitation work but that’s still on the drawing board.