The Awful Truth About Unsolicited Advice, Part II: How To Score Points With A Client (Or Potential Client) By Criticizing What He’s Doing


In her book “The 7th Sense”, Doris Wild Helmering makes a distinction between constructive criticism and “inappropriate” (petty, denigrating, and useless) criticism. According to Helmering, constructive criticism has three components:

1. There is a contract between the people involved. The person who is making the critical comment is involved with the project or product, has some authority, and has been invited to do so. (When we’re talking about marketing, this would include recommendations from members of an in-house creative team and suggestions from outside experts who have been retained as advisers.)

2. The negative feedback addresses a specific issue. (Saying, for example, “This ad ignores the current slump in tech stocks” instead of “This ad stinks.”)

3. A recommendation is made for a change in direction. (“Why don’t you talk, instead, about why this is a good time to pick up promising stocks at bargain prices before the market picks up again?”)

Inappropriate criticism, on the other hand, has one or more of the following characteristics:

1. It is uninvited. There is no contract.

2. The feedback is broad-based or abstruse. (See “Word to the Wise,” below.) 3. The commentary doesn’t offer any recommendations for how to make a change in direction.

A recent Dilbert comic strip gives a tongue-in-cheek illustration of inappropriate criticism:

Boss: “Everyone says our website is ugly.”

Webmaster: “Really? Every person on Earth said that? Even Tibetan monks?”

Boss: “Maybe it was just one person.”

Webmaster: “And you confused him with the entire planet?”

If we follow Helmering’s guidelines, you have a right to voice your opinion to a company about a product that you purchased from them. You have a duty to criticize wrong thinking when a client has hired you for your marketing ideas, expertise, and track record. But you do NOT have the right to do what the misguided Web designer I talked about yesterday did: voice an opinion about a service you’ve never used or a product you’ve never owned — unless, of course, it somehow interferes with your activities or freedom.

Even when you are entitled to criticize someone else’s product, service, or creative work, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. In a course I took while an employee at Westinghouse, my boss, Terry Smith, taught the following method — and I have used it since not only to give feedback to my copywriting students but also to make recommendations when working as a member of a marketing team.

First, say “Here’s what I liked” and recap at least three positive points. (If you look hard enough, it’s impossible not to find at least three good things to say about almost anything.) Then, say “Now, if it were mine to do . . .” and proceed with your list of specific recommendations. The phrase “if it were mine to do” implies that what you are saying is your opinion and not an accusation of incompetence or shoddy work. I’m a direct marketer.

As a group, we like to brag that our discipline isn’t subjective like general advertising because our test results prove what works. But the process of determining what to test in the first place is loaded with subjective decisions at every step — from initial copy and concept through design and list selection.

By giving criticism more effectively during the creative process, we can help ensure a campaign or direct-mail package that has the best chance of proving successful in the test phase — and therefore the best chance of being rolled out profitably.

When you’re a member of a marketing team or feel compelled to help someone by giving unsolicited advice about the way he is marketing his product or service, the two main guidelines to follow are these:

1. The most-useful — and most-welcome — criticism you can make will be based on your knowledge of what’s working in your marketplace right now, based on recent test results.

2. The second-most-useful criticism you can make will be based on your knowledge of what has worked in the past for this kind of offer — again, based on test results.

(Ed. Note: Bob Bly is the editor of Mailbox Millionaire, ETR’s program to help you start your own successful direct-mail business. For information, click on