Doritos vs Goliath (the importance of peer review)

I admit I was sort of tongue-in-cheek when I titled this post, because the reality is this. However daunting it would seem Dorito’s task of single handedly whipping Madison Avenue this SuperBowl…here are the facts. Over the last three Superbowls, there have been fifteen top five USA Today ad meter spots, five per year. Doritos has nabbed 4 of them. In fact, during one of those three Superbowls, Doritos didn’t even run the contest. They just aired a finalist commercial from the previous year. In those three years, Doritos, a lone brand, has absconded with nearly 30% of the most coveted accolades in the advertising industry. And they have done it with freelance video producers and rogue ad agency/production company types.

The real Goliath here is Doritos, or more specifically, all of you who entered Snack Strong’s Crash The Superbowl Commercial Contest. Does this mean we have arrived with no need to further hone our talent and professionalism? Not by a long shot. We are a long way off from realizing our full potential.

The one advantage Madison Avenue continues to have over us independent freelancers is our inclination to be creative mavericks and loners. Our inability to unify is our weakness. It is our achilles heel. We need to provide creative support for one another in the same way the agencies currently do.

THOUGHTS:

When an associate creative from an ad agency comes up with a brilliant idea for an ad campaign, does his boss say “Great, let’s run with it?”. No. At that juncture, they pull in other creatives, form a team, and make sure they hammer out all the bugs and polish it into the best idea/pitch they can before showing it to the brand.

When a Saturday Night Live writer comes up with a killer script for one of their bits, do they run with it as is? No way. They put it before a team of writers and tweak it to the strongest material possible before the comedian goes live.

Madison Avenue hopes we freelancers never become that organized. The Video Contest King hopes we do.

HISTORY:

When I turned 15 years old (30 years ago), I picked up a guitar and decided I was going to be the next Billy Joel, albeit with a six string. I spent the next 25 years struggling to make it a reality. It never happened. Through it all, I resisted co-writing or collaboration. I was sure I had what it took to do it all on my lonesome. How dare anyone suggest they knew better than I how to craft a song. Well….I have 25 years of publisher rejection letters that suggest I was wrong.

When I turned 39, I went to college for the first time. One of my classes was English 101 (Critical Thinking). I turned in my first assignment which I was sure was a masterpiece. The grade I received for it was barely passing. My Professor (Cynthia Hanson) let me know in no uncertain terms just how much unnecessary fluff, drama and droll I had packed into my paper. Being the proud Hungarian that I am, I fought her assertions for a few more assignments. Realizing I was not going to win this battle, I decided I would appease her, but only so I could get the grade I wanted. What happened next, changed my entire opinion of peer review and the revision process forever.

No I did not consider my professor a literal peer. She obviously had much more education than I did. And frankly, had she been an equal, I probably never would have listened to her nor had my epiphany. On one particular poorly graded paper I took her offer of making changes/revisions and re-submitting for a new grade. I made all the revisions she suggested, to a tee. When I was done, I read my new draft. It was clear. I realized how blind I had been to the benefit of the revision and review process. The paper that I had revised, was only half the length of the original but much more powerful.

I finally ‘got it’, that my second thought on any given subject could be as good (or better) than my first. This revised paper was 5 times better than the first draft. I wasn’t to start film making for another two years, but the lesson I learned that semester would be key when I did.

PEER REVIEW THEORY:

It is not easy to hear, “Your work sucks”. Even when a review is couched in non-threatening, respectful tones, we still hear “Your work sucks”. It is the same sensitivity that makes us good artists that gets smashed to pieces when someone delivers a negative critique. It is why most creatives rarely show their work to people other than their girlfriends/boyfriends, wives/husbands, mothers and room mates.

The cool thing I discovered about peer review is, if I recognize a legitimate point of critique as a failure/weakness of my art….and I fix that weakness, I then never have to hear that critique again. As I progress as an artist, the amount of negative critiques continue to decrease. This is a very gratifying feeling. Here are some important points to keep in mind regarding peer review.

1. The reviewer is not always right. If the reviewer provides 5 points of critique, he/she may be spot on with all of them or maybe none at all. Maybe he/she is accurate on only one of the five points. As creatives, we have to be mature enough in our art to recognize the points that are justified and ignore the ones that aren’t. If we cannot determine which is which, then we are doomed as artists. This is why it is important to create (become part of) a 5-10 person peer circle. If you receive the same critique point from 4 out of 5 peers, you better seriously consider applying it even if you disagree with it. Usually when you do this, the finished result slaps you in the face and you wonder why you didn’t see it for yourself in the first place.

2. As individuals, our life experience is singular. As creatives we must come to terms with the fact that we don’t know everything. If we are male, we have no idea how it feels to be female…right there we are clueless in truly understanding half of the people in the world. When you extend this out to the melting pot that is America, we start to understand just how singular our perspective is. Meanwhile, Doritos wants to sell chips to everyone, not just chubby white middle aged males. If possible, create/become part of a peer circle that includes male, female, young, old and varied races.

3. Be grateful to ANYONE who takes the time to give you a thoughtful critique. Even if the critique is delivered in smug/rude fashion. In the end if you recognize a nugget here and a nugget there, you still have been done a huge favor. Be appreciative and try not to kill the messenger. Here in LA, you have to pay people to give coverage on scripts. Don’t knock it  when you get people to do it for free. Your going to pay for it one way or another, and if biting your tongue while a ‘know-it-all’ spews his diatribe is the cost, hey that’s pretty cheap.

4. Don’t ask/accept critiques from family and friends. They are bias and subjective and very often only stroke you at the cost of furthering your education.

5. Let’s say you have 5 peers each providing you with 5 critique points. You assess they are accurate at only a 20% clip. At this rate, you still have received five valuable points that you didn’t have before. These golden nuggets could conceivably make or break a project.

6. I feel strongly about asking for peer review before I have a chance to fall in love with my edit. I send stuff out for review a number of ways. Sometimes it will be with just the visual clips in a complete sequence, before I have spent any time on sound design or syncing up a music bed. Sometimes it will be the just the first 6, 7, or 8 seconds of the spot, complete with visuals, SFX and a music bed etc. The point is, if we complete a project and squeeze all of the elements into what we believe to be our ‘finished’ project, we usually are very reticent to change anything. We must be willing to kill our babies otherwise the peer review process will only be a drag and end up creating peer conflicts.

7. When members of your peer circle send you work to be critiqued, be sure to be timely and thorough in returning the favor. Often in my line of work it takes about 90 seconds to watch the spot a couple of times and then another 5-10 minutes to send some bullets through an email. Not very long at all, and at any rate, this is part of the payment for receiving review on your own projects. As a perk, I am often surprised by things I learn (pick up on) by offering review on someone else’s work.

HOW TO START YOUR OWN PEER CIRCLE
When I started this blog I was hoping for it to be come popular enough to attract an array of creatives to create a community. In the previous post there have been more than a hundred and twenty peers who posted their work in hopes of review. That is excellent. I think we are well on our way to creating a valuable resource to creatives who have yet to create a review circle of peers.
If you posted your video for review, than you are a potential peer circle member. Try to connect with other creatives who posted vids and start creating your own peer circle. One way to go about it is to look at thier :30 spot and see if it is the type of work that is similar to yours. Do not look so much at quality, but look at what they were trying to do. I say this because Neither, Siskel, Ebert, or Roeper ever made a film but their critiques were/are highly coveted. Spark up a conversation with them. Determine if they can transfer what they think into written word. A really good way to determine if they are a peer whose review you could use is to read a review they have already given to a video not your own. Determine if they nailed the weaknesses/strengths of the spot they reviewed. If they haven’t yet reviewed, ask them what they think of a certain video (not your own). If you agree with their review, then you can pretty much assume they will be useful when it comes time to review your own work. To communicate more effectively you might want to do it away from this blog. Provide each other the comfortable anonymity of YouTube or MySpace. If you’re like me and prefer to disclose who you are, meet with them on Facebook or just give them your real email. Remember, it is not the quality of their own work that determines wether or not they can give a good review. Frankly, it is these people who will be more than happy to become a peer circle member if it means they have an opportunity to become better film-makers.

The VCK was created to inform the freelance creative about all things relative to our emerging arm of the advertising industry. Just because the industry is going through a massive morph right now, doesn’t mean that everything is broken. One thing that will stay constant is the need to include more heads than just your own. In this highly competitive cerebral industry, no man/woman is an island.

FINALLY:

When the U.S. economy finally makes an about face, and venture capital starts flowing a little freer, I predict there will be more opportunities than ever before for the freelance creative. If I am right, we all stand to benefit. Many of these companies are going to require you to jump through hoops and meet brand requirements, and to a much more detailed extent than Doritos ever has. Working within a peer circle will be good practice for when working with others becomes a mandatory element of a branding contract.

Every single freelance creative who is serious about making commercial production a full time career should be part of a peer group. Through it you have the potential of becoming 300, 500 or 1,000% better at what you do.

I know this post is awfully long. You guys can let me know if there was excess fluff, drama or droll….and though I will openly thank you for it, I will secretly hate that it was brought to my attention. Such is the nature of peer review.

The VCK.

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8 responses to “Doritos vs Goliath (the importance of peer review)

  1. I think this is an awesome idea!! Where do I sign up? 😀

  2. I’m in too. How do we go about doing this, Fearless Leader?

  3. Very great blog as usual Jared!

    I find that 90 to 95% of what my peers have to say about my work as far as technical or actor related issuses are things I was already aware of and anxious about anyway. Some of these would be things that could not be fixed due to time constraints or other reasons.

    I would much rather hear about the weaknesses in my work from a peer than the average public, because if the average public is spotting major problems with your work then you’ve really done something wrong.

    Then there are stylistic differences that become blurry, if I think my end tag line is awesome but 5 other peers have 5 different end tag lines that they all like, then who’s is best? Which one to use? Who knows for sure, it can be a difficult decision that YOU the creative ultimatly have to make.

    One thing is for sure, in this business (especially on the net) you’re gonna get critisisim whether you use a peer group or not, so you kinda need a thick skin. You also have to know that sometimes you’ll have a hit and sometimes you’ll have a dud, you need to except that. I know I’ve got some duds in the resume.

    Jared is like no other! Listen to him and you will be forever better and rewarded in your future endevors!!!

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