The Wall™.

The Wall is our town square. We think of the hallway in front of it as a gauntlet. Webster defines a gauntlet as:

  1. two lines of men facing each other, armed with sticks or other weapons with which they beat a person forced to run between them.
  2. a severe trial or ordeal.

Although we don't beat on people or hold severe trials at The Phelps Group, we've created The Wall, which serves as a 10-hour-a-day, 5-day-a-week feedback mechanism for work in progress.

The philosophy behind The Wall within our full-feedback environment is based on leaving the final decision to the team, but with the understanding that the "gauntlet has to be run." In other words, it means that at every stage of a project, the work must be shown on the wall to dozens of people acting as the target audience, armed not with clubs but with pens and pencils with which to offer a comment, praise, criticism or suggestion.

To illustrate how The Wall works: In our industry, a writer with a Clio award is considered successful. Well, Howie Cohen is in the Clio Hall of Fame twice, and has one of America's Top 5 best remembered campaigns ("I can't believe I ate the whole thing," for Alka Seltzer). When Howie first came to our agency as our Chief Creative Officer, after we acquired Cohen/Johnson, he already had bought in to our general concept. But he hadn't grasped some of its nuances.

One day he and I were looking at a comment on one of his ads for our shampoo client, Citre Shine. One of our female PR specialists, not long out of college, had written her critique of his ad on the layout. Howie said to me, "You mean I have to listen to a 23-year-old PR girl's critique of my ad?" I said to Howie, (who was in his 50s) "Howie, first of all she's a woman, and that's an ad for a product that a woman is most likely to buy. Second, she's in the age group most likely to buy it. And third, it's just information. You do what you want with it."

I could just see the light go on for Howie. We laughed. And Howie has been our most staunch supporter of The Wall over the past years.

The message any team sends when they take work out of the agency without probing for feedback is a very cavalier one. It might read like, "We're so good, we don't need the opinions of others who are not as close to this project as we are." Or, "We'd bet our jobs there are no typos in the work." Or, "Of course it's a great layout. I know my area. I did my best and I don't need others' opinions." Or, "I wrote it, so it is clear as a bell."

feedback mechanismsThe Wall, a feedback mechanism for The Work, invites additional ideas and critiques, provides insurance against errors and is a teaching tool for all levels of experience.

It's the team's responsibility to keep the work exposed to the agency for feedback. And our training for team leaders is to communicate this logic:

Writers and art directors – and most people in our agency – are trying to reach perfection. That's what makes them tick and makes them great. They naturally will be reluctant to turn loose of their project "babies" until they feel they're complete. Problem is, by the time they're "complete,"
it's time to take them to the client. And that's too late for feedback.

Here's the scenario we promote:

The objective and strategy of the project goes up on the wall in simplified form for feedback when a project is begun. The initial creative thinking goes up immediately. The earlier we can get others' opinions on the work, the better. Then the work proceeds as normal, while the teams watch for valuable feedback.

Then, throughout the next stage (a tight layout, a press release, a storyboard, etc.), the same process is repeated. As the work moves through the production stages, the old work is taken down quickly to eliminate time wasted by critiquing ideas that are dead.

While this is happening, the energy level in the gauntlet is high. People are taking things there and critiquing others work while they're there. The better we get at it, the more we learn to separate the work from our personal feelings and the more often we turn good work into great work.

In normal pyramid situations, some people see some of the work as it moves through the processes. At The Wall, everyone sees virtually every significant project as it progresses. It's fun for the group, because everyone gets a chance to see what's in production and voice their opinion.

And it is just that – an opinion. We just consider it information. Because the team ultimately makes the decision about what goes to the client for consideration.

New associates are typically more protective of their work and more sensitive to the public critiques. However, once they realize that it's all just information,  that final decisions are made by their client-based team, and that their  success is dependant on how well the work performs – not how well it plays internally – they become more open to posting their unfinished work on The Wall.

Another advantage of The Wall is that it helps us to integrate campaigns. An ad concept may spark a media relations idea or an idea for a promotion. It's valuable to write a signed comment on someone's work. Yet, it's more educational when people actually discuss the work face to face. Ideas spark other ideas. People learn about the accounts and the work. That's why we invented The WallBanger™.

The WallBanger is held at 3 p.m. on the days we don't have lunch together. Around that time people tend to find some sort of a snack. So we provide healthy snacks at The Wall and our receptionist announces "The snacks are out and place to be is at The Wall."

When you want to get people together, just supply food. It works. We have serious conversations about the work and, just as often, there's laughing and giggling – which leads to good ideas, too – and a welcome afternoon break from routine.