Suck it up: why criticism and debate are the best way to advance the industry

In this guest post, Tristan Tobin from Bold Media, argues that constructive criticism shouldn't be withheld due to the thin skins of agency folk if we want to remain challenged and creative.

There’s a line in the 2014 film Whiplash that sums the situation up nicely: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.”


We’re good at backslapping in the media industry. A quick look through the Comments section on Mumbrella will show you just how unwelcome a critical opinion can be.

In this circle jerk echo chamber where big commercial imperative and personal ego govern the industry discourse, it’s often the most innovative and honest voices that get drowned out.

It’s shamefully counterintuitive and it makes the media industry boring to listen to.

If you think I sound naïve, good. You’re exactly the sort of person that should be reading this. I’m picturing an agency group windbag with a big balance sheet and a vested interest in the status quo.

I’m talking to you because if you think commercial clout should forever buy you the final word in the industry groupthink, then you’re woefully wrong about the purpose of Australia’s media trade press.

The trade press exists to report industry news, not protected opinion. Most importantly, trade press covers new advances that may shape how we do business and change how we speak to Australian audiences going forward.

When Professor Mark Ritson takes a snarky pop at digital effectiveness, and then Danny Bass refutes him with 800 words founded heavily in emotion, you start to get a picture of what I mean. Just saying you’re ‘proud of how hard you and team work’ for your clients, isn’t a rebuttal or unwelcome criticism.

Yesterday, when Dan Monheit challenged Professor Ritson with some arguments of his own, it was a step in the right direction. With varying degrees of success, Monheit did his homework and used facts and figures to step against Ritson’s position.

In particular, Monheit was critical of Ritson’s delivery style, accusing him of using intellectual cloak-and-dagger to beguile his audiences.

Monheit’s piece took the industry discourse to a more encouraging level because it wasn’t the equivalent of telling Ritson, ‘Shut up. You’re hurting our feelings’.

And to its credit, the comments section under the article bore out a healthy amount of scrutiny for both sides. Ritson for being an expletive-heavy, wannabe thought leader, and Monheit for having an agency background with a vested interest in protecting current practices.Right and Wrong concept

This debate is part of an old script. Across the big and small voices, this industry prides itself on vibrancy and innovation.

In reality, though, the big voices often coast on the credentials of the smaller ones. Everyone wants to be an innovator but only a fraction of us actually make good on it.

Smaller voices, by virtue of their desire to grow, have far more to gain by introducing new ideas. For big voices who are already kings of the mountain, change is almost never welcome, because change means disruption.

Promoting disruption on one hand while resisting it with the other has become the hallmark of our industry’s opinion forums.

And the net result is usually a giant, roaring ‘nothing to see here!’ from the holding groups who wield tremendous commercial influence.

If you’ve ever read an industry opinion piece and upon finishing thought, ‘that was pointless’, then you’re familiar with how cash and ego silence the commodity we need to evolve into something better – honesty.

Just so we’re clear, it’s understandable for the big agency holding groups to seek to control their message and, where possible, guide the industry debate.

Where it becomes damaging is their expectation that smaller players will either tow the line, or won’t be given the airtime to launch an argument.

In short, the big guys don’t expect to be contradicted.

Without meaningful debate and genuine reflection, our industry loses out. We’re in an unrivalled period of change. History shows hollow platitudes from the incumbents aren’t likely to deliver the breakthroughs we need.

Innovation is the domain of the agile, and it’s time we heard more from them in our industry press.

The alternative is more anodyne noise from big players who deliberately suck the oxygen out of the room.

Tristan Tobin is head of content at Bold Media


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