A sign with We Like You Too on it

How the best brands give feedback to creatives

Not only are there effective ways to get the most out of creatives but there is also an unspoken format for many in the industry, and creatives become accustomed to this way of working. Anything outside this causes a jarring and disconnect (and sometimes they take offense in fact). If you think the creatives are being precious and emotional about feedback, there may be a root cause behind this and it may be more complex than you think.  

There are a variety of ways to effectively give feedback to creatives in order to get the most effective work produced, and for the relationship to grow and foster into a healthy and collaborative partnership. When producing marketing and advertising creative there is a seemingly unquantifiable energy (I sometimes call this ‘magic’) that ends up moving through the process and into your brand if you build the right relationship with creatives.  Sometimes creatives who get precious and emotional are actually just controlling you, and equally you need effective ways to take care of the brand in turn.

1. Strategy first

It is vital to put your own subjectivity aside and consider the work in terms of the target audience, the context of the work and the strategic direction for the business before overlaying any consideration to whether you ‘like’ it or ‘dislike’ it. Neither are appropriate ways to measure creative work if you are not the target audience. If you can’t support your feedback with anything strategic then it will clearly be a subjective thought. Subjectivity is fine at times, and if you are honest and clear about when it is personal taste and when it isn’t, you will be appropriately collaborating with the creative team and they will respect this. Most creatives will respect the fact that you have no sound reason to prefer one execution over the other providing it doesn’t impact costs and time, and you are transparent about this.

2. Listen to the target audience

It is tempting to pass creative work around for feedback from others and we often joke in the industry that some businesses are run by the wives or husbands of those in power, which is unhealthy for any brand if the partner at home with the biggest influence is NOT the target audience or has bad taste. One voice isn’t enough to make a business decision on either. It is highly recommended to do some market testing with an appropriate sample size and to ensure they are exactly the right target audience.

3. Direction not criticism

It is tempting to just jump into your emotions if the work or even elements of the work are not quite where you expected it to be and make sweeping comments such as ‘I hate that one’ or ‘This is terrible’ however remember that the creative team felt they had good reason to produce the work they have. Ask questions first to understand the choices they have made before jumping into the high level and sweeping comments that will certainly be taken as offensive.  It is much healthier to start your feedback with directions or specific questions. A healthy way to start this discussion would be to start with the words ‘Can we…?’ such as ‘Can we try another colour?’ or ‘Can we look at an alternative using a font that is more friendly and rounded?’ There may be good reasons why your subjective impression is not right for the brand too. Be open and fluid to the outcome in the process. Being too prescriptive is going too far so it is a balancing act here. If you are unsure where to draw the line here, go back to points 1 and 2 above!

4. Well timed feedback

Before the project starts have a clear agreement up front as to the approval process and what kind of feedback is expected when. This means the entire project will have everyone on track and aligned. If you are seeking first round feedback from your senior managers after you have done all the detailed development work you will be adding to the cost of the project (either your supplier will absorb it but be resentful of this, or you will be billed additional costs). Be certain as to what is considered the right kind of feedback at which point. Usually the foundations such as the content, the concepts, the general look and feel is determined in the early stages and from there the details and final finessing will progress. If you all of a sudden come back and say that you don’t like an element that has been there all along then you are likely to be rubbing the hair on the back of the neck of the creative team up the wrong way!

It is also worth thinking about the fact that the longer the creative team have been working on your project the more they are emotionally invested in the solution and the more they will fight to justify it and to convince you to stick with it. Getting in early with broad strokes concepts before hours and hours of time is spent mocking up the work, you will diffuse this emotion and provide feedback at a low impact moment. This also means they don’t spend excessive head hours at your expense that they later justify as essential part of the process. If it proves that you are not capable of visualising work or offering constructive feedback until you see it fully fleshed out however, then you may need to continue to pay for the head hours to develop work in this way and factor that in to the budget (that’s a crying shame in my books but often necessary).

5. Feedback sandwich

The creative industry tend to all use an unspoken feedback method that can be called the ‘Feedback Sandwich’ because it begins with something positive (specific), follows with something constructive that you’d like to address (specifics – as per point 3 above) and finishes with something positive (overall). It would sound something like this “I love the use of the font there and it feels on track for the market. I’d love to see the colour changed to blue or something that is different than the competitors for stand out and to move the position of the brand to a more prestige position. Overall, it feels clear to read and positions the brand as a contender in the niche”.

(a) something positive (specific)

(b) something constructive that you’d like to address (specifics – as per point 3 above)

(c) something positive (overall)

6. Ignore the emotion

Many creatives get attached to their work and particularly if they have lived with it for a long time. Many times this is justified as they do deep exploration and thinking around your brand that you wouldn’t ordinarily do, or have the capacity to. However, if the strategy is not being met or the brand values are compromised then don’t be silent. Many marketing teams have an unhealthy hierarchy where only the most senior person is ‘allowed’ to make comments in front of a group and any comments from individuals is seen as undermining their authority. A sad state of affairs for the best work getting produced! If the senior manager stares down the rest of the team in meetings or you begin to notice that people no longer share their opinions (often educated opinions) then the internal hierarchy may be the problem here.  If you don’t allow open and honest discussion you won’t get the most effective work and it will cost you in head hours or in missed sales with substandard work being released.

Some creative directors allow their internal teams to have free reign for their own development or to keep them happy in the job so they stay longer. Be wary that this can be at the expense of the brand and their emotional connection to the work is not always in the brand’s best interest. The creative director can fuel this and unwittingly can close off feedback that is valuable and important for the brand. If you have a bunch of different teams working on projects in isolation and letting them run amok with the concepts and getting deeply attached to the work as if it is their one big break, then this isn’t always healthy for the brand and all parties need to be able to put this aside for the sake of the brand.

Just a quiet note here on male dominance too – Often a woman’s feedback is only heard when a male counterpart says the exact same thing. Recently, there was a project where a woman noted that an edit had a fault in the storytelling where the lights in the linear story appeared to turn on twice (really…lights turn on once only, right?! They are off and then they turn on, just once – not once in a wide shot and again in a close up as well…get the drift?) It wasn’t until the senior male in the room pointed it out that it was accepted by the team to even explore the fault. (Unreal, huh?!) Look out for this imbalance and listen for the value in what everyone says.

7. Listen to the people with the skills and experience first

Like with the wives or husbands at home making subjective input, it also happens in the internal teams in marketing and agencies. Those with seniority are not always the best at the particular job at hand, or with the depth of experience. If you have someone on your team with extensive experience in broadcast production, yet the senior manager is preventing input from this team member; the best work, most effective work, and most cost efficient work is not going to be produced.

Look for the expertise in the team and ask for their genuine and open feedback. A good manager or good leader will have the confidence in themselves to assess the feedback in terms of the strategy, the brand objectives and the business needs. Let’s get the ego out of the way.

8. Translation

Sometimes a skilled professional or consultant can mediate between suppliers and a marketing or business team, to help translate in the middle if there are issues in getting the right work produced. Often the two languages are different, and both parties don’t know how to communicate what it is they want or need and why they are making the requests they are. It can be difficult to problem solve if you haven’t had the experience and can’t see ahead the impact of the solutions or what else is available as a solution.

There is always a solution that is win/win, where you meet the creative needs of the job and the business/brand needs. The best brands are certainly getting this balance right, no question.