Try to Block Out What Your Boss Will Think

Ten Tips for Clients to Give Productive Creative Feedback to Agencies

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As the marketing leader, you're under enormous pressure to perform and are desperate to get great, effective -- maybe even category-busting --work from your ad agency's creative team. After a couple decades watching clients -- and agency people -- give every form of feedback to creative teams, I've assembled a list of 10 approaches that can make your interactions more productive -- and their work more effective.

1. Has everyone signed off on the brief? While this might be the most obvious point, it's also the most violated, "because we need to get moving and don't have time to get everyone involved." Sound familiar? Work that misses the mark usually comes from a misalignment of objectives. Rather than short-cutting the process, take the time to be sure the creative brief is clear and understood -- by everyone, including the boss -- before the creative process begins. Anyone who can say "no" should agree to the brief.

2. Avoid the tempting, but often frustrating "check-in." While it might appear that an early check-in will keep the team on track, this doesn't always give them enough time to get through the entire creative process. Creative people will tell you that they often have to work through the bad ideas in order to get to the good ones. And, when that's the case, the check-in may just end up frustrating you.

3. Realize that you're not the target. While most people think they can respond to the work like a consumer, it's really difficult -- even if you fit the demographic. Removing your personal biases and your deep, all-knowing perspective of your brand is almost impossible. You simply know too much -- and have too much at stake -- to respond like a typically disinterested customer would. Allowing the presenter to reconfirm the objectives before presenting the work can often eliminate the angst that might occur during the initial review.

4. Start with the positives. Even if you're not thrilled with what's being presented, leading off with something positive -- even if it's simply praising the effort -- will go a long way to build a bridge between you and the creative team. Genuine affirmation of what is working encourages everyone to lean forward and demonstrates a spirit of collaboration. But keep in mind, authenticity is critical. False praise will have the opposite effect.

5. Don't make it a "training" exercise. Senior marketing people often ask a junior person to lead off the critiques, putting the newbie in an untenable situation. Wanting to contribute to the process, he feels compelled to find a problem to "fix." It's a no-win situation for everyone, including your creative team. The best training might be simply giving the junior marketer these tips before the meeting.

6. Try to block out what the boss will think. Anticipating what your boss will think can make you gun-shy, and might cause you to kill a really novel idea. New ideas are hard enough to accept, especially when you're thinking about how your boss will react. If you're concerned that a great idea won't survive, be open and work with your agency to help you sell it through.

7. Focus on the work, not the person. Keep in mind that creative people are personally invested, and therefore attached to their work. This sentiment can be diffused if the work is addressed separately from the person or the person's intent. For instance, "your copy is too flip," feels very different than, "do you think this copy is formal enough?"

8. More questions, fewer statements. Questions can be effective in helping the team reflect on the work. When you have concerns about something specific, ask how it addresses the objective, the strategy or audience -- instead of asserting that it's wrong. The right questions can often help the team to consider a variety of solutions, instead of simply defending what they presented.

9. Give feedback, not solutions. If you haven't unearthed your concerns through your questions, dig deep to identify the core problem as specifically as possible. (Simply saying, "I just don't like it," isn't helpful -- nor is it very disciplined.) But, resist solving it. Remember, because you're the client -- the decider -- you can say "no" to your agency's ideas all day long. Don't put them in a position to say "no" to yours. Your job is to define the problem; theirs is to solve it.

10. Lead with trust. Putting shackles on creative people can often break their spirit, or cause them to want to wiggle out of those constraints -- relying on you to rein them in. Believe it or not, when creative people are given more responsibility -- more rope, so to speak -- they actually become even more accountable and strive to do the right thing. The best work usually comes through a partnership where clients and agencies genuinely trust each other.