10 Tips for Giving Feedback That Makes the Work Better and Won't Totally Piss Off Creatives

The art of responding to creative ideas

It's something that creative directors and clients struggle with. It can make or break a campaign. And when done poorly, it can ruin a creative partnership. I'm talking about giving creative feedback—one of the most important skills for someone who evaluates creative work to have.

How to give feedback isn't taught in marketing programs or portfolio schools. That's unfortunate because multiple rounds of creative feedback have become central to the way clients and agencies work together. We can debate whether that should be the case—I happen to think more clients and agencies should collaborate the way Avis and DDB did back in the 1960s. But until the system changes, we should consider feedback a bit more carefully—what we're saying, and how we're saying it.

So here are 10 things to think about the next time you're in a creative review.

1. Know your audience.

Creatives are different. They often have a higher degree of sensitivity and posses a greater sense of empathy. A 2021 Cambridge study found that encouraging students in a classroom setting to engender empathy actually boosted their creativity. I'm not saying you have to handle creatives with kid gloves—most develop a thick skin. But good marketers always understand who they're talking to. So if you want to get the most out of creative people, it's worth keeping these personality traits in mind.

2. Say thank you.

We're all too damn busy. It's easy to forget after your sixth straight meeting that someone spent hours thinking, sweating and obsessing over your brief, trying to make something good out of it, and then spent a sleepless night or two worried about the presentation. Starting with a simple "Thanks for all the work" is not only the right thing to do—you'll be surprised at how it lifts the mood in the room.

3. Ask yourself if the work is on brief and on brand.

These are the two key questions: "Is this us?" and "Is this what we asked them to do?" It's often not the work that's the problem—it's the brief. And it's inefficient and frustrating to use rounds of creative to work through the brief, so don't do that. Warning: you'll struggle here if you don't have a sharply defined brand.

4. Be wary of your first reaction.

Things that are unexpected and memorable can feel a bit weird, even off-putting at first glance. That's why it always makes me a little nervous when people make snap judgements in real time with the utmost confidence. The fact that Apple's board of directors tried to kill the "1984" spot and Guinness's "Surfer" tested badly should give even the most experienced creative directors, let alone clients, pause. Identifying breakthrough work is hard. It's OK not to make a decision in the moment—don't be afraid to sleep on it.

5. Focus on the idea, not the execution.

This one is tricky, because the natural tendency when looking at creative is to jump right in and start critiquing the details. But you could be missing the forest for the trees. Look at these two ads—two completely different art directions and headlines, same idea.

The thing is, if the idea isn't right, it's a huge waste of time to consider whether you should use black-and-white or color photography, or discuss what word you should underscore, or debate the placement of the logo or whether or not your brand is more OBJ than Tom Brady. Creative directors, don't miss a strong idea in the early rounds just because the execution is off. And clients, leave most of the executional details to the creatives. They're better at craft than you are.

6. Avoid subjective, prescriptive, and especially, disparaging feedback.

"That joke isn't funny." "Make that blue line thicker and darker." "This is terrible." This is the unholy trinity of feedback, and should be avoided like the plague. Sometimes it's hard to avoid subjective feedback, and you've got to be honest. But you can always start with "I think…" or "To my eyes…" or "Did you consider…?" For creative directors, prescriptive feedback is actually part of the job, but you always should explain how it improves the work. 

7. Emphasize the good.

This is a simple trick, but it's often better to point out what's working than dwell on what isn't. You'll get more of the good stuff in the next round and less of the stuff that isn't—and you'll keep the enthusiasm for the project high. The more fun creatives are having, the better the work will be.

8. Ask what they think.

The creatives have been living with the work and have thought through the strengths and weaknesses of the ideas. It's useful to get their perspective, but it also helps build the relationship. People want to be heard, and appreciate it when they are.

9. Keep people—and rounds—to a minimum.

We've all been here.

The thing is, there's a paradox with feedback. Beyond a certain point, the more feedback given, the worse the work gets. And over time, the more feedback you give a creative team or agency, the worse their work will get. Why? Because the more people and rounds you subject to the work, the more it will revert to a safe, bland mean. And if you bludgeon your creative team with multiple rounds of feedback every project, you create a disincentive for them to do their best work. Your feedback process is telling them you're going to do the work for them. 

10. Sometimes, the right feedback is none at all.

Think about the number of pieces of creative you look at in a year. Now ask yourself: What are the odds not a single one of them was perfect the minute you saw it? I'd say zero. If every now and then you're not saying "Approved" and moving on to the next one, you're probably doing it wrong.

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John Long
John Long has held creative leadership positions at Ogilvy, The Economist Group and Huge. He is currently executive creative director at LG's in-house agency, HS Ad.

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