Marketing’s Least Loved: creative feedback

In her regular column for Mumbrella, VMLY&R chief strategy officer Alison Tilling looks at how to approach that complicated question: "So, what do you think?"

Yes, this week it’s the really dreaded ‘c’ and ‘f’ words: creative feedback.

Words that crop up not so much at the start or end of a project or piece of work, but all through the middle. Sometimes on what can feel like an endless loop.

Two words that are responsible for more angst than almost anything else.

Putting a rocket up it

About a year into my first ever job in an advertising agency (yes we did have computers…but only just), I worked on a piece of business directly with the creative director and MD. Steep learning curve, involved having a stereo thrown at me, but cool. Cut to my first ‘Properly Big Meeting’. The MD was selling in the new campaign. He talked solidly for fifty minutes, didn’t notice his audience’s body language, and promised things we could not possibly deliver. On the Tube ride back, told me feedback was important to him – what did I think he could have done better? Possessing neither a poker face nor an edit function, I told him what I thought he could have done better.  Let’s just say it didn’t go down well.

I’ve thought about that Tube ride a lot, and how we can all make our feedback loops better.

Because let’s face it, feedback is a fact of marketing life, whatever aspect of it you happen to be involved in. Feedback on creative work can be one of the hardest moments in developing marketing, but one of the most valuable.

Here are three ways to put a rocket up creative feedback’s ass and make it a better, more useful experience for everyone.

First, reframe it.

It is a simple shift, but it can make a big difference, because when people are asked for their response to something, rather than for their feedback, a few good things happen.

First, it gives everyone permission to talk about their personal reaction to the work being discussed. Okay, so rationally, how people in an agency or on a marketing team personally feel is not the most important thing, but – and it’s a big but – humans are gloriously irrational, and our own feelings count to us. So it’s a counter-intuitive but effective move to give people the space to have those responses, framed as exactly that.

This clears the air to get to the important bits. How might your target audience feel? How might the creative team that has to use the brief feel and think? How might this work with the business objectives? Personal responses give useful context for this more important discussion, because it is easier to then draw comparisons. It also keeps the conversation where it needs to be at this initial stage: centred on reactions, strengths, challenges rather than jumping immediately to solutions.

When you do need to move to solutions, focus on how feedback will be used

As work gets closer to making it into the real world, we move from divergent thinking to convergent thinking, and an idea is executed, crafted, and crafted again into reality.

At this point, feedback is much less about your response and much more about a specific and usable guide to achieving the best possible reality.

If you’re on the receiving end of feedback at this stage, the last thing you need is a game of pin the tail on the donkey. Feedback works when it is specific: the receiver of the feedback can help to get there. “So the way we will use that piece of feedback is to make sure x, y and z happens.” This helps clarify and make feedback better, because it helps everyone see its implications. Feedback not just a tick box that ought to be delivered, it’s crucial hard work that actually affects how a whole team will develop effective marketing.

Last but probably most important: consumer feedback is constant

We focus on very specific feedback loops: what does the team think of the creative ideas? Is the client feedback in yet? Important, yes. Feedback from real people is pretty important too though, and isn’t just about their response to your finished work. If you’re clear on your objectives, you can be clear on measuring the effect of what you do; but tune into ‘feedback’ on the wider world, on culture, on trends, and use that to help make objectives as strong as they can possibly be.

Love creative feedback enough but not too much

These are ways of making initial responses and more specific feedback more useful and a more effective part of the process. Creative Feedback is not loved for a reason, and that reason is that in birthing ideas we invest a bit of ourselves into them. We don’t need to love feedback but we do need to work together, agency, client, consumer and beyond, to get a better return on that investment.

Alison Tilling is the chief strategy officer at VMLY&R. Marketing’s Least Loved is a regular Mumbrella column.


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