Field Notes

Five Ways to Provide Better Creative Feedback

Giving feedback is one of the most important parts of the client-agency relationship, and it’s also one of the trickiest. 

When critique is given well, it pushes the work to be bolder and more effective. When it isn’t, both sides end up feeling frustrated and misunderstood. We’ve seen it go both ways—and every which way in between. Here’s our perspective on giving creative feedback that leads to better results. 

1. Start with positive feedback.

Branding expert Rob Meyerson gives this advice for group settings, and it’s some of the best we’ve heard. There are two advantages to starting with positive feedback. 

Most feedback sessions default to pointing out negatives. While negative feedback is important, starting with the positive allows the creative team to understand which elements are working. And that’s key to making good revisions.

The second advantage is all about group dynamics. If one person expounds all the reasons they hate logo A, the rest of the team will probably hesitate to say why they’re drawn to it. None of us want to look silly for defending a bad idea, and many people would rather avoid confrontation altogether. 

Reserving the first five or ten minutes for positive feedback helps ensure all opinions are heard and no ideas are killed prematurely. It also leaves room for new ideas to surface from the discussion of existing ones.

2. It’s not about what you like.

Most counterproductive feedback starts with the words “I don’t like…” 

I don’t like purple. I don’t like serifs. I don’t like the term “wet blanket.”

The thing is, your audience doesn’t care what you like. They care what they like. 

So when giving feedback, try to think like your audience. As much as possible, leave personal tastes at the conference room door.

3. Beware vanilla ice cream.

Ever heard of the vanilla ice cream effect? It’s the idea that if you ask a large group of people to pick one ice cream flavor to share, they’ll probably choose vanilla. Not because it’s the flavor anyone loves, but because it’s the flavor no one hates. 

In branding, the only way to stand out is to be different. In other words, not to settle for vanilla. So if a feedback session seems to be heading toward bland, it may be time to refocus the conversation using more pointed questions. Which of these designs is most memorable or attention-grabbing? Knowing that our audience is primarily twenty-somethings who love to skateboard, which vibe do we think will most speak to them? 

Or it may be time to break and, if possible, consider holding the next feedback session with a smaller team—one which understands the danger of boring branding.  

4. Answer these three questions.

Is it on strategy?

If you’ve invested the time and effort to develop a brand strategy you feel strongly about, make it a litmus test for all creative work. Giving helpful feedback isn’t something that comes naturally to most of us, and thinking about how the creative fulfills the strategy (or deviates from it) can help.

Does it stand out?

Most Americans encounter hundreds of brands and advertisements daily. But how many of yesterday’s ads can you remember today? Unless it was Super Bowl Sunday, probably no more than two or three. It’s not enough for your branded content to be mildly interesting: It needs to be unique and energetic enough that your audience will actually notice.

Is it uniquely you?

Jim Durfee, one of the industry’s most awarded copywriters, gave the advice to “Never write an ad a competitor can sign.” This holds true for any creative output. Does what you’re reviewing communicate something distinctive about your brand?

5. If your competitor did it, how would you feel?

This is a question to ask when you’re tempted to play it safe. Imagine your top competitor ran with one of the options you’ve been presented. Would it make you sweat? That’s a good sign. 

On the other hand, if you’d barely notice, it’s probably a direction your competitors would be happy to see you take.

Change is uncomfortable, and it can be hard to imagine how you’ll ever pull some changes off. But if you can imagine a rival succeeding with an option you’re considering, odds are you can, too.

Learning to give and receive feedback takes practice, and it can feel awkward at first. But the bottom line that is it makes the work better, which is something both sides want. Clients can help creatives see nuances about their industry or audience they might have been missing. Creatives can communicate thoughtfully about the reasoning behind their choices.

And in the end, maybe an unexpectedly delicious—and downright memorable—flavor of ice cream will emerge.