How to Give Feedback Without Creating Feedback

Ever since the tribal chief asked the first cave painter, “Can you make the aurochs, like, bigger?” creatives have been mumbling under their breath about client feedback.

Every creative knows that reactive, defensive mumble. We’ve read the brief, studied the problem, brainstormed ideas, and designed a clean, eloquent solution. In a perfect world, we’d get the client’s eternal gratitude for saving them from the hackey hackness of the hack they’d have to cobble together with MS Word and some crayons.

But the truth is, the chief has a point. The auroch needs to look fierce. That’s the whole point of the piece—to make the hunters look fearless in the face of danger. So it’s important, as a creative, to know how to take feedback. And it’s equally important, as a client, to know how to give it.

So here’s a little primer for both sides, in the hopes of helping the tribe adorn the walls with proverbial masterworks of prehistoric business communications.

For creatives:

  1. It’s not yours. You don’t need a thick skin to hear difficult feedback; all you need is a shift in perspective. Imagine yourself as a dressmaker. Yes, you drew up the design, sourced the material, and cut and sewed the dress into form, but the client’s the one who has to go to the gala and wear it in public. And if they don’t feel fabulous about how they look, then the dress isn’t quite right. It’s not for you; it’s for them.
  2. We don’t know what we don’t know. No matter how detailed the brief, no matter how long we’ve been doing the work, no matter how deeply embedded we are with the client, there are simply things we don’t know. We don’t get the inside scoop on team dynamics on the client side. We don’t sit in on our client’s direct report evaluations. We get what the client is willing and able to share. So accept that you will always have a blind spot, a level of ignorance that cannot be overcome. In other words, stop talking—and listen.
  3. Learn to win by losing. The old adage that “the client is always right” is wrong. But the client does always get to win. Push back, educate, explain—and then, once you’ve done all you can do to clarify why you did what you did, deliver on what’s being asked for. Being right is not the job; the job is helping clients succeed.
  4. There are no sides. Working with clients is similar to a therapy session—they’re working through a problem and we’re there to be a sounding board they can use to figure out their issues. Instead of meeting their confusion with frustration, it’s our job to help them discover what they really want (and how to get it). And, more often than we care to admit, we do that by showing them things they don’t want. That’s okay. It’s a process.
  5. Speak truth to power—in your shower. We all get frustrated, and some relationships are more difficult than others. It’s important to trigger your release valve and let that steamy stream of invective whistle forth. But pick your spots. Professionalism is really the art of restraint. So if you need to scream, by all means do it. Just do it into your pillow.
Being right is not the job; the job is helping clients succeed.

For clients:

  1. Brief is a misnomer. As your creative partners, we are trying to produce work that meets your needs. But we can’t solve for issues we don’t know about. The better your brief—the more detailed, the more descriptive—the more likely it is we’ll solve the problem. Also, the more time you spend crafting a good brief, the better you’ll understand your own needs. So don’t be brief.
  2. Just don’t say “just.” There are a number of words that trigger creatives. Chief among them is “just”—just add a quick chart, just make the color pop, just one more round. The word devalues the time and energy your creative team puts into the work. We pride ourselves on delivering work that feels effortless, but eliciting that feeling takes effort.
  3. Practice gratitude. You’re under a lot of stress. We get that. And sometimes we really miss the mark. It happens. But like all humans, we enjoy feeling valued. The best way to get our best work is to acknowledge what’s working before talking about what isn’t working. We want it to be as good as it can be, and it’s easier to get it there if we feel like you appreciate even a little piece of it.
  4. Ask questions. Teasing out what is and isn’t working in a piece isn’t always easy. But rest assured that a lot of critical thought went into it. So ask about it. The better you understand the creative’s intent, the easier it is to uncover the problem and lead to the right solution.
  5. Consolidate feedback. We get it. Everyone has an opinion. We have them, too. But it’s impossible to satisfy everyone, especially when there are conflicting directions. We can’t move forward with revisions if your team doesn’t know what it wants, and it’s a waste of everyone’s time and money to work at cross-purposes.
The best way to get our best work is to acknowledge what’s working before talking about what isn’t working.

Obviously there’s no single way to work with people—because they’re people, and people are the worst and the best and everything in between. We’re all varying degrees of difficult. But by following a few simple guidelines, we can at least understand each other a little better. And that goes a long way when it comes to nailing the creative on an e-book, email campaign, or a fierce-as-possible auroch.