I’ll know it when I see it — how to deal with bad feedback

Now, it was make it or break it. We had been going back and forth with the client for days, and this was the last chance to get the layout approved the way we knew was better. Earlier that week, we had heard very specific feedback from the client – the kind that makes you angry as a creative, because it feels arbitrary and outside the client’s expertise: “Move the product away from the headline so it doesn’t overlap”. What? Why???

Up to this point, all our discussions had happened over email. On the agency side, we thought this would be just something they’d let go, if we pushed back a little. “The creatives feel it works better as it is”.

That wasn’t enough, and I saw our ad being pushed further and further into the ordinary.

You see, clients and creatives have the same goals, but they look at things from different perspectives. The clients were doing what they thought was best for the job, but they didn’t understand the consequences of making the changes they suggested. What sounds like a simple change for the untrained eye, is actually a major blow for a layout that was intentional in every detail. Taking the product away from the headline would undo the point of tension, which was carefully crafted to direct attention to the product feature – while flattening the layout and taking away most of its visual appeal.

So, as it was our last chance, I met the client face-to-face. I said exactly what I wrote in the previous paragraph, while showing them the layout we recommended, next to the one incorporating the requested change. I also took the time to explain the feeling we get from graphics that break expectations, and how that tension draws the eye. I took the time to explain how overlapping elements give a sense depth to the page that makes the product “pop out.” All the things we know and feel as we design a layout, I put into words so they could understand.

“I just wish you guys would take us through your thinking, like you just did, more often. Now that you made us understand, we’ll go with your recommendation”. These are invaluable words, coming from a client.

Once I was able to communicate the reason behind our creative choices, we got on the same page. If I hadn’t been able to translate to them why the product overlapping the headline mattered, we’d be left with a damaged relationship and a bad layout in major national publications.

We work in the communication industry, yet we suck at communicating.

The cliché is true. If you think bad communication happens only between agency and client, you’re wrong. The miscommunication inside creative departments is usually so bad, it has turned into a joke (there’s even a bunch of funny articles about it). In an anonymous forum for ad creatives, someone asked people to share the worst feedback they have ever gotten. Tons of replies came in, many of them absurd – and funny, because we can all relate.

“Make it intentional”
“I’m not feeling it”
“Keep pushing”
“Just have fun with it”
“Make it go viral”
“It needs more emotion”
“Something like this, but different”

The creative director who can’t give feedback is an archetype in our industry. Most CDs rise to that position for excelling at creating. But leading a team of people, inspiring them and guiding their energy and effort, is a different job. Some CDs become great at it, some never do. It’s an old problem in business – when you promote your best worker to manager, you may get a bad manager and lose your best worker, all at the same time.

If you’re a professional creative, making the move to manager is especially tricky. The creative process can be very personal – the most magical part of the process happens in our heads and comes out through our hands. We get in the zone, we conceive ideas and craft visuals. All of that without having to explain to anyone what’s happening.

But sooner or later, the need to express our abstract thinking in words will become necessary. You’ll need to explain your creative choices to the client, or you’ll need a colleague’s help, or you’ll need to give feedback to others that improves their work.

Being able to eloquently express abstract concepts is a skill the must be honed by all creative leaders. Colors, shapes, perceptions and feelings will need to be put into words at some point – and your creative idea will depend on it. If you don’t have those skills, you’ll find yourself uttering words like:

“Make it punchier”
“Just make it smart.”
“It’s OK, but can you take it apart and make something killer?”
“Whatever it is that you’re doing, do more or less of it”
“Make it a movement”
“Just design it more”
“Make it pop”
“I don’t think this is in the right zip code”

If you can’t explain what you feel in words, your team won’t understand your direction. Then, you’ll exhaust everyone in your team with late nights, you won’t make the deadline, and you’ll have to go back to what you’re good at – doing the work yourself. You’ll have to micro-manage. You’ll have to demand rather than inspire. You’ll resent the creatives, and they’ll be left frustrated and uninspired.

Here’s a rogue theory: bad communication might be the root of all bad things in the communication industry!

Turning shitty creative direction into actionable feedback

If you get shitty feedback or direction, you have to ask questions until you learn what that feedback really means. You need to get to the “why”. If someone looks at your creative work and says “I’m not feeling it”, you need to understand why they are not feeling it, and what is the feeling they are looking for. You could ask: “Why are you not feeling it?” “What is it about this idea/layout/script that’s making you feel it’s not good enough?” “What is the feeling you’re looking for?”

If you’re the one giving the feedback and find yourself saying something like “keep pushing”, make sure you follow up with what they should push towards. Ask yourself “why is it not good enough yet?” and come up with concrete answers, rather than abstractions like “make it punchier” or “be more clever”.

It’s amazing how creatives huddle around each other’s screens to try, as a group, to decipher a cryptic email feedback from a creative director. “What did she mean by ‘better’?” “By ‘fun’ do you think he means more conversational?” “How do we make it a radio spot more visually arresting?”

Creatives CRAVE good feedback. That’s the only thing that can keep them going. Dubious feedback will either send them in the wrong direction or just stop them in their tracks.

Bottom line is, if you’re the one giving feedback, don’t let anyone go without making sure they know what to do next. If you’re taking feedback, never leave the room if you don’t know what to do next. Get on the same page! Here’s some more shitty feedback:

“Just be more provocative”
“Needs to be visually arresting”
“Just make sure it’s Cannes-worthy”
“It’s not ‘iconic’ enough yet”.
“If it were great, it would be great”
“It needs to be 50% more clever”
“Make it stickier”
“It just needs to look perfect”

And the worst of all:

“I’ll know it when I see it”

But what if it never shows up?