Giving good feedback is hard. If you struggle with briefing and managing creative teams – designers, web developers, ad creators, content writers, video producers, to name a few – take heart in knowing that you are far from being the first. But teams NEED feedback, it’s crucial for the creative process.

Being a productive partner in a successful client-agency relationship will ensure that the return on your investment is not just about results, but also about a happy and long-lasting relationship. Poor feedback can turn a project sour and the result will be a lower quality output. To ensure you get the best results, you want your project to be one that everybody loves contributing to.

This is where the art of constructive feedback comes in. I’ve seen a lot of feedback given over the years; I’ve been on the receiving end and I’ve had to give feedback to a wide range of people. Being clear, precise, and balanced is key. Let’s dip into some of the ways you can be the kind of gold-star feedback giver that agencies would give their right arm for.

Define your goals and what they mean

You’ve heard the Irish joke If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here, right?

Nothing makes teams (of any kind) more rudderless than not having a clear idea of the end goal. Without a goal, it’s hard to even know where to start. We recently met with someone whose previous agency had defined ‘conversions’ in a way that made no sense to his business. This meant that they were going after and reporting on ‘leads’ that he wouldn’t have even counted. This disconnect between expectation and reality left him without confidence in the agency, even though they were probably doing good work. Agree on your goals before work starts, as well as how they will be measured. For example: “Our goal is leads. A lead is someone who fills out the form on page X and meets the criteria Y and Z. The cost of this lead will be decided by content creation + ad budget + software cost + management fee.”

Give information often and early

This is where I allude to stable doors and horses bolting. And the horse spent a lot of money on the way.

When things aren’t right, tell your agency sooner rather than later. Early feedback is crucial to getting a strategy right, but the team will only know something needs fixing if you tell them. Agency teams understand trends, tactics, and best practice, but you know your business and customers in a way they never will. For instance, instead of telling them that leads “aren’t right”, explain what makes them unsuitable so that adjustments can be made to the messaging, targeting, placements, call to action, etc. Rather than letting your agency implement a strategy before you tell them about your reservations, input clearly at draft stage so the design process can be adjusted. You’ll save time, budget, ad spend, and goodwill.

Understand the difference between fact and opinion

It’s hard to have a rational discussion when emotions are running high. Take a breath.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your personal opinion or aesthetic is the last word in design or creative. Your agency team makes suggestions and decisions based on deep knowledge, professional objectivity, and past experience of what works and what doesn’t. They understand best practice and they follow trends. They have a track record and the insights that go with it. You may hate orange, but they may know it will work with your target audience. You may hate using slang, but they may know that this will get you more conversions. If you find yourself using words such as “like” or “feel”, your feedback may be drifting into the purely subjective. Take a step back, check your emotions, and be open to other ideas. Remember, whether it appeals to you or not is irrelevant; results are everything.

Giving feedback - understand the difference between fact and opinion - Engage Content Marketing Agency Dublin

Choose your words carefully

A lot of passion and energy go into creating wonderful things. Build on that.

This one is particularly close to my heart, so this is a long section! When giving feedback on text, nothing is worse than ambiguous or negative comments. Saying a sentence “doesn’t hit the mark” isn’t helpful; saying why it doesn’t work is. For example, saying “this paragraph is vague” doesn’t help a copywriter to fix the problem if what you meant was, “Can we reinforce the conclusion? Let’s focus on the main benefit here.” Don’t just ask for something to be changed, give some examples of what you would prefer. Don’t only make your feedback about what needs changing; where you see sentences or paragraphs that are great, let the writer know. This is valuable insight that will help them develop and improve on drafts instead of just changing them.

There is no one correct way to write; the beauty of language is that it can come together in infinite ways. The way I express something will be different from my colleagues, even though we work in the same business and are all native English speakers. Don’t make your feedback about the writer, but about the writing. If what you’re reading seems out of step with what you were expecting, take a look at the brief you provided and ask yourself if it was clear enough for someone outside of the business. Did you give enough information and guidance? Often, where writing has holes or doesn’t quite come together, it’s because the writer was filling in gaps the best way they could.

Examples of good feedback

Here are some examples of feedback that we’ve found helpful:

Rather than ‘help’, could we use ‘build’ or ‘develop’ here?

This term is maybe a bit idiomatic for the audience? Can you think of a simpler way to express this?

Good, well-balanced paragraph. Relatively short sentences support the language approach for our readers as well as localisation.

Prioritise your feedback

They say, “Which one?” I say, “Nah, I want all of ’em”

In trying to be helpful and communicating as much insight as possible, you may inadvertently cause a flood of feedback that is unmanageable. What may seem to you like good information could put your agency team in the situation of having so many potential changes that they cannot deliver your job within time or budget. This is where prioritisation comes into play – for every change, there is a scale that balances ease of implementation vs importance. You can help your team prioritise your requested changes by telling them how much you want them. This can be easily done with a simple table that categorises every potential modification with ‘low priority’, ‘nice to have’, and ‘essential’. The team can then cross-reference this at their end with a scale describing how ‘easy’, ‘moderately hard’ or ‘hard’ to execute the change it is and arrive at a go/no go decision.

Know yourself

Not in the Delphic maxim sense, but in the recognise-that-you’ve-changed-your-mind sense.

The above heading does nothing for our SEO, but it is an important part of managing feedback between your business and your agency. When you engage an agency, their preoccupation – whether you recognise it or not – is to deliver what you’re expecting. You’ve already established the goals that help to add structure to service delivery, but what you may not have discussed is the path for getting there. Try to be consistent in your feedback so that teams don’t become confused. Obviously, if the end game changes, so will your brief. But otherwise, consistency is the best way to build on that agency-client partnership. If you tell your agency that engagement is everything, and after a few months you decide that something else is king, you put all their planning into flux. Be very clear when you move the goalposts, and make sure that you also revisit how those new goals are managed. Understand that changing your mind requires an adjustment in how and what your team is doing. Give them time to turn the ship around and reset the course.

Always be testing

As you can see, good feedback is not about brutal honesty, but about understanding which of the facts you hold to be true are useful and will help creative teams progress with their ideas. At the end of the day, we all have our biases and there’s no accounting for taste. If there appears to be a serious disconnect between your views, don’t fight over it. Put the options to the test and see what the audience responds to. They, after all, are the only ones whose opinions really count. 😉

Embarking on a relationship with an agency is a big deal, and lots of things go into building a successful client-agency partnership. Check out Maria’s blog, How To Get The Best Out Of A Digital Marketing Agency (And Avoid Being An Agency Hopper!), for a great overview of managing outsourced teams. If you’re contemplating using an agency, but are yet to be convinced, feel free to call us for a chat on 01 556 0576!

Scarlet Merrill

Author Scarlet Merrill

Founder & Customer Experience Activist at Engage. I create and deliver holistic strategies that are all about driving sales through great customer experiences. My passions are food and wine, collecting books, sustainable agriculture, innovation, politics, and pedantry. Motto: you don't make a plural by adding an apostrophe before the s!

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