You’ve created a concept for a client project that you and your team are really excited about. You build your pitch, with details on the research and supporting data, the insight that gave you direction, and the reasons why your creative solution is a good fit to help clients reach their stated objective.
So why the feeling of dread? You’re about to enter the Client Feedback Zone.
Getting Shot Down
All of that excitement and certainty are about to be shredded… or worse, simply discounted by clients who believe it is their role to find fault with every idea you present. This process is disheartening for even the most resilient creative people.
Aside from the disappointment of clients not loving your ideas as much as you do, there is the fear that a great idea will be “dumbed down” to merely “meh” by a string of client-directed changes—death by design-by-committee.
The Rational Response Technique
Many creative people have developed strategies for coping with, and responding to clients’ negative feedback. The inimitable Mike Monteiro of San Francisco’s Mule Design shared his own ideas on the feedback process.
1. Read the client's email in full. Read it again to ensure you fully understand it.
2. Set it aside and do something else… deep breathing, a long walk outdoors, a desk-clearing session, whatever. Let the feedback simmer. You want to be able to respond calmly and rationally, not emotionally.
3. Create a 3-column table headed “Yes,” “No,” and “I have a question.”
a. Under “yes,” list all client remarks that make sense, are obvious improvements and you can directly act to include them.
b. Under “No,” list everything you disagree with—the already-rejected requests, the simply unfeasible, the budget-breakers, or the merely pointless—they neither improve the idea nor make sense.
c. Column 3 is for anything that is unclear, on which you have questions, or that require further information.
4. Write your email response.
a. Always begin with “Thank you for your feedback.”
b. List all the items from the “Yes” column, and that you agree or will fulfill those.
c. List the “I have a question” items next. Make questions detailed to ensure you get clear answers.
d. List all items from the “No” column, explaining why you disagree. Be clear and direct, not rude. If you can offer an alternative, do so.
Reframing the Process
Martin Weigel, Head of Planning at Weiden + Kennedy, Amsterdam, also has ideas about the feedback process. He suggests the biggest step is training clients not to immediately jump to critique mode but to approach agency concepts with the goal of first understanding them.
“Why are the team excited about the idea?
- How will it work?
- What will it look/sound/feel like?
- How reliant is it on technique?
- What are the most important parts?
- How will it unroll?
- How will it scale?
The second step is not calling it “feedback.”It’s a discussion about choosing the best strategy. The agency and the client share the responsibility for arriving at a joint solution. Words matter.
Owning the Process
Here are Weigel’s additional ideas about owning the process.
Discover all stakeholders and decision-makers before starting a project, especially how their approval chain is set up.
Project managers and AEs must confirm all mandatories and essentials, including budget constraints, time, costs, etc. (the scope of work), but also stakeholder prejudices and biases.
Compress the timeline. Less execution time automatically reduces feedback (but can lead to post-execution dissatisfaction).
Set clear objectives. If you’re climbing Everest, your goal is not “going mountain-climbing.” Be precise, specific and clear-headed.
Involve clients in brainstorming and ideation. Play with ideas together. Clients will be more likely to feel ownership of ideas, and less likely to pick them apart during the approval process. This is why we suggest creative directors attend client meetings.
Tight deadlines add stress and encourage errors and shortcuts. Know when to call a time out, and perhaps a revised schedule.
Support your team and defend their best ideas. Keep the focus on the ideas and team success to reduce ego clashes and feedback meltdowns.
Clients have to approve the agency’s creative ideas, but having a process for dealing with negative feedback helps your agency become better at building strong briefs, negotiating client feedback, and selling more of your great ideas. It also helps your creative team’s morale. Generate heat with great ideas, not creative burnout.