The long hard trek to getting good work made. And why it's time to feed back on 'feedback'
Mozart So then you liked it? You really liked it, Sire?
Emperor Well of course I did, it’s very good! Of course now and then – just now and then – it seemed a touch, er -
Mozart What do you mean, Sire?
Emperor Well, I mean occasionally it seems to have – oh how shall one say? [turning to Orsini-Rosenberg] How shall one say, Director?
Orsini-Rosenberg Too many notes, Your Majesty?
Emperor Exactly, very well put. Too many notes.
Mozart I don’t understand. There are just as many notes, Majesty, as are required, neither more nor less.
Emperor My dear fellow, there are in fact only so many notes the ear can hear in the course of an evening. I think I’m right in saying that, aren’t I, Court Composer?
Salieri Yes. Yes, on the whole, yes, Majesty.
Emperor My dear, young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Cut a few and it will be perfect.
Mozart Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an agency in possession of a great idea, must be in want of feedback.
There’s no point wishing feedback away. Creators of all types have had to navigate the needs, demands, whims and interventions of those commissioning them. Plus ça change.
And feedback is not just inevitable - it can actually be useful. Even essential. Feedback forces creators to examine their own thinking and work. To step back, reflect, and cast a more objective eye on the work. The marketing consultant and author Helen Edwards is right when she says -
Interesting things happen when originators put up a sustained, impassioned defence of their ideas, in the face of the hostility or indifference of those around them. The first is that they get to understand their creations better themselves – to deconstruct aspects that might have been arrived at intuitively and find reasons for why they are right.
In so doing, and often without them realising it, the originators will slightly modify details of their own creations…
Argumentation - attack, defence - is a form of collaboration, even though it might not look like it when the brickbats are flying.”
Helen is (of course) right. Subjecting ideas to scrutiny and critique can and does make them better. Ideas get tightened, more focused, more fit for purpose. Energies and resources get focused on the points of greatest leverage. Fluff gets whittled away. SNAFUs and landmines are spotted and dodged. Wishful thinking gets rooted out. The gaps get filled. The easy wins get spotted and addressed. The ugly duckling gets recognised as the swan it really is. The half-baked becomes fully baked. Rationales become persuasive. Reasons not to approve get dismantled. The neglected, will-o’-the-wisp doodle gets rescued from oblivion and transformed into the game-changer. All that can and does happen.
But feedback is not a one-off event. Work doesn’t have just the one tough and challenging day in court. It is in court every single day until it finally makes its way blinking and gasping for air into the full light of day. And even then the feedback can continue in the name of optimisation and adaptation.
The opportunities for feedback and all that comes with it are legion. And while each intervention as Laurence Green has observed, may be slight, their accumulated impact can be vast.
Reflecting on the many steps, hurdles and challenges an idea must pass in order to ever see the light of day Green has noted how “The view from idea basecamp must sometimes look bewildering”.
Perhaps the pressures to Just Get On With It means that marketing teams and agencies are not prone to much reflection. But if we are to encourage better ways of working, better interactions, conversations, relationships, and outcomes, then we must look up, consider the obstacles, and contemplate a better path. And this is what the path typically looks like:
The view from basecamp does not just look bewildering. It looks absolutely, utterly, terrifyingly daunting. Perhaps that is why so little consideration seems to be given about the trek. We’d rather not look up. If we did we’d be in the first bus back down to town, muttering “fuck that for a game of soldiers" to ourselves.
Each step along this long, long trek is an opportunity to exercise our innate negativity bias and focus on what’s not working; to fall victim to group think; to feedback simply in order to have one’s voice and participation made felt; to add and complicate; to shave the edges off; to second-guess how people in the real world will (or will not) respond; to second-guess how other people in the organisation will (or will not) respond; to lose sight of the original intent and objective; and ultimately, to lose conviction and run out of fucks to give.
When great work has to navigate this many steps, running the gamut of feedback at each any every one of them, the chances of it ever seeing the light of day intact are frankly, slim.
Would we, I wonder, behave a little differently if we were more attuned to the arduous path and the risks ahead?
And this it must be said, is a fairly simplified and sanitised plotting of the route. Omitted are the hallway conversations, the feedback from the important but hitherto invisible stakeholder, the eleventh-hour change of objective, the eleventh-hour change of client, the eleventh-hour admission of budget realities, the wayward director, the talent that fails to show up for the shoot, etc. It is a wonder that anything gets made at all. Let alone anything great.
Let’s then say it again. Given the gamut of opinion and intervention it must navigate past, great work is highly improbable. It is improbable because as Green has pointed out, great work is not negotiated into being:
“The best commercial communication, on the other hand, always has creative integrity at its heart: the unmistakeable whiff of a vision realised rather than negotiated into life. Its parents and sponsors have somehow resisted the siren call of adding things, and may even have taken some out to honour the core creative intent. Its gestation may have involved listening to the consumer but never at the expense of listening to our idea.”
Great work of course does get made. But just because it can and does happen does not mean it was bound to happen. Great work is like China successfully landing a probe on the dark side of the Moon, Facebook becoming the world’s social infrastructure, Ocasio-Cortez beating Crowley, Britain voting to leave the EU, Trump being elected president, or Liverpool coming from 3-0 to beat Barcelona. Probable only in hindsight.
So it really is time that we feed back on feedback.
Now there’s a fair amount of advice on how to give feedback. Most of it is a variation of one theme. Voice what you like. Only then voice what you think needs improvement. It’s not bad advice. And there’s many a conversation that might well have gone better if it had been heeded. But it’s such crashingly familiar advice, so taught, so learnt, that its clumsy deployment more often feels like an act of insincere, cack-handed manipulation than a genuine effort to be useful, collaborative, and constructive.
More importantly, it is not enough. Not nearly enough.
So it really is time that we feed back on feedback.
Let’s begin with addressing the plumbing and wiring that runs through the development process.
#1 Take ownership of the process
Nobody attempts the ascent of Everest without a plan, and without clear idea of the route to be taken, the resources needed, the stops to be taken, and the key obstacles and challenges that will need to be overcome.
Marketing by contrast is not quite so consistently diligent.
Agencies cannot expect to meet everybody along the corporate food chain every time. But they are entitled to expect that marketing teams have done their job and ensured that the key decision makers know what’s happening, and are aligned on what matters.
Marketing teams need to take more active ownership of the process. Simply kicking the ball into motion, hoping for the best, and expecting the creative work to do all the hard work rarely ends well.
Marketing teams need to accept that it is not the job of creative work to align a client organisation, to reconcile competing interests and needs, to sow harmony where there is internal discord, or to do its strategic work and priority-setting for it.
It is not the task of creative work to act as some kind of canary in the coal mine, sent in to test out what the environment is like, or to identify otherwise undetectable prejudices and vested interest.
Nor is it the job of creative work to act as some kind of internal stalking horse. Sent in to test out hypotheses, appetites and inclinations.
Yet how many times have agencies found themselves in a creative meeting where the conversation turns out to be about everything but the work? Nothing is so inefficient and so eroding of trust as treating creative work as the disposable servant of other agendas.
Marketing teams need to align their stakeholders and decision-makers. And their agency partners need to know who they are. For there is nothing quite so dispiriting as having work that seemed approved being vetoed by the Invisible Stakeholder nobody has met.
Agency teams for their part must assume their share of the responsibility and insist on having a clear understanding of the approval process before work and resources are committed.
#2 Be more honest at the outset
Marketing and agency teams need to be much more honest at the outset. Too much unavoidable, harsh reality is glossed over.
Marketing teams certainly need to stop issuing those“blue-sky-reach-for-the-stars-let’s-be-brave-making-a dent-in-culture!” briefs, when they have absolutely no intention of making anything that will come out from such brief.
The intent might be honourable, and marketing teams may well believe that this is the best way to motivate and inspire agency teams. But ultimately it will lead to trouble. It will lead to trouble because working within constraint is fundamental to creativity of every kind.
Half-way into a creative presentation is not the time for the agency to discover what a marketing team’s mandatories and checklists are. They cannot be expected to read minds. And nor is it the role of the work to clarify what should have been essentials.
Marketing teams need to stop pretending they have higher fees, more time, easier approval processes, more amenable stakeholders, and bigger production budgets than they really do. They should be honest about what the timelines, guardrails, mandatories or constraints really are. If there is a checklist of things you must see, they need to tell the agency. If there is a prejudice or opinion they need to tell the agency. If there is likely to be internal resistance from some quarter, they need to tell the agency.
Constraints should be aired in the briefing stage, not during the creative development process. And crucially, the reasons for their existence should be explained. As David Puttnam has noted:
“The ultimate freedom for creative people is to allow them to work within specific and agreed bounds, bounds which they understand and appreciate. When I say understand, I mean they understand the reason for their existence”.
Agency teams it must be said, can be pretty effective at colluding in this detail of reality. We’d rather not know that there absolutely has to be a bite and smile shot. Or that the old tagline must stay. And lest we tempt fate, we’d rather not enquire whether creative decision making will be sub-contracted to a group of strangers assembled in a windowless room on a trading estate in Swindon and passed off as ‘learning’. Perhaps, we tell ourselves, if we don’t mention the word ‘test’, it will not happen.
We’ve got to get over ourselves. There will always be unavoidable realities and not infrequently, unpleasant skeletons in the corporate closet. We have a responsibility to shake it all loose and get it all out as early as possible. Fearless transparency must be the name of the game.
#3 Compress the timeline
Like gases, feedback expands to fill the space available. The longer the process, the more feedback there will be.
And while individually each piece of feedback might seem relatively benign, their cumulative impact can be devastating.
The easiest way for marketing teams to mitigate this is to compress the timeline as much as is reasonable. They key word of course, being reasonable.
#4 Keep all eyes on the prize
Alison Levine is a mountaineer who has conquered the highest peak on every continent, skied to both the North and South Poles, and has taken on the world's tallest mountain (twice) - and done it all whilst suffering from a rare heart condition.
She has written of how the ascent of Everest is not a straight line:
“When you’re climbing Mt. Everest, you don’t just climb in the upward direction to get to the top. You also spend a lot of time climbing downward, back toward base camp.Why? Because you have to let your body get used to the altitude very slowly (a process called “acclimatization”), and that means coming back to a lower elevation several times throughout the expedition so that you can regain some strength since your body starts to deteriorate at elevations above 18,000 feet. Coming back down to base camp each time before climbing to the next higher camp can be both physically and psychologically exhausting. But it’s part of the process, so don’t look at “going backward” as losing ground. Look at it as an opportunity to re-energize so that you’re a stronger climber when you head back up the mountain again. Backing up is not the same as backing down.”
There are good and useful lessons here for marketers.
While progress towards their goal is not a direct route, for those attempting the ascent of Everest, they are always abundantly clear that they are going to climb Everest.
Or Cho Oyu.
Or Nanga Parbat
Agility and adaptability and improvisation are only made possible when there is a clear goal. Without that there is just directionless chaos.
The creative process can and should be an iterative one. But some things cannot be treated as malleable and negotiable. Treating objectives as being entirely contingent on whim, the weather, the luna phase or whatever else is deemed to justify the kind of cavalier approach they not infrequently suffer renders the strategic process thoroughly and utterly bankrupt. When marketing teams cannot distinguish between a brief that states “we are climbing that mountain” and one which treats “we’re going mountain climbing” as an objective there can be no trust, and no confidence. Both are the lifeblood of healthy creative process. Their absence excels only in undermining it.
Marketing teams need to take responsibility and own and properly police the briefs they issue to their agencies.
They need to spend far less time noodling psychobabble insights and creative propositions and spend much more time nailing down the problem and the objective.
And they need to take responsibility for both unclear briefs and the consequences of when briefs are blown up or abandoned mid-way through the creative process. Agencies cannot expect to pick up the financial consequences of the marketing team’s poor management skills.
Agency teams for their part need to have the conviction and discipline not to accept poor client briefs hoping the creative process can fix it all. Imprecise, woolly, fantastical and inappropriate objectives are the IEDs of the marketing department. And the creative process will always, always step on them.
#5 Talk outside the work
More time needs to be spent talking away from work.
Time pressures, the shortening marketing department tenures, and the shift from agency-of record relationships to short-term projects means that high quality interaction with agencies is getting squeezed out.
When delivery means more than partnership, the conversation is ever more transactional: "Make This, by Then, for This Much”. As a consequence, the conversation is increasingly only about the work on the table. Not what shared ambitions, values, vision, or tastes might exist. Or could be arrived at.
As a result, the creative conversation begins only once the agency has finished presenting the last slide in its creative presentation. Only then do creative ambitions, prejudices, peeves, wishes, dreams and fears emerge. But then it is too late for the open, honest, discursive conversation. There is after all, work and a recommendation on the table. Resources have been committed and expended. Approval is being sought. And the clock is a-ticking.
Marketing leaders (if they are sincere in their declared ambitions for creative excellence) need to make more time for conversation away from the work. If creative conversations only happen with execution on the table, the conversation will only ever be about the execution on the table.
Paul Feldwick has written about what seems like the extinction of unashamedly populist (in the non-nativist/fascist sense) advertising, and speculates as to whether it may have something to do with the decline of the agency-client lunch. His thesis is worth quoting from at length:
“Those extravagant lunches of the past may have had a lot wrong with them: indulgence bordering sometimes on corruption, and negative impacts on livers and waistlines. But at their best, they could create a very different sort of conversational space - more relaxed, more personal, more playful, where language could explore the emotional subtleties of humour or furry animals beyond the analytic, message-based discourse of the boardroom. It is a myth, I believe, that clients of the past were readier than they are now to approve campaigns that were heavy on entertainment and whimsy; in my recollection, such work generally only saw the light of day after extended and frequently acrimonious exchanges between client and agency. If things have changed in 30 years, I think it is not that clients were either more naive or more visionary than they are today, but that account directors were better at holding that conversational space open until a common understanding was allowed to emerge. And I'm prepared to believe that an agreeable lunch break, modestly lubricated by wine, could be a crucial strategy in enabling that to happen. A different kind of relationship happens when people sit down to eat together - a key turning point in the Northern Ireland peace process was when the opposed factions were persuaded to meet for dinner.
This has all changed utterly. Marketing directors rarely break for lunch at all in many organisations, snatching an M&S sandwich between back-to-back meetings. Whatever the practical reasons for this, it's also become a cultural revolution: it's simply not the done thing to go out for lunch any more. And at a fundamental level, wherever this happens, it helps redefine the nature of what is considered 'work'. Work is rational, analytic, judgmental, dealing with facts and evidence. Work is not expansive, imaginative, playful, frivolous or funny. Yet advertising has frequently been all these things, and if it is less often so today, it may be in part due to the new puritanism that pervades the anonymous glass and steel offices success probably accounted for by this shared understanding of many marketing companies.”
Perhaps consideration needs to be given to going back to the future. Those that do still prize real partnership rather than just the rhetoric of it continue to reap the disproportionate rewards. Though we must be realistic. The shift from relationships to flings, from monogamy to polygamy makes this extraordinarily challenging.
The agency has spent the last two weeks (if they’re lucky) living, eating, and breathing the problem and the brand.
If they’re good they’ve stress-tested the idea, debated and argued over the right solution until late into the nights, analysed and deconstructed the work down to something approaching a molecular level.
They’ll have discussed late into the night the detail of tone, art-direction, casting, and how best to leverage your key brand properties.
They’ll have torn up work and started again more times than they want to remember.
They’ll have identified the strategic and creative landmines and bear-traps to be avoided, and they’ll have killed countless ideas for not being fit enough for purpose.
They have devoted rigorous minds to developing an effective framework, a nuanced point of view on how the work will work, and the short- and long-term key performance indictators.
They will have sweated the details of which channels, touchpoints, and channels their idea can best express itself through and connect with its audience.
They’ll have explored the feasibility of their ideas, as well as any legal obstacles.
They’ll have considered which production partners are best-placed to execute the creative vision.
They’ll have tested out the longevity of their idea, and prototyped how it can flex to adapt to differing category, competitive, and cultural conditions.
Then come presentation day, they have a 45 minute presentation slot.
Under these circumstances it is wholly unreasonable to expect that all this can be absorbed, digested, considered, reflected on, analysed and understood in its entirety such that immediate and detailed feedback can be given.
And it is a total fantasy to expect that a marketing team can divine without assistance all the considerations and conversations that went into the agency’s formulation of the creative recommendation.
Expecting a considered response under these circumstances is unfair to the client, unfair to the agency, and unfair to the work.
Yet the feedback always comes.
And ‘feedback' is perhaps too kind a term.
Under the spotlight, faced with the serried ranks of hopeful and expectant agency faces, feeling compelled to say something (say anything!) meaningful and to contribute to the process, the instinct is almost without fail is to critique. And in so doing confuse criticism for feedback. It is not surprising. Criticism after all is the easiest kind of response or contribution.
And too often it leads to comments and critiques that approach some kind of feedback event horizon, beyond which it is impossible to be more ludicrous, more absurd, and more deeply unhelpful to moving things forwards.
Small wonder that one agency was moved to turn some of the ones they’d received into posters:
We can laugh at this. Until we’re on the receiving end of it.
The negativity bias is innate to all human beings. And it is very, very powerful. In their paper ‘Bad Is Stronger Than Good’, Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer and Vohs put it starkly:
“The greater power of bad events over good ones is found in everyday events, major life events (e.g., trauma), close relationship outcomes, social network patterns, interpersonal interactions, and learning processes… Bad emotions… have more impact than good ones… Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones… Hardly any exceptions (indicating greater power of good) can be found. Taken together, these findings suggest that bad is stronger than good, as a general principle across a broad range of psychological phenomena.”
Perhaps this should be the first slide of any creative presentations. Perhaps creative directors could lead attendees to recite these words before the formal proceedings of the meeting begin.
Agencies of course, are fuelled with hope, optimism, and impatience. And so, having worked up a head of steam, enthusiasm and belief in developing their idea, they are inevitably hungry for signs (any sign) that the folk on the other side of the table like their idea and that it has even the slimmest hope in hell of getting made. Agencies encourage clients not to over think. “We’d love to hear just your first reactions”.
They need to cool their jets. Asking for initial feedback might feed the hunger for approval, but it is reckless and insane. And not a little selfish.
The marketing team, after all, have spent but 45 minutes with the idea. The agency has spent two weeks with the idea.
The first task is not to feedback. Let alone critique. It is to understand. To spend the time to ensure that you have correctly understood the creative intent. For the fact of the matter is that until work is fully produced much of that intent resides in creative minds - not on the page or on the screen.
Found imagery and footage, stock photography, reference material, the gems and flotsam of the internet, paragraphs of copy describing the executional vision… They all can and do help. But they all fall far, far short of what is in the creative imagination.
Under these circumstances, the most dangerous thing that can be done is to make assumptions. Indeed critiquing the details of rough prototypes without putting in the effort to question and understand the intent and know you understand the intent properly is almost entirely worthless.
The only way to determine if you understand the idea the same way creatives understand the idea is to ask questions.
Why are the team excited about the idea?
How will it work?
What will it look/sound/feel like?
How reliant is is on technique?
What are the most important parts?
How will it unroll?
How will it scale?
While the ratio of opinions to questions in most creative discussion (both internal and with marketing teams) probably hovers somewhere around the 80:20 mark, the fact of the matter is that if you’re feeding back on new ideas in the absence of listening to them and asking questions of them, you’re starting at the wrong end of the process.
The rule of thumb should be simple. If you don’t know the creative intent, don’t speculate.
Marketing teams are encouraged to liberate themselves from the need to critique and to use initial creative presentations to fully air and understand ideas. Only then following up with considered and consolidated feedback and considerations on how the work can be developed.
#7. Know when to call time
It is easy to become so focused on responding to the latest round of feedback and making it to the next stage that the team veers wildly off track. What starts out as simple and focused can become some horrific, lumbering Frankenstein.
When the pressure to deliver on time and on budget is unrelenting on all involved, nobody wants to be the person who pulls the emergency cord and have the process grind to a halt. And certainly no-one wants to be the one who will admit to the fact that the brief was wrong, or that the brief has been lost sight of, or that creative ambition and integrity have become dangerously damaged.
Calling time when one is knee deep in the process and often no longer able to see the wood for the trees is difficult, to say the least. But leaders within both the marketing team and on the agency side must summon the objectivity, clarity, will and courage to call time when things start to go pear-shaped and while things can be still recovered.
In parallel, the roles of senior management on both client and agency side need to be clear - along with escalation protocols being agreed. Problems can often not be solved within the system that created them.
#8. Hire for resilience
One last piece of advice for agencies.
Build teams that will look out for each other. And recruit for tenacity, teamwork, and resilience.
The mountaineer Alison Levine talks about the need to surround oneself with people who will look out for you and help you muster up the courage to conquer things that intimidate you:
“On Everest, one of the most frightening parts of the mountain is the Khumbu Icefall, two-thousand vertical feet of massive columns of glacial ice that can shift around at any moment and come tumbling down in a gigantic ice avalanche, crushing everything in their paths. The Icefall was the scene of a tragic accident this past spring that claimed sixteen lives. In total, I have climbed through that area about fourteen times, and it never gets “less scary.”
What gives me the courage to get through it time and time again? My team: the people climbing alongside me and encouraging me and cheering me on and waiting on the trail for me so that I don’t have to approach the terrifying parts alone.”
Similarly, another mountaineer Adrian Ballinger has observed that:
"At high altitudes, our individual bodies exhaust themselves both physically and mentally. This happens at different rates, sometimes even wiping out the most physically fit or most acclimated member of the group," Ballinger says:
"As that exhaustion sets in, it's the team, as a group entity, that keeps the individuals safe and moving forward. We consult and check with each other frequently, relying on those who have the strengths, this time, so see us through.”
The mountain isn’t going to get any smaller.
A better route
If we want to improve what we call the ‘feedback’ process (and thus the resultant work) there are seven key contributions and changes marketing teams can lead:
#1 Take ownership of the process
#2 Be more honest at the outset
#3 Compress the timeline
#4 Keep all eyes on the prize
#5 Talk outside the work
#7. Know when to call time
There is one more problem we must solve. And that is the language which we use to describe this process
Defining the whole enterprise as ‘feedback’ absolves one party - the feedbackers - from true joint responsibility in getting to the best solution. It casts them as audience, purchaser and judge. It encourages critiquing not genuine contribution. And it makes a mockery of the rhetoric around relationships and partnership.
The difference between good work seeing the light of day and good work that does not - and between work that retains its integrity and work that has been negotiated into a Frankenstein - is the quality of conversation that accompanies its development.
Roy Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer and Kathleen Vohs, ‘Bad is stronger than good’, Review of General Psychology, 2001. Vol. 5. No 4
Helen Edwards, ‘Let new ideas face the fire’, Campaign September 2017
Paul Feldwick, ‘Where have the populist advertising ideas gone?’, WARC, February 2012
Rachel Gillet, ‘Here's what one man learned about success from climbing Mount Everest 7 times’, Business Insider
Laurence Green, ‘Listen to your idea rather than the feedback’, Campaign July 2018
Alison Levine, ‘5 Things I Learned From Climbing Mt. Everest’