Why agencies must encourage a more productive brand of feedback

We owe it to our ideas, to ourselves and even to the gods of business efficiency that we cultivate and nourish a more productive brand of feedback, writes MullenLowe's executive partner.

There’s a critical skill in creative development that we rarely pause to contemplate, let alone assiduously train. Something that can make or break the work we do, and our relationships also, but which enjoys no awards scheme in its honour.  

That skill? Feedback.

By feedback, I don’t mean the formalised contribution to the development loop that research purports to be but rather the ongoing contemplation, selection and shaping of idea and execution in the form of everything from face-to-face meetings (unfashionable but still ideal), email (grrr) and even text message. 

It’s there at every turn. From corridor conversations and internal reviews agency-side to the various check-ins on the slippery brand-owner slope we call stakeholder engagement. Pass "Go" here and we invite yet more feedback through the production cycle, now typically even more charged.

The view from idea basecamp must sometimes look bewildering: for a concept to come to life it must win the approval not just of the creative director, the executive creative director and account team but the junior client, senior client and The Client You Didn’t Even Know Existed.  You can win the FA Cup in less rounds.

And here’s the rub: at every one of those turns (and sometimes even between them) the feedback we give can make the idea a little better or a little worse and – less obviously but just as critically – dictate the mood music not just of this production but future creative engagements also.

It’s something we need to applaud when done well and correct when done badly, not least since it’s been said that "bad feedback can poison a project faster than almost anything else".  And it turns out that it’s harder than it seems: at a recent lunch with a brilliant but conflict-averse creative director, he admitted that he found giving feedback on ideas hard as he dreaded criticising others. "Just talk about the stuff you like and why, and it’ll be obvious what you don’t like", I found myself saying: spur of the moment advice that he grabbed with unseemly haste.

It’s something I was either taught or learnt by osmosis during my formative years at Abbott Mead Vickers and Lowe (then The School of Advertising and School of Hard Knocks respectively). Work gets better and relationships flourish when we recognise our negativity bias and cognitive laziness, silencing the inner critic; when we start instead with what’s good, even if we plan to take the conversation elsewhere; when we own our opinion rather than second-guess or co-opt someone else’s; when we demonstrate enthusiasm, humility and gratitude.  

(By the way, as a baseline - and a simple human courtesy - you really must at least hear an idea out and give it due contemplation. The best ideas demand that we do: they’re the ones that are not just appropriate but also original. Unfamiliar by definition, fragile and easily dismissed: Pixar’s "ugly babies.)

Stanford Professor and JetBlue Chairman Joel Petersen calls this attitude "leaning positive", albeit that his frame of reference is people development, not creative development. "Look for opportunities to praise successes even as you offer suggestions for improvement" Professor Petersen suggests, "…dispensing encouragement is infectious."  That advice sounds just as right to me, if not more so, in our field of ideas as it does in his broader managerial field.

At Pixar, the uniquely supportive development chamber that is their Braintrust enables feedback that is unapologetically candid as well as specific, respectful, timely and concise. Even here, though, the spirit is of constructive build (or rebuilding), with an unrelenting focus on moving the project forward rather than just giving everyone their opportunity to input.  

"There’s nothing that kills the energy in a room quicker than somebody saying no", as veteran storyteller Matthew Luhn has concluded. Perhaps most tellingly, the group operates with a common understanding that the focus of any feedback is "the film, not the film-maker".  

With our industry’s wonkier power dynamics, it’s fair to say that we sometimes forget that, as my anonymised creative director’s reticence bears witness to.

The highest form of feedback will always take time, because it is tuned to the specific needs of the creator or their sponsor: some crave direction, challenge even, others just that we dispense encouragement. But the simple principles above might just be useful meanwhile when the latest creative show-and-tell comes to a close and all eyes turn to you: "Well, what do you think?"

It’s much easier to say something is wrong than to think about how we might make it right.  But we owe it to our ideas, to ourselves and even to the gods of business efficiency that we cultivate and nourish a more productive brand of feedback.

Laurence Green is executive partner at MullenLowe London

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