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How to give great creative feedback

Woman standing in a poorly lit street at night. She is blowing into her hands which holds a light and some sort of illuminated confetti

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Why read this? : We look at the challenges of giving creative feedback to your agency. Learn how to balance business objectives and creative standards, while keeping the agency motivated. Read this to learn how to give great creative feedback.

The creative review meeting is when the agency‘s creative team shows you the work they’ve done to answer your brief. Your goal in that meeting is to review their work and give creative feedback on it. 

Though this could be any type of creative, the most common is to review advertising ideas, and that’s our focus in this article.

The creative process

In some ways, the creative process is simple. You tell creatives what you want. They create something and show you it. You review it and tell them what you think. They fix it so it meets your creative feedback.

But as per our how to evaluate advertising article, there’s more to it. 

There’s a lot of work in each step leading up to the creative review session. Those steps set the context and shape how you give your creative feedback.

Woman standing in a poorly lit street at night. She is blowing into her hands which holds a light and some sort of illuminated confetti

The lead-up to the creative feedback session

You led all the steps before this session. Set the objective. Found the budget. Wrote the brief.

Now it’s the agency’s turn.

They’ve reviewed the brief and now they’re sharing their ideas. It’s the first time you’re really working on the project together. The first time your ideas and their ideas meet.

What started as your “baby” is now something you share with the agency. 

The advertising development process - a guide on how to advertise successfully

Joint partners of the creative baby

It’s important to get that shared ownership clear in your head.

It probably still feels like your baby because you started the process. But as soon as the agency gets the brief, it becomes their baby too. They’re there to add their expertise and value so your “baby” thrives. 

In the creative feedback session, you get the chance to see how they’ve grown your initial idea. You want it to be bigger. Better. Smarter. 

Mans hands holding a young baby

Sometimes they’ll give you a hint of what to expect. And sometimes, you’ve no idea of what’s coming. Either way, it’s all their hard work since you last met. Their expertise. Their ideas. They’ve created designs, writing and storylines. Your creative baby has grown since you last saw it.

You go into that meeting ready to keep the creative process moving. You’re the first audience to see their work. You see it before any customers do. It’s your job to lead the creative feedback. 

Your expertise vs the creative team's expertise

Your expertise is knowing the customer, the brand and your business.

The creative team’s expertise lies in using creative skills to answer your marketing challenges.

Your job is to make sure the creative response helps you meet those challenges.

So, you ask questions to understand their approach and check it meets your customer, brand and business needs.

A row of people sitting in the audience taking writing notes into their notebooks

You ask about the decisions they’ve made. Their thinking and process. Which creative principles they used. Why they think it’ll work.

It’s better to be specific with questions and feedback. Vague statements like, “I just don’t like it” or, “Can you make it better?” don’t help. Better to say things like, “I’m not sure customers will notice the headline” or, “That visual doesn’t really fit our brand identity”. 

That way, you have a constructive conversation with the creative team. Remember, you’re in this together with them. Show them evidence or factual information to back up what you say. Or point to other creative examples you think are closer to what you need.  

Nothing kills a creative team’s motivation quicker than clients who dismiss or criticise their work. Give your creative feedback honestly and constructively. Structure it so it’s helpful and focused.

Does it meet the brief?

The best place to start is the brief.

The brief is where you specified what you needed the creative work to do. You should check the creative ideas deliver against it.

(See our guides on advertising evaluation and creative evaluation for more on briefs). 

There are 3 areas to focus on in the feedback :- 

  • target audience.
  • brand identity.
  • business objectives.
Marketing Communication brief - blank template

Target Audience

Start with what you think the target audience’s reaction will be. Put yourself in their shoes. Refer back to your market research and your customer profiles. (Which you should have shared with the brief). 

What will they think and feel? Will they like it? Will it make them do what you want them to do? You represent the customer in that meeting. Give your feedback as though they were there with you. 

You could even follow Amazon’s famous example where they add an extra (empty) chair to represent the customer in key meetings. (See our customer feedback article for more on this).

An example customer segment profile completed for a customer called Lonesome Lukas. Includes their story, goals, habits, pains and influences.

When you give feedback speaking as the customer, the conversation with the creative team is more constructive. And that leads to better creative work.

Brand identity

Next, think about your brand. The creative idea must have a clear link to your brand identity.

Your agency should know what’s in your brand book and style guide. The creatives should follow these guidelines in the creative. 

Except you’ll find that many times, they don’t.

This is part of the creative process. Creative people often see guidelines as boundaries to push against, not rules to blindly follow. So, ask yourself how strictly you want to apply the brand “rules”. 

Brand identity book contents

Work which pushes the boundaries can be more provocative and help you stand out. But work which follows the rules is more recognisable as it reinforces the consistency of the brand identity.

As in most creative conversations, it usually comes down to the context of what you’re trying to do. Let’s look at a few examples.

Something different so you’re not taken for granted

Style guides usually prescribe consistent use of tangible assets.

They tell creatives not to mess with the logo. Or the typography. Or the brand colours.

They tell creatives to use these assets repeatedly. The repetition strengthens the mental associations with those assets. That means it’s easier for customers to recognise your brand.

But, there are 2 cases where you might occasionally break this repetition pattern.

Three columns with twelve rows of the three-brains logo - one logo has had the colour altered so it stands out from the other 35 logos

First, if a design becomes too familiar to customers, they start to take it for granted. It starts to feel stale and doesn’t stand out. It becomes predictable. Predictable can get boring for customers.

An occasional new or tweaked version of your creative can keep your brand feeling fresh. You create a small surprise for customers to stop them from taking you for granted. 

Second, you can stand out by linking the creative to a relevant topical event or story. The link has to make sense to the customer. 

For example, adding red, white and green colours to a Christmas version of your advert. Or adding spooky icons and images to a Halloween promotion.

These seasonal variations are different enough to get noticed from your normal ads.

But they’re only temporary, so they don’t ruin your brand’s consistency. 

An Amazon cardboard box with Christmas icons on it sitting in a hallway with a Christmas tree in the background

A provocative message

A common creative response to make advertising stand out is to go for a deliberately provocative approach. That can often be distinctive and surprising, and there are many examples where it’s worked well.  

You could use swear words or variations of swear words, for example. Like French Connection did in the 1990s with the FCUK campaigns

Or provocative imagery like the famous Eva Herzigova Hello Boys adverts for WonderBra. 

Woman sticking up one middle finger to the camera - the non-verbal way of swearing

The effectiveness of these types of creative work comes down to context. They have to be a good fit with your customers, and your brand tone of voice. Some brands can do provocative, but for others, it’s a no-go.

In categories like alcohol or fashion, for example, the audience is more mature. And there’s a history of provocative advertising. 

It’d be harder for a bank or a children’s brand to do though. Commbank or Disney, for example, are unlikely to ever feature swearing in their advertising. 

You should look at how much provocation you think fits your brand and customer context. In terms of creative feedback, make it clear when it’s “too much”. But if the underlying idea is good, and it’s just a question of degree, ask the creative team to come back with a dialled-down version.

Creatively forgetting the business goal

Another common situation is when the creative team get carried away with the creativity of the work and forgets the business goal. 

They present a creative idea which pushes the brand into the background. That’s a no-no.

In these cases, you have to remind the team of the business goal. Ask them how the creative will deliver your business objective.

Selling the brand is job number one for creative work. Everything else comes second.

Young boy in a yellow jersey showing loudly into a microphone

If the branding isn’t clear, tell the team. Refer back to the brief. Your brand and product should be easily recognised in the advert. If customers can’t tell the brand, they won’t buy.

Business objective

Getting more customers to buy is usually your business objective. Grow sales by $xm or x customers by the target date. 

Alongside that sits the relevant change in customer behaviour or perception. Specific changes in awareness, consideration, trial and loyalty.

So you ask the creative team how the work’s going to drive those changes. 

Why will customers be more aware? What’s driving consideration? Is the call to action clear so you win more trialists, or increase loyalty?

The brand choice funnel - trust - aware - consider - trial - loyalty - repeat purchase

Be honest with the creative team how confident you feel about their answers. You’re paying for all this work. You have to be convinced it’s going to succeed. Push it back to the creative team until you feel confident enough to move to production and media

Does the creative work?

Once you’ve covered target audience, brand identity and business objectives, then you share feedback on the creative itself. 

No one expects you to be a creative expert. But you should get to know the basic principles of creativity. These help you evaluate the creative and long-term, help you evaluate the agency’s effectiveness

There are 3 areas to focus on :-

  • the visuals.
  • the writing.
  • the story.

Do the visuals work?

Start with the visuals. In creative work, it’s the visuals which create the first impression. It’s what our brains process and react to first. They usually determine if customers will pay attention to the advert.

We’re big fans of the CRAP design principles from Robin William’s excellent Non-Designers Design book. There are 4 basic visual principles to learn :-

  • contrast.
  • repetition.
  • alignment.
  • proximity. 

Design principles - CRAP example

Contrast

Contrast draws attention to the most important parts of the visual. Like putting something in bold, or in a different colour. Your eye’s drawn to what’s different. Contrast shows the audience where to look first. 

Look for where the contrast is when you give creative feedback. What’s your eye drawn to? Is it the most important part of the visual? 

If the audience only glances at the visual, they’ll only see the part with the most contrast. That part of the visual should be the most important visual element of the design. 

Repetition

Repetition adds consistency to your visual design. It reinforces your brand identity and makes it easier to mentally process the visual. Repetition helps customers link the visual to something they’ve seen before.

So think of the MacDonald’s Golden Arches logo or the shape of the Coca-Cola bottle. Those brands use repetition with those brand assets. Customers instantly recognise the golden M and the bottle shape. It’s a familiar hook which helps the customer recognise what they’re seeing. 

Check that repetition’s been used wisely in the visuals of your creative work. Look at the brand assets in the work – your logo, your colour palette and your typography, for example. Are they repeated in a way which reinforces your brand identity? Will customers look at the visuals and know they’ve come from you?

Alignment

Alignment uses the natural way the eye scans information to make text or visuals more harmonious. It creates cleaner, more appealing visual designs which are easier to process. Badly aligned visuals jar on the eyes, and are harder to process.

Graphic design tools make alignment easy. A professional designer will always check the alignment. When you look at the visuals, look for how different elements line up against each other. 

If it looks like it’s been randomly placed on the page, it’s not well aligned. On the other hand, If everything seems to “fit” together well, it’s usually because the visuals are well aligned.

Proximity

Proximity is about organising information and items that belong together to visually sit close to each other. 

For example, all your brand assets (logo, colours, name etc) should sit together because they “go” together. The audience will be confused if you spread them all over the page. 

Customers understand these groups of visuals which go together as a “chunk” of information. (See our design psychology article for more on chunking). That chunking makes it easier to process, as they only have to look at one place in the advert, rather than search the whole thing.  

Photography and video

The CRAP principles come from graphic design, but they also work for other visual areas like photography and video.

For example, if there’s a visual “hero” character in your creative, use contrast to help that character stand out. Use different colours or lighting to make them distinct from the background. 

Use repetition in how you show the product being used. For example, in food adverts, the visuals usually show customers happily consuming the products. 

Woman holding camera showing photography for marketing skills

Be consistent with these sorts of visuals. It reinforces the idea of customers enjoying the product.  

Photography and video often combine elements like images, text and graphics. Check the alignment and proximity of these items. Make sure they work well together. Do they naturally fit together? Does what belongs together sit together in the visual?

Great visual design should pass this CRAP test with good contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity. Feel free to share with your creative team that these are the basic visual principles you’ll look for.

The writing

Once you work out if you like what you see, next you work out if you like what the creative says. You review the writing.

Again, no one expects you to be an expert. However, knowing basic writing principles helps you give better creative feedback.

For example, start by checking the spelling and grammar. The agency should do this, of course. But typos and grammar issues can get missed. A pair of fresh eyes works as an extra check.

Then, read the words aloud (or ask the creative team to do it). Listen to the rhythm of the words and the sentences. You don’t pick that up just scanning the words on the page. Words that are easy on the ear are usually also easier on the eye. 

Do the words flow easily? No awkward pauses. No long rambling sentences which are hard to follow. 

Shorter is usually better. It’s easier to understand short words. Easier to understand shorter sentences. The odd long sentence is fine, but make it the exception rather than the rule. There’s limited time to get your message across. Being concise helps you do that. 

For longer pieces of writing, ask the team to run a readability check. (See also our writing about marketing article for more on this). This gives you a feel for how easy it is to read.

Focus on key areas like the call to action. Is it clear? Remember you want the customer to do something. The writing has to be clear about what that is. 

The story

The final area of creative feedback is the storytelling. It’s how the visuals and writing come together. It’s what the audience remembers. 

Longer stories should have a clear structure. They usually follow a common story type. A Journey or a Rags to Riches story, for example. 

Stories which use established structure and types are easier to engage with. 

We remember these stories better than all the details of the visuals and the words.

Woman siting in an armchair reading a book titled Storytelling

We remember the drama of Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star, for example. But not what colour his shoes are when we first meet him. 

Look for the story in the creative work. Make sure you give feedback on whether you think it’s telling the best story for your customers and your brand.

Conclusion - how to give great creative feedback

Giving creative feedback is an important part of the process. It’s where you add your customer, brand and business expertise to the creative idea. You partner with the agency to add these areas to their creative expertise. 

First, check the brief to make sure the creative meets the needs of your target audience, brand identity and business objectives.

Then, apply the basic principles of creativity so you can have a quality conversation and give constructive creative feedback. 

Woman standing in a poorly lit street at night. She is blowing into her hands which holds a light and some sort of illuminated confetti

The 3 areas to focus on are the visuals, the writing and the storytelling.

It’s up to you to pull together all these different perspectives. Get your creative feedback right and it’s a win-win all around. The creative team’s happy. They do great work, and that means happy customers. And happy customers mean more sales. Which obviously keeps you happy.

Check out our creative evaluation and creative approvals articles for more on this. Or get in touch, if you need help to get better at giving creative feedback.

Photo credits

Woman blowing sprinkles : Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash

Holding baby in hands : Photo by Jill Sauve on Unsplash

People taking notes : Photo by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash

Amazon Christmas package : Photo by Wicked Monday on Unsplash

Woman giving the finger : Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Shout (adapted) : Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Yellow Jersey Woman holding camera  : Photo by Marco Xu on Unsplash

Woman editing on a Macbook : Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

Woman reading storytelling book : Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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