Feedback is a fundamental part of the client-agency relationship, at every stage of a project. And just as in any relationship, it’s when communication breaks down that you’re in real trouble. Many clients turn to us in the first place precisely because they’ve had a communication breakdown with their incumbent agencyit happens all too frequently.

What happens when a project goes wrong

The client thinks the agency:The agency thinks the client:
Doesn’t get it
Is being intransigent
Is being patronising
Isn’t listening
Has forgotten who’s the boss
Is charging again for things they should have got right first time
Doesn’t know what they want
Keeps changing the brief
Is involving them in internal politics
Can’t agree amongst themselves
Is expecting something for nothing

Whether you want to salvage things with your existing agency, or get off on the right foot with a new partner, we’ve put together the following guidelines to help you get communications flowing smoothly and effectively to produce great results.

1. Don’t hold your punches

Diplomacy rules when you’re asked, “does my bum looks big in these jeans?”, or “am I getting a bald spot?”. But it’s important that you feel comfortable telling the unvarnished truth to your account team. A please and thank-you are always welcome, but holding back to protect our feelings doesn’t help anybodyif your agency has missed the target, tell them.

Of course, if you’re trying to meet the objectives of five departments, target a dozen types of customer and hit every stage of the buying cycle with one deliverable, you’re going to struggle to reconcile all the different views and please everybody. It can be tempting to get started and involve everybody else later. But often problems arise because an important stakeholder wasn’t engaged early on. It’s important to get everyone internally to agree a brief upfront long before they see a draft from the agency. If there’s a clear brief to measure against, then there’s no room for confusion.

2. Be appropriate to the stage of the project

Whether you’re an artist painting a portrait or an architect designing a building, every project starts out with a rough sketch or model. As the project progresses, the model gets refined and polished to perfection. The same holds true in marketing.

If you’re reviewing a first draftthe outline of a whitepaper, a website wireframe, or an ad conceptfocus on the general: overall structure, scope and feel. Try to avoid getting bogged down in the details: the designer won’t have spent a lot of time worrying about orphans and widows when the copy is still draft. Similarly, the latter stages are the right time to be picky about the detailpunctuation and hyphenation etc.but the wrong time to question the fundamental concept.

3. Be objective and open-minded

Everyone has their own individual likes and dislikes, and it’s hard to ignore visceral reactions. But try to set aside your personal reactions when a draft lands on your desk. Instead, objectively compare the work in progress against the brief you agreed at the start of the project.

  • Is the tone right? If it’s a lead-gen piece does it have the right impact, does it grab your attention?
  • Does it target the right audience?
  • Does it include the agreed messages?
  • Does it make every word sell or show your thought-leadership? (Whatever your objective)
  • And most importantly, will it work and is it as good as it can be?

One of the main reasons you employ an agency is for their specialist skills. You’re probably not a trained designer, veteran copywriter or skilled coder. That’s why we recommend you ask questions of your agency to decide whether what you’re looking at is really the best possible solution:

  • Why did you choose that image?
  • Why did you use that colour?
  • Why did you start with that point?
  • Why did you leave that quotation out?
  • Why did you phrase that point that way?

Your writer or designer has made a conscious choice of how to do each part of your project, probably based on experience. Get them to explain it. If you’re still not convinced, say so, as clearly and forcefully as you canno half measures. Then you can work together from a common understanding of the goals and create something great.

Of course, if you do have certain bugbears that you simply can’t abide, tell the agency about them upfrontit will save you a lot of time later!

4. Be specific

There’s nothing that makes a writer or designer feel more helpless than a client saying “I dunno… can we make it more ‘punchy’?” Dig down for a minute. Is the text so long the agreed call to action gets lost? Is the language too technical for the audience? The more specific you are about why the piece is not meeting your goals, the less time (and budget) will be wasted fixing it. The same applies to visuals. You don’t need to be able to draw to give design feedbacktry using examples to communicate things that you find hard to put into words.

Now’s also the time to go back to the brief and see if it’s the value proposition that’s lacking the “punch”. Could you do with a stronger offer as a call to action, or more substantiation for your claims? Or has the designer been too conservative in sticking to your brand guidelines? Obviously once you’ve worked on a few projects together more of this stuff will become understood.

5. Explain what the problem is

Prescriptive instructions”Move that box a little to the left. Use a darker green there. Change that word. Cut that sentence.”have their place, particularly towards the end of a project. But unless you tell the agency why you want to make those changes, they can’t help but make the same mistakes again. If you tell them what the underlying problem is, the agency might be able to save you a lot of time marking up a draft yourself or even suggest a better solution. Tell them what the issue is and get them to solve itthat’s what they are there for. Don’t “buy a dog and bark yourself”.

Help us to help you

All the advice we’ve given above is there to help you get exactly what you want, quicker, cheaper and better than before. Everybody wins from good feedback. Speaking of which, let us know what you think of this article in the comments section below.

Posted by John on 11 February 2011