How to give feedback to an agency so the work gets better

Posted on Posted in How to Guide for Marketers

As our Ad Agency friends are partying it up in Cannes, I figured its perfect timing to talk about How to give Feedback to an Agency so the work gets better. It’s funny how bad clients under-estimate the impact they have on the advertising work and yet good clients get it.  There’s this weird contradictory circle:  a) clients hire agencies based on work they do for other clients–many times better clients b) great agencies still make bad work–which highlights those good clients help make good work and c) the client is ALWAYS right, which means if you tell an agency to do something, they will.  If we put all three of those together.  

How they show up does more to make or break an ad than even how the agency shows up. After all, the Brand Leader gets the “final say” on every aspect of the ad–brief, script, director, casting, music, budget, and final edit. The agency can only recommend. What the Brand Leader does with that “final say” can make or break the ad.  

If you knew that how you show up to your agency got better work for you, do you think you would show up differently?

In terms of giving feedback at that first creative meeting, a Brand Leader can really only do three things.

    1. Approve an ad
    2. Reject an Ad
    3. Give direction on how to make the Ad better 

 If you’re sitting in the hot seat, how will you know?  It’s not easy to sit in the hot seat as the decision-maker.  I’ve seen some Brand Leaders use all instinct and no fundamentals.  They miss the most basic of things.  While other Brand Leaders strictly use fundamentals and forget to use their instincts.  They miss the magic or are the first to put together a Frankenstein from various things on the brief.

Before you get started:  How will you judge the Ad?  Here are the ABC’S of Advertising 

Here’s a potential tool you can take into the room that is very easy to follow along. You want to make sure that your ad delivers on the ABC’S which means it attracts  Attention, it’s about the Brand, it Communicates the brand story and Sticks in the consumer’s mind.  

  • Attention:  You have to get noticed in a crowded world of advertising. Consumers see 6000 ads per day, and will likely only engage in a few. If your brand doesn’t draw attention naturally, then you’ll have to force it into the limelight.
  • Branding:  Ads that tell the story of the relationship between the consumer and the brand will link best.  Even more powerful are ads that are from the consumer’s view of the brand. It’s not how much branding there is, but how close the brand fits the climax of the ad.
  • Communication: Tapping into the truths of the consumer and the brand, helps you to tell the brand’s life story. Keep your story easy to understand. Communication is not just about what you say, but how you say it—because that says just as much.
  • Stickiness: Sticky ads help to build a consistent brand/consumer experience over time. In the end, brands are really about “consistency” of the promise you want to own. Brands have to exist in the minds of the consumer. 



How to use Feedback to make the Work Better

I’ve seen guys go in with pure instincts and spin around in circles. My suggestion would be to use your instincts but be guided by a process that can help you judge the work. Look at sports as a metaphor, there’s instinct used in every sport, but the superstars of any sport (Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Michael Phelps) are disciplined in their approach and then let instincts go on top of the fundamentals. So use the ABC’S above, and then let your instincts take over.

The Creative Meeting is not Easy.  You’ve got to balance, the head, the heart and the gut against the good of the brand.  Take your time and sort it through asking the following questions:

  1. Do you love what it can do for your brand?  If you don’t love it, how do you expect your consumer to love it?  A great ad has to have everyone’s heart and soul put into it.  If you “sorta like” it, then it will be “sorta ok” in the end.  If you love it, you will fight for it.  (The Heart) 
  2. Is it on strategy?  Is the Advertisement an expression of what you have been writing in your strategy documents?   Is it doing what we hoped it would do?  I love the ABCS technique (outlined below) because it helps me to frame things in my mind, so I can evaluate it past how I feel.  I think you need something to ground yourself.  (The Head)  If there is something in your gut says it’s off, it likely is.  (The Gut)
  3. Is it a long-term Idea?  Is a big enough idea that fits with the brand does the hard work you want to do for the brand and can last 5 years? Think about leaving a legacy—which forces you to think of campaign-ability. (The Brand) Look at the Creative Brief and if the ad is not on strategy, then it has to be rejected   Advertising is an expression of strategy.  If it’s not on strategy, it has no value.  


Tips on Giving Feedback
  •  Remember to Relax and Smile:  I always find that the room gets so tense, stiff and serious: we forget to laugh, smile and be real. Imagine trying to present something funny to a room of deadly serious brand managers.  It helps motivate a nervous creative team. 
  • Give the feedback in three ways: a) First Impressions: during the presentation, it’s great to be engaged enough to say “I like that” or ask a question. b) Giving Direction: focus on what‘s working and how to make it better. Focus more on the board you like first, and then move to the ones you don’t like with less detailed feedback. c) Leave the Detailed Direction on how to make it better for the day after. Moving the details (copy points, placement, colors) to the next day, helps focus the immediate comments on big picture items. Take 24 hours to digest all the little details
  • Focus on Direction, not feedback: Feedback is static, the direction has action and decision-making.  Speak on behalf of your consumer & your brand. 

You should agree upon a Feedback process with the Agency ahead of time and then use that consistently.  There are two main ways you could do it. Either give the feedback live where everyone talks or take a break and consolidate your thinking first.  I’ve done both, trained on giving feedback live, but have changed my opinion over the years and now I’m a fan of taking the break.   

Here’s the old tired Archaic 1950s style processes:

  1. Account Team re-reads the brief then they do a set up of each board, explaining the technique/process (e.g. this is funny)  Setups can taint the client’s view of a spot. 
  2. Agency presents 3 scripts and says which one is their favorite.  Potentially de-motivator if you ask for their favorite and then dismiss it.  A better question is “which spot did you find you kept coming back to, as you worked the process”.
  3. Client Feedback is given with the most junior person goes first, all the way up to the senior person in the room.  This feels very 1950s humiliation and de-motivating to the junior people on the team. 

I’d suggest you Take A 30-Minute client huddle helps because:

  1. Agency gets one piece of feedback.  Time allows the client to get the story straight. The break helps to slow down the process so the client can think things through.  
  2. Gives Ownership to the Brand Manager, who should do all the speaking on behalf of the team, not the most senior person in the room that over-rules them.
  3. Client Team has a very open discussion, freely hearing out everyone’s thoughts, giving the junior people easier input the final opinion.  Brand Manager hears everyone then consolidates it to one message.

Tips to help clients provide a clear decision-making process in place

  • Decision Making: Team leader in the creative meeting room gives direction to make the work as good as it can be before selling it in.   This gives them ownership over the project. maximum to get it right. When the VP or President attend the early creative meetings, the work doesn’t get better, it gets more complicated. 
  • Pre Testing Does Help: Narrow the creative concepts down to 1-3, put into animatic format and test to determine success potential in the market.  Instincts are great, but having them confirmed by consumer feedback is even better.   
  • Selling the work into the Organization. The team leader accompanied by the senior account person (plus Creative Director if needed) should jointly sell it in the organization. 
  • Make sure you leave Enough Time: While everything is a rush these days, a well-run project, with adequate breathing space for creative ideas, 2-3 rounds of creative, potential testing and adequate time for development
  • Communication Goes Both Ways: Exhibit the leadership style that welcomes feedback, and gives it. Each side brings expertise, the agency has advertising and communication expertise and the client brings consumer/brand expertise.
  • Seek Advice Beyond Advertising: Good account people know what it takes to be a good marketer. They can help you on the side.  And many times, their superior people skills can help a client that might be lacking in that area. They also likely know how to sell to your boss, which can help you when you need to sell to your boss. 
  • Build a relationship with the Creative Team: The creative teams want to engage with the client and will respect your attempts to get closer to them. Like anyone, they will do a better job for those they know, respect and even admire.  Being the best client, will attract the best creative people on a given team.  They’ll want to work on your brand. 
  • Performance Improvements: Annual agency performance review, quarterly senior leadership discussion on what’s working/what’s not.  Ask “how can we get better?”, “How are my people doing?” and “how is the work?”. You can talk about the gaps you or your team might have, and ask for advice on how to close those.
  • Let the Agency Make a Profit: You can’t “nickel and dime” your agency. Be open about your budget, but once set, let the agency work to that budget. 
If how you show up to the agency will produce better advertising work.  Then show up right. 

To see a training presentation on Get Better Advertising: 


If you are in the mood to see stories on great advertising, here’s a few other stories:

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I run the Brand Leader Learning Center,  with programs on a variety of topics that are all designed to make better Brand Leaders.  To read more on how the Learning Center can help you as a Brand Leader click here:   Brand Leadership Learning Center

To reach out directly, email me at

About Graham Robertson: The reason why I started Beloved Brands Inc. is to help brands realize their full potential value by generating more love for the brand.   I only do two things:  1) Make Brands Better or 2) Make Brand Leaders Better.  I have a reputation as someone who can find growth where others can’t, whether that’s on a turnaround, re-positioning, new launch or a sustaining high growth.  And I love to make Brand Leaders better by sharing my knowledge.  Im a marketer at heart, who loves everything about brands.  My background includes 20 years of CPG marketing at companies such as Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer Consumer, General Mills and Coke.  My promise to you is that I will get your brand and your team in a better position for future growth. Add me on LinkedIn at so we can stay connected.