Client/Agency relationships: is all feedback useful? – Vicky Gillan
It’s always best to get all feedback on the table and address it, isn’t it? Actually, sometimes I’d say it’s not.
▪ Not if the feedback is drip-fed back to the agency, with no clear view of priorities or decisions made.
▪ Not if the feedback changes from stakeholder to stakeholder or, worse still, if subjective views appear to be prioritised with no reference to the agreed brief.
▪ Not if gleaning feedback takes much longer than planned, and a competitive opportunity is lost.
▪ Not if the feedback is too executional and granular too early in the process.
The potential impact of the above is missed deadlines, the need to redo work, over-spending, frustration, a reduction in trust and potentially a great idea being dismissed too quickly.
For me, three things make the difference in delivering really useful feedback:
1. It must be client-owned and agreed internally before being shared with the agency.
2. It must be articulated in the context of the agreed client brief.
3. It must clearly articulate the problem with the current direction, so it can be solved by the agency.
So, what gets in the way and how can we overcome these challenges to make sure our feedback is always useful?
Have a look at your sign-off processes – are they fit for purpose for your work and trading landscape?
Are you over-using the baton sign-off approach and extending the relay race as a result? Do you have a one-size-fits-all approach, regardless of the scope and pace of work? Does your team frequently drip-feed feedback to the agency as deadlines loom for production? Does the quality and direction of feedback fundamentally change during the sign-off process or as work is shared?
If your answer to any of these questions is yes, you should consider whether your current approach is working for you, your brand ambition and your business challenges.
My advice is to choose an upcoming campaign, new content program or even an NPD launch to start with a new approach. Begin with a blank sheet of paper and work out the key stages, editing out previous sign-off points or even adding in WIP sessions. Then – for each stage – set the real purpose of asking for feedback and what it triggers; work out what the crucial go/no decisions are; summarise what feedback is needed at each stage and, perhaps most usefully, what is not. Your agencies will be a huge source of information here, as they can readily share examples of what other clients and categories have cut out to drive efficiency.
You should end up with fewer stages, which should help ensure the person with ultimate sign-off is involved right from the start, having also signed off on the brief. If they can’t be involved – for whatever reason – then it can’t be a priority for them. In that case their sign-off needs to be delegated to someone else right from the start. And stuck to.
Look at your list of people providing feedback – is it the world and his wife or is it lean and purposeful?
Most client teams have a sign-off framework in place stating who needs to be involved at key points. Often this is summarised in a RACI process chart:
▪ Responsible – the person responsible for managing the project/activity
▪ Accountable – the person with ultimate sign-off and budget responsibility
▪ Consulted – the people who should be consulted and their feedback acted upon from a technical perspective (e.g. Legal, Compliance, Brand),
▪ Informed – the people or teams who need to be informed and have their views considered but not necessarily acted upon unless the person responsible agrees.
When used well, RACI charts can be incredibly useful in ensuring no cock-ups are made with any external facing work.
My advice is to review the RACI list regularly and keep it as lean as you can. This is especially necessary after internal re-structuring, and when new roles are created to drive client capability, as these changes invariably lead to more names being added to a RACI list.
Ultimately however, what makes the biggest difference is ensuring all on the RACI list are aware of their individual remit and responsibility for providing specialist feedback. All specialisms must be respected and their feedback reflected, but where someone has a personal opinion there needs to be bravery to accept the difference between that and useful valid feedback.
I remember from my own client days spending time with legal and having to be quite insistent on the difference between a legal no-no and an individual’s point of view on the creative idea. Everything was listened to, but not everything was actioned, and my job as the marketing comms specialist was to explain the difference.
Look at the quality of your feedback to your agencies – is it a feedback log or a single client view?
The feedback log is often an attempt to ensure nothing is missed and always comes with good intent, but ultimately it transfers responsibility to the agency to sift through the comments and identify the priorities as well as managing any conflicts. A single client view enables these discussions to be managed and owned internally before the results are shared with the agency for discussion and action.
However, being able to discuss the merits of any feedback internally is entirely dependent on having an agreed written brief (see Breaking the Briefing Cycle published Nov 2016).
And remember that the best work isn’t created by consensual decision making so whoever is responsible for creating this single client view has to have the skills required to do so.
Finally – check the type of feedback is matched to the stage of development
If you are at the idea stage, then make sure the feedback is all about the idea; what kind of idea is it, how it relates to the brief, how consumers will react, whether it is something only we can do, how else it could be done etc. This approach also demands your agency fully articulates the idea at this stage, and doesn’t drown the client teams in executional examples.
But if you are in the development stages, then absolutely the feedback has to be focused on the execution and making sure all elements work together to bring the idea to life. Often this involves debating the idea to ensure optimal and seamless execution across the channels in scope.
Let me give you an example. At Christmas, an agency sent me a fantastic card. Around the traditional scene were 16 red arrows all sharing very specific feedback, ranging from “the robin is too over weight – we need to promote a healthy lifestyle” to my personal favourite being: “Snow should be no more than 3 inches deep and can we warm it up by a few degrees?”. This perfectly highlights the confusion anyone would face when given numerous comments slating the execution, when the summary in the bottom right-hand corner states the overall concept was well-liked.
And it showed how critical it is to have the ability to look through the executional elements to the idea being presented at first concept stage. Some marketers are instinctively brilliant at this, but the opportunity to develop this skill with training and a day-to-day external perspective always helps.
My last piece of advice is, therefore, to consider how this skill is being developed within your team and culture. Formal training, shadowing, coaching and mentoring can all make a difference. So can discussing other brands’ campaigns in team meetings, encouraging views on the work from the target audience’s perspective, while avoiding the death trap of soliciting not-very-useful feedback by asking: “Did you like it?”
So, to answer my own question, I really think all feedback can be useful, provided it’s delivered at the right time and in the right way. And if you’re the marketing communications specialist, supporting your team and colleagues to make that happen will also pay back in the quality of the work.