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How should agencies respond to negative feedback?

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By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

May 3, 2023 | 12 min read

Advertising is made to be seen, but it’s not guaranteed to be received well by audiences, or by clients earlier in the creative process. So, when agencies meet resistance, how should they respond?

How should agencies respond to a badly received idea?

How should agencies respond to a badly received idea?

Puma’s latest effort to ensure its approach to sustainability its on the money is to recruit four activists to kick the tires of its strategy. It’s an interesting approach to soliciting feedback – especially since there’s a chance that their comments might not always be what Puma’s top team necessarily wants to hear.

That risk that comes with every new campaign or piece of work that ends up in front of audiences, however. So, if you’re faced with a negative reaction either from a focus group, your client’s board, or the wider public – what happens next? How do you (or your clients) respond intelligently, proportionately, to a reaction you weren’t hoping for?

How do you solve a problem like… bad reception?

Ann Wixley, executive creative director, Wavemaker UK: “’If?’, ‘Where?’ and ‘How?’ are some of the first questions to ask. For example, the channel you choose to respond in can have very different results – Twitter, as a platform that encourages conversation, can further ignite the issue. On the other hand, private responses can seem like not taking responsibility.

“Sometimes a lateral move can work well – a bold, public response in traditional media. Think KFC’s response to negative sentiment around its supply issues, a mass-scale public apology in print. Or the most famous cake court case, Aldi’s ‘Free Cuthbert’, via social media. Not only was this a clever 360 on potentially bad publicity – it got people talking (and laughing). The release of #Cuthparty last week shows making light must be worth its weight. Of course, prevention is better than cure. Having a range of diverse points of view baked into teams helps to mitigate opening up a can of worms with a piece of work by removing any blind spots. What we definitely shouldn’t do is be less bold or distinctive with a sharp idea because of the possibility of a bad response from someone (within reason, obviously). Sometimes, that’s not easy – for the creatives and the client – but it’s part and parcel of a brief.”

Jim Dyer, head of client leadership at Wunderman Thompson UK: “The phrase ‘never apologize, never explain’ has many supposed fathers, but those fathers probably didn’t have Twitter. If you’re putting work out into the public space, then you better be ready for that work to elicit some sort of response in an age where every consumer has a voice. Authenticity is key – if you’re plugging into a social movement or cause then you better make sure you have the right to do it, and that you understand it (see Pepsi and Kendall Jenner). But equally, don’t be too quick to apologize for every imagined slight. It’s important for brands to have the courage of their convictions, even when it’s in the face of criticism from disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.”

Evelyn Oluwole, business director, Seen Presents: “As a fairly new agency that has to pitch for the majority of business that comes our way, we get our fair share of setbacks and receiving negative feedback on a project that we have invested a lot of effort into can be a difficult experience. However, our approach is always what can we learn from this to ensure it never happens again. The steps we take include listening to the client's feedback and politely interrogating it, as then we can use it to deliver better results next time. It is too easy to be disheartened but we view negative reactions as a chance to grow and get better.”

Tracey Smith, head of design, Deloitte Digital: “When designing anything, there is often a decent amount of resistance due to our innate discomfort with change. While I have countless examples of negative feedback throughout the design process, I value the intent of what is trying to be communicated to get to the core of the point being raised. The design evokes emotion, and even the most subtle change can shift a feeling or perception, which is why it is so essential to use human-centered intentional design. Creating with thought and reason, with consciousness around the audience or consumer in every action, is paramount.”

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Garrett Garcia, president, PPK: “A ‘focus group of one’ should never guide your agency's decision-making. Since most of what we create in this business, especially as it pertains to the ideas & content we develop, would be considered subjective, opinions are aplenty. And sometimes dangerous. But seeking out those opinions is a critical step to ensure messaging is always hitting the mark. Therefore, the most important facet of opinion-seeking is to find the common thread as opposed to reacting to the outliers. If one person says it, they might be crazy. If 20 people say it, you might be crazy.”

Ryan Parkhurst, vice-president of strategy, Basic/Dept: “So often we see teams go into client reviews hoping for positive feedback and approval, but come out feeling frustrated or defeated even when the feedback is very reasonable or helpful. That’s why we encourage our team to adopt the mindset that blockers and challenges are inevitable – a constant path to great work. From that mindset, it’s not only easier to accept critical feedback, but we begin seeking it. That way we can know what the challenge is and begin solving it. When giving feedback it’s often easy for people to express their immediate, emotional reactions. ‘This isn’t right.’ ‘It’s off-brief.’ It’s also common for people to try and solve through brainstorming. ‘What if we lightened the color palette?’ All of these are fair and natural reactions when people spot problems, but can’t fully define what that problem is. As strategic and creative thinkers, our best response to these reactions is not to get frustrated but to understand why the work elicits these reactions. Those ‘why’ reasons are always way more interesting, and way more helpful than the reactions themselves.”

Charlotte Boerescu‑Kelly, head of marketing, The Go! Network: “A massive challenge with criticism of creative work is how subjective it can feel - so it’s important to be able to clearly ‘frame’ negative feedback. What were you trying to achieve, and where does the feedback indicate that you missed the mark in a particular area? That said, it’s not just about how you receive it – it’s also about the way it’s given. If feedback is vague, or completely irrelevant to the initial ask, it’s not on you to take it ‘the right way’. Negative feedback needs to be valid, objective, and linked clearly to the starting request. It’s why (when collecting feedback for agencies) we use scorecards for creds and provide evaluation forms for pitches – it makes the difference between feedback and just an opinion.”

Emmeline Kite, head of strategy at Five by Five: “Negative feedback is an occupational hazard but, at the risk of sounding trite, it’s also an opportunity. If as marketers we don’t know that our stakeholders or customers aren’t happy, we can’t fix the problem. We’re firm believers at Five by Five that different perspectives and transparency about challenges can help us learn and, ultimately, improve how we communicate. The critical thing is to park emotion. In our experience, seeking to properly understand the problem and showing that you’re listening without being defensive makes it more likely you’ll find a positive solution.”

Rose Stewart, design director at The Frameworks: “Feedback is about balance and there are always many things at play: the type of project, what the feedback is, who it comes from (clients or end-users) and the relationships you have with them. My first response is often to push back or interrogate it, knowing we made something we felt was the right solution, but invariably we use feedback to iterate: changing something now or learning for next time. We have to keep in mind we’re not designing for the client or ourselves but for the audience – as Simon Dixon says, “It’s the people we design for that matter.”

James Kirkham, chief exec of Iconic: “The key is that you need to be building in the right process for feedback to be additive, welcome in the initial phase, and not just a box-ticking at the end. For many years I worked in advertising where the idea of audience reaction was sometimes pure hygiene for a client to prove the spot was not going to fail. But for me, ‘not failing’ is not great creative. Because it is my firm belief that the final idea should not be ‘tested’ to within an inch of its life. If you’re trading in innovation and newness people don't know what they want until it is there; Nobody would have said they wanted the iPhone. Nobody would have known they wanted Jonathan Glazer’s Guinness Surfer spot or Fallon’s Gorilla or Holler’s use of Myspace to do the marketing for the show Skins. Nobody can give that feedback as it doesn’t exist yet. So you need to take the temperature first, then generate the amazing idea which lands afresh to a hungry audience.”

James Hacking, founder of Socially Powerful: “Any time you post you’re open to scrutiny, instant feedback and comments. So, if you don’t like what people say, you shouldn't ask for public feedback. If there are just a few comments to a live campaign, it’s hardly the end of the world. If you see lots of negative responses, you must address things quickly. Take action to appeal to the audience and review internally how it has happened. It’s an opportunity to be mature, admit you got it wrong and how you’re going to make it right. If you leave things too long, the damage can be irreparable.”

Sarah Oberman, co-founder and strategy lead, The Or: “‘It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.’ I remember this Mark Twain quote in The Big Short. A movie that demonstrates the consequences of ignoring reality. Sometimes ‘negative’ feedback is positive. Because it’s a blind spot. This type of feedback is hard to swallow, but you want to try and get it early. Then there’s the other type of feedback, the person who hates everything. The keyboard warrior who you’ll never please. This is noise, as it never really guides you in how to be better.”

Want to put your tuppence in next week? Get in touch (sam.bradley@thedrum.com).

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