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Forward thinking: why feedforward beats feedback

How do you alleviate the pain points of feedback?

Feedback is such an everyday part of working life, we can often forget to examine the way we structure, provide and procure it. But honest feedback is an essential part of any good relationship.

I read with interest The Drum’s recent feature on how a lack of pitch feedback is harming client-agency relationships. Recent research in the New Business Barometer from JFDI and Opinium revealed that 22% of agencies are rarely given detailed reasons for failed pitches. However, considering that Covid provided a valid excuse to cite ‘withdrawn budgets’ instead, a better gauge of the lack of feedback is seen in 2019’s results, when 38% of respondents said they did not get given detailed feedback at all.

As a relationship expert who retrained as a psychotherapist after my years in agencies, I have learned a thing or two about how we connect with others. I believe that in order for feedback to be valuable, we need to reframe it as feedforward. Let me explain.

Back in my agency days, as a young, breakaway agency, my company needed all the opportunities it could get to do good work and pay its ridiculously large bills. We properly listened to prospects and clients. But clients, however well meaning, weren’t trained in how to give useful feedback. And simply listening couldn’t compensate for poor feedback. Part of the issue with feedback is the focus. It’s like looking in the rear-view mirror showing you where you have come from – not where you need to go.

Feedback tends to focus on what was wrong, rather than giving a balanced and helpful perspective that will become the foundation for thinking ahead to the future. We lost good ideas as well as time, our tight margins were eroded and sometimes we lost our edge.

Our clients really didn’t like giving feedback. It was plain to see them tense up when we asked for their view. And the more junior the client contact, the greater this tension.

Pushing back

The higher the feeling of tension, the more negative or critical the feedback. The aim was always to improve, but the result was usually the reverse. One of our bigger, less adventurous FMCG clients invited some of us to a ‘breakthrough’ program with their marketing team. It was the hit of psychological rocket fuel that the client team needed to transform. During the program, we were introduced to the idea of feedforward, a tool that could be easily used by even the youngest, most naive or junior people to give clearer future direction.

We started using feedforward with every client, as well as internally on candidates, appraisals, office designs, pitch work and with each other. Feedforward saved us money, work and time; it helped improve pretty much everything. Its structure ensures a response from even the most inexperienced of clients in a low-stress, organized way, and lays out an accurate map of what should happen next.

The key to good feedforward is to start by noticing the instant gut reaction to a proposal, idea or experience. First feelings are a useful guide to use before thinking back to the strategy or brief. Sometimes new ideas elicit uncomfortable feelings; we encourage clients to recognize these feelings as a signal that a new, different or strong idea might be emerging.

The elements of success

There are four parts to feedforward:

What inspires, excites or moves you? It could be anything, however small or relevant to the brief or work at hand. If something inspires, clients should make a note of it.

What works? Or what’s just OK? This is an opportunity for clients to acknowledge which aspects are good but not amazing. If something is OK, clients should make a note of it.

What’s missing? This is the chance for clients to give useful guidance. It could be that what’s missing is something that inspires or excites. Or it could be something more ordinary, such as the compulsory requests in a brief. If something is missing, clients should make a note of it.

What would make the idea bigger and better? This provides the opportunity to build on what has been done. It also allows clients and others to articulate ideas for the agency to consider. If something could make the idea better, ask clients to make a note of it.

For feedforward to deliver its full potential, those providing it need to be completely honest and open; the positive framing of questions helps with this. We influence and are influenced by others, so writing down feedforward before sharing it is critical. If a client team is due to give you feedforward, help them to gather their thoughts in advance so that their messaging to you is consistent and avoids wasting time. Feedforward, properly executed, gives the opportunity for clear communication. This allows anybody involved to fully understand the response and which direction to take next.

So to address the pain point of a lack of feedback, and if you want better work, delivered more efficiently by happier teams with higher margins – use feedforward.