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  • Writer's pictureLucas Bergmans

How to judge creative & give feedback

Updated: Jan 4

How do you know a good creative idea when you see one?

 

The moment when your agency (or internal team) present their first ideas to you can be both nerve-jangling and incredibly exciting; inspirational or wildly disappointing.


How you manage the process of judging creative and giving feedback is a crucial part of the process of developing effective creative. It can make the difference between getting to a brilliant and highly effective campaign that lasts for many years and delivers strong ROI or the very opposite. Average ideas can be nurtured into outstanding ones, good ideas can suffer death by a thousand cuts (or a thousand bits of unhelpful feedback).


So, what’s the secret to getting it right?

 

The short answer is that this is one of the hardest things to get right. Some people are naturally good at it, but everyone can learn to improve. You’ve come to the right place to get started!

 

As part of my Delivering Effective Creative series, I had another chat with the legendary Katie Pople on the many challenges involved in this part of the process and what you can do to be better at judging and feeding back.

 

Enjoy!


Katie, thanks for joining again.

Last time we chatted about the importance of getting briefs right and best practice on writing a fantastic brief for an agency. Today, I want to talk about judging creative and giving feedback. So why don't we start with you explaining why it's really important to do this well, both for clients and for agencies.

"We're looking for (...) an original and appropriate, imaginative leap. And that's hard to judge."

Ultimately, it comes down to process. And when I look at this part of the process, it is genuinely the bit I love the most because it is the culmination of lots of hard work. It can be really exciting. It can be nerve-wracking. It can be unbelievably disappointing. It can be funny and entertaining, and playful and curious and really frustrating.

 

I was reading a piece by Laurence Green this morning about creativity, which he summed up as ‘an original and appropriate, imaginative leap, with advantageous consequences’. And so what we're looking for, when we're judging, is an original and appropriate, imaginative leap. And that's hard to judge. It's really difficult to be certain, and to persuade others that you think it's right in the context of the ‘job to be done’.

 

But I do think it's something we can all learn. Some people are naturally better at it than others. But it's something you can practice every day, just through observing all of the plethora of comms around you and learning from those who do it well. I learned from people who loved this part of the process. It is like Double Art on a Friday afternoon. It's not Double Maths on a Tuesday morning.

 

What are the key challenges to judging creative?

"Average work is easy to buy, because it ticks all the boxes (...) it's harder to buy challenging, difficult, distinctive original work."

For any brand, the competitive landscape is fierce. Really fierce. And for lots of small-scale start-ups and scale-ups I work with who have a small budget, you've got to make it work really hard. We know we have to create distinctive and emotionally engaging, creative content to do that. And that's hard to buy. And the fact is, average work is easy to buy, because it ticks all the boxes. However, the biggest risk of all is doing something average, because it won't get noticed. We see this out there all the time. It's easier to buy average work, and it's harder to buy challenging, difficult, distinctive original work.

 

My best example of this is Government comms, because that's taxpayers’ money, and they are risk averse by nature. And yet, the argument we always had is we're taking a budget and potentially wasting it by doing something average, because it won't get noticed at all. So that's the bigger risk for me.

 

There are lots of other challenges. With any brand I work with, I spend a bit of time at the beginning doing detailed research amongst key stakeholders around briefs and around judging ideas. And I use that to then inform the consultancy work that I do. And there are some common challenges that come up time and time again.

 

Number one is a big one: senior stakeholder involvement around judgement. And there are a number of challenges here. In the first instance, their lack of involvement. What you find particularly between agency and client is more junior clients double-guessing what their boss will think, rather than doing what they think is right in the context of the brand, the brief and the job to be done. Or senior stakeholder involvement too late in the process. So we do rounds and rounds of judgement, amends, costly processes, only to find out that ultimately, when it gets to the senior stakeholder, they won't buy it, because they don't like it. And there's a bit of a culture of fear, then, around what we think the senior stakeholder will buy. Rather than what we think is the right thing to do.

 

Number two is when you see a lack of alignment around what is great work, and what is the benchmark. What does good look like, both within our category and outside of it? Consumers don't just sit waiting to see adverts for the brands that sit within our category. It's a much bigger landscape. And sometimes there is a lack of objective criteria that we're going to use to judge the idea against. The best clients I work with are super clear on what good looks like and how high they want to jump.

 

Number three is purely subjective judgement. ‘It's not what I had in mind. I don't like it. I don't like red’ school of judgement. Without any clear objective rationale and reason why you don't like it. And whilst gut reaction and subjectivity is really important, we have to be able to wrap that with objective criteria and link it to the job to be done. The objectives from an effectiveness point of view. Worse than a subjective response is silence. Tumbleweed. Nothing, no response. I find that many people that I work with are not schooled in how to judge and defend ideas. So, either their response is purely subjective, or they ask for multiple versions to cover all options, which is a complete waste of time and money.

 

Number four is what I call ‘sticky fingers on the diamond’. Too many cooks, which can lead to decision by committee and ultimately, the lowest common denominator. Often people are brought into the judgement process with no experience, no idea of the context of the job to be done; the brief backstory. And this frequently picks away at the integrity of the idea, so you end up with the lowest common denominator.

"What great agencies do, is they create the right environment and space for ideas to be bought (...) where direct, truthful and honest feedback is given."

Number five is the understanding that ideas need room to breathe, for discussion and debate. All too often, particularly between clients and agencies (and also within agencies), we're not given enough time to judge multiple routes being presented, and have no space to challenge, discuss, debate, disagree. Lots of cultures actually avoid conflict. And getting to great work requires us to disagree robustly, and empathetically. And you often find there's a chain of command as well, with the top of the chain mandating what happens next. So nobody discusses and debates. What great agencies do, is they create the right environment and space for ideas to be bought. An environment of openness and honesty, where direct, truthful and honest feedback is given. If I think about some of the best ideas I was ever involved with judging, and then persuading others to buy, it took three or four goes, before the idea was bought. And with that, we would use evidence. We might use quick and dirty research, we'd reframe the argument. It was the BBH school of ‘three strikes and you're out’ – we were fully encouraged to go back and have another go. And they genuinely weren't easy to buy. They were brave ideas and it often took brave clients to buy them. Clients who were aiming high and understood the connection between outstanding creativity and high commercial benefit.

 

As an example from many moons ago, one of the ideas we developed for Levi’s featured a young lad who hid his condom in his watch pocket of his jeans that he bought at the chemist. When he goes to take his girlfriend out later on, he knocks on the door, and the person that opens the door is the chemist who sold him the condom and he’s the Dad of the girl he's taking out. That's a really difficult idea to buy. And that took persuasion and effort and advocacy and passion and belief that this was right in the context of our target consumer and the job to be done.

 

Number six: unclear brand positioning or brand values makes it really hard to judge. Because it's very difficult to judge whether the idea is on brand or not.

 

Number seven is the art of giving feedback when judging. I've observed feedback that's not real. It's not actionable. It's purely subjective. It's unspecific. The classic, ‘can you just jazz it up a bit. Can you make it pop’. I have absolutely no idea what that means. Also, not being decisive enough. If an idea is wrong, then have the conversation - with empathy - sooner rather than later. Don't be afraid to not pull punches. Dressing it up doesn't soften the blow, but be respectful. All too often people forget, whilst an idea might be wrong, a personal investment has been made, and time and effort.

 

Number nine is judgement without the consumer in mind. Interestingly, with the condom in the pocket idea for Levi’s brand, the client that was judging it was a 52 year old Texan, and we're targeting 16-year old boys in Europe. And the very fact he didn't like it was probably the reason why the target audience would. So that was a very difficult, challenging conversation.

"Judging the idea first enables judgement to be made at the right level and removes a degree of subjectivity."

And then finally number ten. A common mistake is judging at an executional level rather than at an idea level. And there is a difference. Judging the idea first enables judgement to be made at the right level and removes a degree of subjectivity. That way, if we judge the idea to be good, it won't then be discarded if the execution fails. If the idea is good enough, we can come up with all manner of executions around it.

 

Very helpful. And do you think those challenges are the same whether you're a scale-up or more established brand, like Levi's?

To be honest, I do. Often for a scale-up, you've got smaller budget, so your idea has to work even harder. Therefore, it's more important that it is original, relevant to the brand, relevant to the target audience, and will motivate people to think, feel and do something different. That call to action, that motivation is really important, because every penny has to work hard. I actually think the discipline is the same. 

What you often find in scale-ups is you have a senior stakeholder who wants to be very involved who may not have experience of having judged ideas previously. And that can be challenging, because that's where you can often go down the route of subjective judgement, based on the view of that senior stakeholder who has a stake in the business or owns the business, and therefore has the final say. And that can be difficult.

 

Those people exist in big businesses as well, I'm sure!

We've both been in those very important meetings where creative gets presented, and different clients then feed back in different ways. Why don't you tell us about your favourite examples of how clients deliver feedback?

Well, there's good and there's less good - let's call it different - client approaches.

When I first started at Saatchi and Saatchi, I worked on Procter and Gamble. They had a very specific approach, which was that the most junior client speaks first at point of judgement. And I actually thought that was good practice. I thought it was good practice, because firstly, it encouraged the junior members of the Marketing team to come prepared: mindful of the brief, mindful of the brand positioning, the brand tone of voice, the brand values and all of that. Secondly, it helped them to practice making judgments in a relatively safe environment versus the opposite of that where the most senior person speaks first, and no one else speaks, because they don't want to contradict the most senior person. I felt it built confidence over time in the art of judgement.

"At that moment, it's often just a piece of paper or a line drawing, or something that is a tenth of what it's ultimately going to be in execution."

A second approach, which is also from Procter and Gamble, was the huddle. And the jury's out here, because personally, I hated it. This is when the agency presents an idea to the client who are about to judge it. We have a discussion about points of clarification and understanding. And then the client leaves the room. And the reason they leave the room is to consolidate their point of view to ensure that the feedback doesn’t contradict each other and is disjointed, which can often happen. I see the reason why they did it like this. I just hated it, because it meant a decision was made out of the room without the creators of the idea being able to advocate the idea, being able to explain where there might be misunderstanding, be able to paint a picture of how good that idea could be. Because at that moment, it's often just a piece of paper or a line drawing, or something that is a tenth of what it's ultimately going to be in execution. So, the idea that the decision was being made outside the room, I personally found very difficult.

"When you're judging an idea, you judge with your gut reaction, then you house it with an objective set of criteria."

I've also worked with a number of clients who establish a set of criteria to help them judge. And I think that has real value, I'm a big fan of that and in my consulting role I create these with clients. When I first joined BBH, I remember John Hegarty saying ‘when you're in my office, these are the criteria that we'll all use to judge ideas: original, relevant, motivating; funny, clever, beautiful.’ The necessary conditions for a great idea are that it’s original, it's relevant to the brand and the consumer and it motivates them to think feel, do. All great ideas do that. And then the sufficient conditions are any one of: funny, clever or beautiful. In other words: emotionally engaging, clever or smart, and then beautifully crafted or well-crafted in some way. Equally when I worked with Unilever, they had their set of criteria. When you're judging an idea, you judge with your gut reaction, then you house it with an objective set of criteria: attention, branding, communication, delivery, effectiveness, that was their five. And that really works because it helps people get beyond ‘I just don't like it’.

 

Number four is also a Unilever approach - they mandated (to avoid the double guessing of what will the senior person think) that the Marketing Director would sign off the brief and be at first presentation of idea. That gets a big tick in my book: the right people in the right room at the right time making a decision together, rather than avoiding to-oing and fro-ing.


One that worked less well (but I understood why they did it) was at a large media company where they used to have a big creative review where all of the Brand Managers on all of the different brands were present. They would all come together and they would judge all the work that was going through at any one point in time, led by the Marketing Director. That often felt like ‘too many cooks’. People judging ideas, not knowing the background, the context, the job to be done, the brief, the specifics of that project, and I felt that was ‘sticky fingers on the diamond’.

"The most effective ideas make you feel something." 

And then Nike did a wonderful thing, which plays to the idea that a great idea emotionally engages. Part of their judgement was to notice how you feel when you see an idea for the first time. Because most effective ideas, make you feel something. That emotional engagement. I've found that really useful. And I've used that example to encourage people to not only think what you think but also notice how you feel.

 

Those are fantastic examples. And what I'd love to hear next, Katie, are your top tips for judging creative and feeding back.

So, I've got my top recommendations then a bit of best practice:

1.     Right people, right room, right time. Whoever signs off the brief should be at first presentation of ideas so you have clear lines of sight.

2.      Set some objective criteria. That might be, for example: original, relevant, motivating, funny, clever, beautiful. This enables you to house your gut reaction and that really helps people articulate beyond subjectivity. Why something is right, or why maybe it's not right.

3.     Small teams make great work. Really ringfencing the number of people involved in judgement.

4.     A clear benchmark for what good looks like. How high do we want to jump?

5.     An environment of openness and honesty around judgement (and you've got to work really hard at this).

6.     Give it time. Give the idea time to breathe, to be discussed and debated. And at presentation of ideas, present the idea first and why you think it's right in the context of the objective before we get into the execution. The equivalent of ‘Good food deserves Lurpak’ before we go into an execution around that.

7.     Involving senior stakeholders early on significant projects that are business critical.


And then there's a little bit of best practice around that. At point of judgement…

·      Does the idea inspire me? Does it inspire my audience?

·      Does the idea have depth and profundity? And ubiquity?

·      Will it stretch over time?

·      Does the energy in the room rise when the idea is shared? This is something that's quite hard to articulate but great ideas create discussion and debate and energy. You could feel it in an agency when the team next to you had a great idea. That intangible energy around great ideas.

·      Can we integrate it through all the channels on the brief?

·      Sometimes you have to give it the overnight test. This would often happen when you're presenting brave ideas to clients. We had a brilliant client at Sony called Brenda Jones and often she would reject an idea in the meeting and then phone you up the next day and say ‘It’s so annoying. The one that you have recommended is the one that stayed with me. It’s the one that's most memorable’. So she would reverse her decision, having given it the overnight test.

·      Use your gut and wrap it with the objective criteria.

·      And of course, does it meet the brief? Is it connected to the proposition? Is it connected to the brand? Does it meet the job to be done? Will it meet the objectives? And how do we think it's going to work?

·      And the last thing is to just notice how you feel when you see an idea for the first time and jot it down. Because three months down the line you forget what you really felt when you saw it for the first time.

 

And if you had to choose one mistake that people should avoid, what would you say?

Silence. Have your say. The biggest mistake is silence. If you don't have your say, you will probably kick yourself later.

 

Fantastic, Katie. That's incredibly helpful, fascinating stuff and really useful for anyone judging and giving feedback.

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