Dear Liz ... what's the best way to give creatives negative feedback?

I'm an Account Manager and love the agency I work for, but I dread passing on negative feedback from clients with the creatives because they take out their anger on me. What can I do?

To appreciate another human being we need to be open and curious about who they are and how they show up every day. We need to remind ourselves that not everyone shares our view of the world.

My start point this month is a book called The Courage to Create by Rollo May. A new one for me, but this may be a familiar one for many of you. In chapter two, May explores the nature of creativity with a definition provided by Plato’s Symposium in which he describes that true artists are “those who give birth to some new reality. These are the ones who enlarge human consciousness. Their creativity is the most basic manifestation of a man or woman fulfilling his or her own being in the world.”

If we turn to our own creatives, this is what our creatives do everyday and it is imperative for them that they do this. For them, there is no other way of being. Their work is highly personal as they make themselves vulnerable and their work requires courage as they put themselves out in the world. They have to create the things that no one has seen before. In fact, Margaret Hefferden would argue that businesses therefore need to hire more of them because they are the only ones who can shape and disrupt the future. Humanity now finds itself in unchartered waters, where the old rules no longer apply and the artists are the ones who have “the process of making, of bringing it into the world.”

So the next time the client says that they don’t like your mid-level team’s work we need to think about this from the perspective of the client, the brief and their work. Your creatives have spent time and energy creating something that on some level is being rejected.

Here are my some start points for building a positive relationship with your creatives:

  • Build a relationship of trust with the creatives on your account. Get to know them; what drives them, what their passions are, how they like to work, how to get the best out of them. You are not trying to be them, you are seeking to appreciate them.
  • Give them the space they need to generate their best thinking and ideas.
  • Agree with them how you might manage timelines and client expectations with them so that you can collaborate to avoid unnecessary surprises.
  • Ask them what their relationship is with feedback. Some people are such a harsh self-critic that they don’t require any further beatings from anyone else. Others want all the feedback given straight and cold. Check in to find out what works for them.
  • Own the client feedback and come back with an opinion Do not hide behind what the client says in an email or just be a conduit between the client and the creative team.
  • Demonstrate empathy and respect for the work.
  • Remember that we all work for the agency. So when you come back and say “we need to do x and y,” ask yourself, who is your “we”? Are you referring to the agency team or the client?
  • What support do they need before the work goes out of the door – do you know what the agency creative process is before you start asking the impossible of them?
  • Never make promises. Whilst a client request to change the colour from pink to green may sound like a quick solution to you, you need to come back to the agency and say “the client would like to change this from pink to green. What do you think?” Never say to your creatives “the client wants to change this from pink to green and I told them we can do it.”

Have respect for their work and their ideas as you are also treading on their soul. It’s personal.

The Courage to Create – Rollo May W.W Norton & Company
Creativity Inc; Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration Hardcover – April 8, 2014, Ed Catmull


Last updated 21 January 2022