How to give Feedback on Advertising Copy

BBI Learning LogoIn a previous article, I wrote about How to Judge Advertising, trying to help Brand Leaders separate the Good ads from the Bad.  Click here to read: Judging Advertising Copy    This is a follow-up article to help outline how a Brand Leader should deliver the feedback, which is almost as important as the judging of the Advertising itself.

I come at this discussion from the client side.  I’ve never worked at an agency in my life.  But I have 20 years of CPG experience and have been in the shoes of the Brand Leader at every level.  I feel comfortable to say that most Clients don’t know how to give effective feedback to an Agency.   I’ve seen 10 people show up where they all talk and no decisions are made.   I’ve seen 10 show up and no one says a word, all looking miserable.  They say nothing and then email their feedback 5 days later.  I’ve seen Brand Leaders writing copy and tag lines, moving photos around, adding demos and even suggesting what songs to add to make the spots great.  And with modern social media campaigns, it’s becoming a mess of what people do on their own social media accounts.  The lack of fundamentals in giving feedback that links back to the strategy is getting worse, not better.   

A great Brand Leader should have more questions than answers.  They should be able to uncover problems better than they figure out solutions.  And they should respect the expertise of those they hire to tell the story of their brand.    

When seeing new Advertising Copy, a Brand Leader can really only do three things: 1) Approve the Ad 2) Reject the Ad or 3) Give direction on how to make the Ad better.  Even if you like an Ad, it’s rare that you will approve it outright.  Slide1I know Creative Teams wish we did, but it’s just not a reality.  Yes, the client feedback can help great ads get even better.  If you dislike an Ad, I say you have to kill it.  There’s no value in making an Ad you don’t like–even if it tests well.  I know not everyone will buy this.  But if you don’t love it, you won’t fight for its life, you won’t live and breathe the spot and you won’t put your heart and soul into it.  So why bother approving it.  

If you don’t love the work you do, then how do you expect the consumer to love your brand?  If you are satisfied with OK, my only regret is that I’m not competing with you.  

Advertising is Really “In the Box” Thinking

The best Advertising people are problem solvers, not blue sky “out of the box” dreamers.  They are “in the box” thinkers who are motivated by the challenge of the problem, more than the execution of some simple solution.  Big creative ideas can come from a tightly defined problem.   Checklist-icon The role of the Creative Brief is to create the right “box”, with enough room to move, but enough direction that defines the problem and challenges the Creative Team to solve it.  Advertising is a creative expression of the Brand Strategy, helping to bring the Brand’s Promise to life in the form of a story.  Great Advertising rarely comes from a blank canvass supplied by a confused client.

Getting Great Advertising is a Balance between Freedom and Control.  Most Brand Leaders allow too much FREEDOM on the strategy but want to exhibit CONTROL on the creative.  It seems odd because it should be the reverse.   Brand Leaders should control the Strategy and give up a bit of freedom on the Execution.  

A Good Creative Brief Should Be Brief, Not Long!  There should be one objective, one target, one main benefit and two main reasons to believe (RTB’s).  Agencies that want a long list of RTB’s want to take the strategic control away from you, so that they can provide options at the Creative Meeting.   Yes, it would be easier for the Agency to make Ads with that option, but you’d be letting the creative dictate your strategy rather than your strategy dictating your ad.  Creative Teams don’t want endless streams of data.   They don’t want so many options built into a brief, that they don’t know where to start.  Giving information “just in case” is confusing for them.  They need focus in order to deliver great work for you.  The smaller the brief, the bigger the ideas.

Brand Leaders should never let their Agency present “strategic” options at a Creative Meeting.  The Creative Meeting should only have creative solutions that answer the strategic problem.      That’s part of the whole flaw in why writing a really thick brief is a bad thing.   More on writing a Creative Brief at: How To Write a Creative Brief

Now Here’s the Odd Part to Feedback

How you treat your agency is crucial.  When you TELL an Agency exactly what to do, there is only one answer:  YES.  But when you ASK them what to do, you might hear:  YES, NO or MAYBE.  It also allows the agency to do what it does best, which is solving problems.  Not taking notes.  Brand Leaders should judge the advertising and then challenge the agency by always talking in terms of problems that they can solve.  


I realize that not everyone will get this.  The dance I am about to teach you will help separate the great Brand Leaders from the bad.  I’m going to give it a shot.  If you buy into the premise above that creative people are “in the box” thinkers, who are motivated by solving problems then don’t use your feedback to give them the answers that will actually de-motivate them.  Instead, give your comments in a way that creates a new problem for them to solve.  Since the brief put them “in a box”, now the feedback should really be creating a “new box” for them to figure out.  Just don’t give them the answers. 

If you frame it in the form of a problem, you’ll be pleasantly surprised that the solution they come up with is way better than the one in your head right now.  They don’t want your solutions.  Instead of writing copy for them, say “I’m not sure the middle or the script is completely reflecting the insight”.   The Creative Team finds it de-motivating to be asked for their expertise (solving problems) and then not utilized (given the answer)

Stop writing copy.  I’ve never met a Brand Leader that was good at writing copy or figuring out the art direction.  Great Brand Leaders are great at figuring out the strategic problems.  Stick to that.  Let others you hire to figure out the solutions, actually figure out the solutions.  

Feedback At the Creative Meeting

The Creative Meeting is not Easy.  You’ve got to balance, the head, the heart and the gut against the good of the brand.  Take your time and sort it through asking the following questions:

  1. Do you love what it can do for your brand?  If you don’t love it, how do you expect your consumer to love it?  A great ad has to have everyone’s heart and soul put into it.  If you “sorta like” it, then it will be “sorta ok” in the end.  If you love it, you will fight for it.  (The Heart) 
  2. Is it on strategy?  Is the Advertisement an expression of what you have been writing in your strategy documents?   Is it doing what we hoped it would do?  I love the ABCS technique (outlined below) because it helps me to frame things in my mind, so I can evaluate it past how I feel.  I think you need something to ground yourself.  (The Head)  If  there is something in your gut says it’s off, it likely is.  (The Gut)
  3. Is it long-term Idea?  Is a big enough idea that fits with the brand, does the hard work you want to do for the brand and can last 5 years.  Think about leaving a legacy—which forces you to think of campaign-ability.  (The Brand)  Look at the Creative Brief and if the ad is not on strategy, then it has to be rejected   Advertising is an expression of strategy.  If it’s not on strategy, it has no value.  


As for the feedback, too many people sit there taking notes and never engaging with the agency.   Sadly, great jokes fall to the silence of the room creating the tension of a 11th grade Physics exam.  There should be 3 types of feedback:

  1. In the Middle of the Meeting, Talk Out Your First Impressions: During the presentation, it’s great to be engaged enough to say “I like that” or ask a question.   People forget this type of feedback.  You are allowed to talk.  A free-flowing meeting helps ease any tension in the room, and allows you to use your instincts a little more.  Don’t be afraid of voicing your first impressions, it doesn’t lock you in.  You can like something and still reject it because it’s off strategy.  
  2. End of Meeting “Big Picture” Direction:  Once all the work is presented, focus your comments on what‘s working and challenge the team to find ways to make it better. Focus more on the Scripts that you like first, and then move to the ones you don’t like.   Stay big picture–find that balance of instincts and strategy.  Avoid getting too wrapped into the details just yet.  
  3. The Day After Give Detailed Direction:  Take 24 hours to digest all the little details with fresh eyes and maybe more discussion.  Make sure it delivers the depths of brief–highlight any gaps you’re seeing in relation to the Creative Brief.  Does it fit the target, is the tone right, and are we sure it’s communicating the reason to believe?  You might have further details (copy points, placement, colours) to the next day.  The key is to let the agency know about the day after direction, so they can expect it.  
Who Speaks?  Everyone or Just One Person

I’m a big fan of huddling as a Brand team and then giving one piece of feedback.  The agency walks away with consolidated thoughts rather than a mess of comments they have to clean up.  Having the Agency walk away with one message is more important than everyone on the Brand team getting a chance to voice their opinions.  

From a client vantage, I’ve worked with both “taking the break” and “giving feedback live”.  My preference is the break.  It enables you to take your time and give clear aligned direction.  Even with many years of experience, and being a fairly intuitive marketer with a love for advertising–I still have a hard time giving feedback 30 seconds after seeing the last script.  While it’s good to get your instincts out, I guess my big question is “what’s the rush?”  We want to get to the best advertising, right?  We took months to figure out the insight, weeks to figure out the brief and gave the creative team a few weeks to write the scripts.  So why do we want to decide on the best Ad within moments after seeing the Scripts? 

Here’s the “Old School” process:
  1. A senior person on the Agency side starts off the meeting by saying “we are so excited”.  One of the Creative guys says something really positive about the brand they saw on shelf in the 3 weeks they were working on the spot.  
  2. The Account Team re-reads the brief at the start of the meeting.  Then the agency does a 5 minute set up of each board, explaining the technique/process (e.g. this is funny spot).  Set ups can taint or bias the client’s view of a spot.
  3. Agency presents 3-5 scripts, and says which one is their favourite or recommendation.  It’s potentially a de-motivator if you ask for their favourite and then you just dismiss it anyway.  Why bother?
  4. Client Feedback is given 15 seconds after the last script is presented, with the most junior person going first, all the way up to the senior person in the room.  This feels very 1950s humiliation and de-motivating to the junior people on the Brand team.  The account team takes notes, tries to figure out from the various comments what the final direction is.  The Brand Manager caves to the most senior person in the room.  Lots of polite passive-agressive behavior, but not sure of where to go next.    
New School Process for Giving Feedback:  

Take a 15-30 minute client huddle with just the Brand team in the room, so that they can align on the direction and then give the agency one piece of feedback.  Get rid of that polite passive-agressive behavior and have a great debate behind closed doors.  

It can help the overall process because:

  1. The Agency gets one piece of consolidated feedback.  They know exactly what they are going to do next.  The huddle allows the client to get their story straight. The break also helps to slow down process so the client can think things through.
  2. It Gives Ownership to the Brand Manager, who should do all the speaking on behalf of the team, not the most senior person in the room that over-rules them.  When I was in the senior marketing role, I’d let the Brand Manager do all the talking and at the end, I would just say “great job everyone and I’m looking forward to the next round”.  
  3. The break allows the Client Team to have a very open discussion, freely hearing out everyone’s thoughts, giving junior people easier input.  Have good rich debates to make sure you’re on strategy.  It allows the senior leader to coach the Brand Manager rather than publicly over-rule.  The Brand Manager hears everyone out and then consolidates it to one message.
Bit of Crazy Talk for You

It’s also time to get rid of the “reading of the Brief” and get rid of the 5 minute agency “set up” of each ad.  I know half of you will think this is crazy and likely none of you will do it.  Brand Leaders should be in the shoes of the consumer as they see the Advertising ideas.  And unless you are going to buy an ad right beside your ad, that explains your ad, then get rid of the set ups.  Instead, bring the brief, put it face down and only turn it over once you’ve seen all the work.  Plus, you should have your brief memorized.  It’s not that hard.  You only have one brief.  Remember, your brief is fairly short!!!

To see a training presentation on Getting Better Advertising

email-Logo copyABOUT BELOVED BRANDS INC.:  At Beloved Brands, we are only focused on making brands better and making brand leaders better.Our motivation is that we love knowing we were part of helping someone to unleash their full potential.  We promise to challenge you to Think Different.  We believe the thinking that got you here, will not get you where you want to go.  grOur President and Chief Marketing Officer, Graham Robertson is a brand leader at heart, who loves everything about brands.  He comes with 20 years of experience at companies such as Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer Consumer, General Mills and Coke, where he was always able to find and drive growth.  Graham has won numerous new product and advertising awards. Graham brings his experience to your table, strong on leadership and facilitation at very high levels and training of Brand Leaders around the world.  To reach out directly, email me at or follow on Twitter @grayrobertson1

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4 thoughts on “How to give Feedback on Advertising Copy

  1. As an agency-side guy, I see a lot of common thinking with you Graham, especially around the presentation of the work: Don’t revisit the brief until after the work has been shown; don’t hold the client hostage with an unrevealed ad while you talk endlessly about the process of getting here; don’t pre-sell the work – because this often means filling in the missing information that the agency realizes the ad doesn’t communicate (wholly unfair). Say hello, show it, measure it against the brief, discuss it. Wait for feedback.

    When critiquing copy – or any part of the creative – I also find the most useful and expedient process, as you pointed out, is for the client to take note of their immediate thoughts, but gather to discuss away from the agency and come back with consolidated feedback. The agency ever only wants to hear “We love it!”, which is unrealistic when there are multiple stakeholders reviewing, so set it up beforehand. Ask the client to be mindful of their initial reactions and also ask them to come back after a collective review.

    I’ve worked with clients who insisted on bringing their personal bedroom sado-masochistic dominatrix fantasies into the boardroom and weren’t happy unless the agency was squirming under their critical boot. On the other hand, it’s not unusual for an agency to come off as smug and condescending as they defend their work. This is where a studied and deliberate agency/client courtship is so important – because the lack of value-match really raises its head at this juncture. That process would make a pretty interesting post Graham!

    • Doug, Thanks for the agency vantage. I think the passive aggressive relationship between two egomaniacs (client and agency) rarely produces interesting, insightful and successful work.

      When we each respect what each side brings, the work gets better. Is it too simple to say: clients speak in terms of problems and agencies speak in terms of solutions.

  2. Graham – some good common-sense perspective here. I’ve been fortunate that several clients in my agency career saw the need to use what you term the “new process” of feedback. It avoids the age old dance where everyone listens politely until the real decision maker speaks. The client’s principal (arguably only) imperative should be to give clear, unambiguous and consolidated feedback. Not play creative wizard. Ogilvy’s “Don’t buy a dog and bark yourself” is never more obvious than in creative feedback sessions.

    My one addition – perhaps a topic for another post – is iterative feedback sessions. the scenarios you describe above are ground in TV/Print creative presentations. Presentations of integrated campaigns, mobile applications, lead nurturing, websites etc are often more detailed and seldom hinge just upon “do we like it or not”. For my money, those are less “feedback” sessions than a proper “collaborative solution” session.

  3. Pingback: 42 Deadly Ad Copy Sins |

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