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Client-Agency Communication

For the amount of money people pay for higher education degrees in marketing, it is shameful that they are not required to take any classes on interacting with agencies, creatives, etc.  I certainly was not made to take those classes for my business program (nor do I think any were available), but I know that every day in marketing, my success is dependent on my ability to communicate with the designers, programmers and slew of creative folks I work with to get the job done.

The trend in current corporate communication is to be indirect and non-confrontational about everything.  So instead of telling someone directly that a project is flawed, you must follow a crazy 5 step process which includes documentation, meetings and often times, not even telling that person yourself what is wrong.

The issues with this style of communication go well past the subject of this blog, so to avoid digressing, let’s remain focused on giving feedback to your agency.

From the agency side, there are 4 types of clients:

The wannabe designer

The no-feedback guy

The overthinker

The Agency Darling

The wannabe designer: Quite obviously, this is the type of client that wants to dictate every detail of the design.  Some common feedback from this client: moving items from one side of the page to the other, “make my logo bigger”, try it in this color, wouldn’t this shape work better, or “hey, I drew this. Can you make this?”

The problem with this guy could be 1 of 3 things or a combination of all of them. He either has a deep seated wish to be a graphic designer and he is living out this dream via creative projects, he doesn’t trust that the agency knows what they are doing, or he doesn’t know how to give feedback in a way that generates the design he wants.

The no-feedback guy: This guy just doesn’t give any feedback.  Just changes.  An agency presents a design and all this guy has to say is that the copyright year is wrong or that the text is misspelled.  The problem with this guy is that the agency has no idea if this design is working for him or not.  He doesn’t love it, he doesn’t hate it, he just has changes.  Or at least that’s all the agency can surmise.

The overthinker: This is the client that has a lot of feedback on the design but it is painful to hear it because it is filled with “what ifs” and “I’m just not sure the consumer will”, etc.  He is paralyzed by the possibilities.  Feedback from this client often ends up contradicting itself.

The problem with this guy is that he suffers from a fear of loss.  Whether it’s the loss of his job if this campaign doesn’t go well or loss of the consumer base or just overall lack of success, he has a hard time focusing his feedback because he is in pursuit of not offending anyone and creating a near perfect design.  This is very possibly an unachievable standard and it makes the feedback overwhelming and often confusing to an agency.

The agency darling: This is every agency’s dream client.  The are engaged in the project.  They trust the agency.  They have good, focused feedback and are willing to accept constructive criticism and give it as well.  These types of clients are few and far between, but they should be the model we use to shape client-agency communication.

As an agency, you must attempt to understand what type of client you are dealing with.  Even if you have to drag them, kicking and screaming, to a session for feedback, it must be done.  And you have to get them talking.  Find out what they really want.

For the wannabe designer you need to figure out quickly what his MO is.  If this guy just wishes he were a designer, eventually, he will succumb to the fruits of your expertise and let you do your thing.  Let him live his dream a little and compromise on what he wants every now and again.  If he doesn’t trust you though, you have a bigger problem.  In my experience, issues of trust are best handled with care.

You have to prove yourself as worthy.  If you can figure out what started the distrust, try to counteract it.  Show the client with excellent design, excitement, engagement and flawless execution.  Be on POINT all the time.  And it wouldn’t hurt to wine and dine them a little to let them know you are trying.

If he just doesn’t know how to give you feedback, you have to show him the way.  I’ve built a little feedback form (I’m not a designer, so no judgements please), and made it available here.


This form could also be used for the no-feedback guy to help draw out the major feedback you are looking for, which is “am I even close to what you want?”.  The no-feedback guy is the most dangerous in my opinion.  Never knowing where you stand can quickly lead to them not being your client.  As an agency, you have to get this guy talking about the work your do and you must accept the criticism along with the praise.

The overthinker takes much more work.  You have to figure out what this guy is afraid of in order to help give him some direction.  Is he under stress to make this campaign successful?  Is he concerned about losing consumers?  Either way, you must find out what makes him tick and use your design and charm to help get him on track.  As an agency, you cannot guarantee the success of any campaign, but you can offer him measurable tactics, insightful advice, and your expertise.  In my experience, it helps to get the feedback in writing.  Then take his feedback and put it up against your design, all of it.  It should become clear what can be thrown out, what you might need to say to assuage some of the “what ifs” and what is truly valuable feedback.

From the client side, one of the gravest misunderstandings clients have of their agencies is the time and degree of difficulty it takes to produce the design they put in front of you.  A client would never expect a painter or sculptor to create and complete a masterpiece in a week, but they expect a masterpiece from a graphic designer in that time or less ALL the TIME.  A graphic designer’s process includes heavy research, brainstorming and often sketching before they even open up Illustrator to start the work on the computer.

In addition, there is a misconception that because it is being designed on a computer it should go faster.  I mean, the computer is doing all the work so it should go faster right?  Wrong.  The computer is a tool, much like a paintbrush or a chisel and the graphic designer does all the thinking and the work to pull it together.

Now, as a client, you bring these misconceptions to the table when you see a design.  And like many people, often you first notice the design as multiple components rather than a finished piece of work.  The process of working with the agency is taxing- they don’t seem to understand what you want.  You carefully phrase your feedback so you don’t hurt their feelings but you just aren’t getting your point across.  This gets expensive for you and annoying for the agency and suddenly the relationship is strained.

How do you get back on track and get what you need from your agency?

First things first.  Please.  For the love of god.  Stop worrying you will hurt our feelings.  Unless you say that the design smelled like poop and you can’t believe any moron would put that in front of you, you’ll be fine.  If you don’t like something, then just say it.  And say it constructively.  As a good rule of thumb, if you don’t like it, tell us what you don’t like and tell us what you think you would like to see.  Even if it takes a few tries to get there at least we know what direction we are going in.

Designers feel disappointed when you don’t like their work, but it’s work and it’s art.  It’s subjective and they get that.

Next, follow the form (inserted again) from the bottom up.  Document3

Look at the design from a whole first, not as little components on a page.  And try not to see it from your eyes.  The agency is designing for your consumers eyes and although you know your consumer, you might not see eye to eye.

Then, slowly work your way up the page, getting more picky as you go along.  But always start first with the overall design.  Nobody benefits when you make numerous changes to a design you don’t even like.

If your agency is a good agency, they will attempt to extract this feedback from you so that you can both be happy with the work produced.  And let them!  No one can fix something if they don’t know it’s broken.

Changing how you give feedback (clients) and changing how you get feedback (agencies) will vastly improve the quality of your work and your relationships.  It takes getting outside of your comfort zone, but it will benefit both parties in the end.

Ok, I’ve rambled on for long enough.


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