Don’t be a Caveman Marketer: Wrong Rock is not Constructive Feedback

July 2, 2013 •

If you’re a marketer who has worked on the “agency” side of the business, you have almost certainly run into clients who think they know what they want, but really don’t know, or don’t know how to tell you what they want. This is a problem I call “wrong rock,” and it can creep up during many types of work, including marketing strategy, content creation, or website design.

Wrong rock’s story centers around a caveman we’ll call Og. He is a solid, well-respected leader of the Gronks, a caveman clan. Og has been told that THE BIG LEADER (a rung up the ladder from Og) wants rocks collected for the Gronks army, so all the other civilian cavemen must go out and bring back the best rocks they can find. Og will then polish them up and take the rocks to the leader (and probably look like a hero). This was a no-brainer for the cavemen. They knew rocks. They could easily find the best ones and bring them back—so off they went. They put time and effort into the task, and brought quite a collection of nice-looking rocks back to Og. Upon seeing the first batch, Og said, “Wrong rocks. Go bring different rocks.” Well, needless to say, the guys were miffed and confused about how to proceed. But they came up with a plan and went after other shapes and sizes and presented more to Og. Once again he said, “Wrong rocks.” This went on a few more times, and each time, the cavemen got no direction, put less effort into the search, and the rocks got shabbier. The cavemen became irritated with Og, and Og was frustrated with his cavemen. How could they not figure out how to accomplish such a simple task?

The problem in Og’s cave is clear to anyone who has been on the agency side working with clients:

  • Og’s cavemen did not know what the goal was for collecting their rocks—what would the rocks be used for and how?
  • The cavemen did not know the characteristics of the “right rock.”
  • When they were told “wrong rock,” the cavemen did not ask why it was wrong. They just tried again.
  • Both groups got irritated with each other because they didn’t communicate well.

The relationship between Og and his cavemen is not so different than the relationship between a creative agency or marketing company and the client. Communication is key—on the part of both parties. If you sometimes have trouble getting what you were really hoping for out of your creative partner, here are seven tips to help you communicate more effectively and avoid a “wrong rock” situation.

1.  Start out with a creative brief and a face-to-face meeting—Information sharing is key to getting things off on the right foot with any creative project.  As the client, take the project brief seriously – provide as much detail as possible to ensure you get a good product back. It’s not unlike giving good material to a freelance writer in order to get good content back. You should offer as much background as possible on your company, marketing strategy, the particular campaign your are running, the goal for the piece you are creating, competitors and their work, and examples of similar pieces you like and don’t like. A good creative agency will draw lots of valuable and necessary information out of you, but it’s also your responsibility to share what you want with your partner, especially if you have specific ideas for the project.

2.  Offer a comprehensive first impression—Once you have something to react to (a comp or first draft, etc.), give your overall impression of what you read, the strategy or the creative. Try to find something positive first (even if there is negative to follow). Personally I like the sandwich approach if there are a LOT of negative things you have to discuss. Start with something positive, put the bad news in the middle like the meat or peanut butter, and end with a little positivity, like the bottom piece of bread. You want this creative partner to go back to the drawing board and do good work on the revision, don’t you? You can get all of your points across in that middle section. Try not to leave them wishing they had not taken the job.

3.  Narrow down the negative—This is the hardest part and is what gets people labeled as “wrong rock” clients. They don’t work hard enough to express why they don’t like something or why it doesn’t work for them. But you have to try to figure it out or your cavemen (your agency) will just continue to bring you different (or wrong) rocks. So ask yourself these things:

  • Overall do you like the concept?
  • For a design project is it the colors or the style (like contemporary vs. formal) or the typefaces that bother you?
  • If it’s content, do you not like the tone of the piece or the style in which it’s written (is it too casual or too journalistic)?
  • Looking closely at the piece or the content, can you pick out three parts that you do like and explain why you like them? (This might help your partner understand what style you like and expand on it.)
  • Do you feel like the piece is on target with the overall goal that you were trying to achieve? (If the answer is ‘no’ then someone really dropped the ball somewhere.)

4.  Be clear with specific edits —On the specifics, like copy edits or items that need to be moved, swapped or shifted, be clear with your direction and requests. For these kinds of changes, offer them in writing so you can be as precise as possible about your edits and direction. “Somewhere after the second paragraph add…” is not enough for someone to understand where you want your edit. Where after the second paragraph? I prefer that clients send back copy in track changes mode for a Word document or make hard copy edits on a designed piece so there is absolutely no question about what and where the edit should be. Don’t just get on the phone and tell someone to insert a comma in the third line in the second paragraph. It’s a recipe for disaster. Put it in writing.

5.  Be disciplined about changes—As you move through the revision process, be disciplined with your agency and with yourself about edits and revisions. Did they address the last round of changes the way you agreed they would be handled? Don’t bait and switch on your creative team—if you asked for something to be revised and then see you don’t like it, just fess up to that. Yes, it means more work to change it again, but if you acknowledge that you realize this with your creative team, it will go a long way.

6.  Let the experts do their jobs—If you were a writer or a designer, you would have written it or designed it yourself, right? Stay away from art directing or rewriting it yourself (if you really think they can’t revise it to your satisfaction, you probably need a new partner). Describe what you like and what you don’t like, and offer your suggestions for direction. (It’s ok to say something like, “I feel like this area doesn’t read well,” or “Something in this section just looks odd to me but I wouldn’t know how to fix it,” but don’t try to do the work.) The experts can truly do a better job if you just let them come up with a solution. It’s why you pay them.

7.  Remember the goal—Does the work that you have put into the content, creative and the changes address whatever you are trying to accomplish with the piece? Is the piece also in line with your overall marketing strategy? Sometimes you can get so wrapped up in the creative process that you lose sight of the end goal. Keep the big picture in mind. The creative process can be fun (seriously) but even if you come out with a remarkable piece of content in the end and have a great time doing it, if it doesn’t speak to your overall marketing strategy, you’ve wasted your time and money.

You want your marketing firm to produce awesome strategy, content and design, right? You didn’t hire them to fire them, right? Not unlike the grooming and support of a new employee, the first three months with your marketing firm are critical for establishing lines of communication and a vision for what success looks like. If you get it right, you’ll build a solid relationship that only gets better over time. If you communicate like a caveman, expect a long, frustrating history of wrong rocks.

Do you have any good strategies for giving feedback to your creative partner to get good results? Leave us a comment.

About the Author

Yvonne Lyons is Right Source’s vice president of content marketing, overseeing content strategy and creation for all of our clients. She ensures that all content produced at Right Source is of the highest quality and is aligned with our clients’ business strategy and goals. Yvonne received a bachelor’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University in writing and literature and has more than 20 years of experience in marketing, branding and communications. You can find Yvonne on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn or read her other posts.

  • Andrea Waring

    A great read, thanks Yvonne! As a video agency, we bash our heads against the wrong rock phenomenon on a weekly basis! So many of our clients take this approach, and it ends up costing us endless gray hairs and wasted hours, especially when it comes to time-intensive motion graphics/animation videos. I think more than anything, the key is getting clients to be clear on their objectives and strategy at the outset, so that the agency can fully understand what needs to be achieved and then have the freedom to pull it off in the most creative way possible. Yet most of the time we find our clients haven’t put much thought into it at all.. it’s just “hey, we want a cool video! Can you deliver by next week?”
    Here’s to client education! Thanks again for the post 😉

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