Managing Unicorns: Giving Feedback and Developing Creatives on Your Team

Kim Thore

Chief Marketing Officer at United Way Worldwide

Learning Objectives

Developing and leading that mythical creature - the unicorn - or creative on your team. When it comes to giving feedback, most leaders struggle, and most get it wrong, resulting in a frustrated creative and an exasperated manager. The amount of non-value added time spent in this whirling dervish can be utilized in so many more productive ways. Learn how to give feedback and develop a creative so that results are achieved, stress levels are at a minimal, and your unicorn won't run away into the forest never to be heard from again.

Key Takeaways:

  • How to structure feedback so that it is constructive for the creative and gets you the results you are seeking

  • Increase productivity and job satisfaction thereby decreasing turnover with creatives

  • Reduce cycle time with projects and receive projects that exceed your expectations as a leader

"We may be the unicorns in the room, but trust me, we're not legendary creatures to be feared or the source of frustration."

Kim Thore

Chief Marketing Officer at United Way Worldwide


Hi, my name is Kim Thore. I’m a Chief Marketing Officer with the United Way Worldwide. Today, I’m very excited to speak to you about a subject that’s very passionate to me. It’s about managing unicorns, giving feedback, and developing creatives on your team.

Let’s get started. Very excited to share with you some of the lessons that I have learned over the past two decades and the course of my career, not only from the perspective of the leader, but as a creative as well. As a creative with a brain that is equally bright in left, I have been on both sides of the fence when it comes to being analytical and strategic to the creative in the room who sees projects with a totally different lens than everyone else.

The unicorn in corporate America, that’s my nice little illustration there that you’re looking at. It’s a mythical creature that often stumps non creatives in the workplace. But when it comes to talent development, and most importantly, giving feedback, it is a little bit more difficult with those of us who’ve subscribed to being a creative. I hope today that the tips that I share and the approaches that I will give to you will help you navigate more easily and effectively develop and grow the creatives on your team or the creatives that you work with, be it an agency or a graphic designer that you may hire for project.

First things first, if I don’t give you any other advice, I would absolutely say operation sales are areas that depend on marketing and public relations. But too often, when you mix these together, it is invariably oil and water. I offer one piece of advice and that is to never have your marketing team report to operations, it will never work. This is because fundamentally creatives see the world around them in a different manner and produce projects with that very different worldview. Operations generally skips all those worldviews, parts, and parcels that the creative goes through, and goes right to the bottom line. So it’s just not a good mix. So if you want a creative to develop well and become someone on your team, who is a superstar, please make sure they’re not reporting to an operations division. It just won’t work.

Marketing, design, and public relations are all very unique positions that require a very unique skill set. Often, that skill set is very highly developed. In the inner circles, we marketers often bang our heads because the field marketing is the one field that everyone feels they can do. To them, it’s easy. I can tell you, having worked from every aspect of marketing, from marketing research to where I work today as a Chief Marketing Officer, marketing, public relations, and communications are a lot of things but it’s not easy. It has a lot of moving parts to it. When we give you our project, you’re going to see it as a project. We’re gonna say in our minds, “We just gave you our baby.” So there’s the rub.

This analogy that you see on the screen now describes the day to day work of a creative. Whether the person is a creative designer, marketer, public relations expert, or communication specialist, their work is their baby. They have poured hours and creative energy into the things that matter, but many will never see or never notice. That can be incredibly frustrating. Fonts, colors, imagery, design, copy, and with every keystroke or InDesign design element, a little piece of that creative person goes into it. It’s personal. When one puts it out there for all to see and critique it, it’s an invitation for feedback, that if not constructive, can cause the creative to become less productive and extremely frustrated. So much so that they may come to a stopping point where they then cannot visualize and produce what it is you’re looking for.

To be clear, we, creatives, are delicate creatures who have to be treated with kid gloves and [unintelligible]. However, there’s a reason, a methodology, and a method—a proven method—to what we do. So the need for feedback that incorporates understanding and these aspects is always going to land well with a creative versus the, “I don’t like it, can you…” In short, you’ve just told us our baby is ugly. So how should it work? Ask instead of tell.

Most importantly, ask why. There’s a reason why we chose a font, a color palette, and an image to create messaging. We didn’t choose red because we just happen to like the color, it’s because we know it is used in marketing campaigns which need to evoke strong emotions. We didn’t just choose that font because we happen to like it, it’s because it’s easy to read. The customer that’s going to be looking at your collateral can move easily through a document. We didn’t just use that graphic because it was the first one that showed up in our istock search, it is a graphic that we feel is compelling, and will bring the customer into the project. There is a lot of reasons for why we choose the things that we do. But instead of saying or telling us that it doesn’t work for you, or you don’t like it, ask us why we did all that. Then, perhaps there’ll be a mutual understanding that all parties can work from.

Another thing to remember, understand that the technology we use has its own complexity. When you ask for change in a word or graphic on page one, for example, it can have a domino effect for an entire project. That’s not to say that you can’t request changes. That’s not to say that you can’t ask for things to be moved around or updated. But as a former process improvement expert, I learned very early on that the more you touch a project, the more likely the error ratio will go up. This doesn’t mean as you’re providing feedback, I must remind you that.

However, providing feedback in one email or one meeting will save a great deal of time and effort and frustration on everybody’s part. So think about what you want to say and make sure that it’s very clear and very concise. Ask for a agreement from your creative team, creative, or designer, etc. that they understand what it is that you are looking for. You don’t have to be able to replicate what may be in your brain. However, understand the job of the creative is often to make the complex look very easy, but looks are deceiving.

Endless tweaks that are rooted in personal preference instead of professional acumen will eat up the cycle time and make everybody frustrated and they will also make the projects late. If you provide feedback in a timely manner, and do so with an open set of ears and an open set of eyes, you’ll be much more successful. It may sound harsh, but the project is more often being created for the masses, your followers and customers, not you, the requester.

My most frustrating project with through 47 revisions. Trust me, I’ve been there. So keep that in mind. What we have put together for you is for the audience. You need to look at and you’ll find it’ll be much easier to work with a creative if you always look at that project in the eye of someone who is your customer. Listen to the subject matter experts. Don’t just hear them, listen to them. There’s a reason for everything that we creatives do. Social media marketing has a completely different set of rules than email marketing. If you don’t understand the way or the why, be inquisitive. One thing most marketers have in common is fear for work, so getting us to talk about it is not going to ever be an issue. But if you have assigned us as a subject matter expert, we take that to heart. Keep that in mind too that even if you may not agree, you might have to lean on, simply trust, and acknowledge the work.

I’ve worked on projects for weeks, laying out magazines, making sure the bleed is correct for the printer on a catalog or a newsletter. I’m specifically placing graphics to draw the reader through the publication, only to submit it and receive zero feedback. What’s worse than saying, “I don’t like it,” is not saying anything at all. We just gave you our baby and you laid it down in his crib and walked away. Creatives are a special breed. We don’t need a party thrown every time we finish a project, but acknowledgement of the work that went into it goes a long way and actually will increase productivity.

I know several creatives and I work with a lot of people who are in marketing, communications, and public relations. We all say the same thing that very simple,thank you, acknowledging the amount of work that went into the project will make us want to do 110% more for you on the next project. Silence will make us feel that the work was not appreciated, and will slow us down.

I mentioned trust a moment ago. Trust is incredibly important. As the project starts, trust as you see the different parts of it come to be alive. When the project is over with and it’s done and is presented and it is completed and it is submitted to you, trust in the process. Trust that your graphic designer, your director of creative, whomever is working on it will be able to, in the final product, give you what you have asked for. So trust is important. It’s important to establish that very early on in the relationship with your creative. You might even want to literally say when you’re sitting down to talk about a project, “Hey, I trust your instincts on this, I trust your abilities. Here’s what I’m looking for,” and then start filling in the blanks.

Also, keep in mind, the street is a two way one. When giving feedback, base it on observations, the audience, and the goal of the project. Like I said before, not on “I just don’t like it,” or even worse, no one wants to hear that XYZ company did it and why can’t we do it their way. Making it a safe space for the creator to share their process and the why behind their decisions. A good marketer has covered numerous details and embrace the minutiae of a project. It can be physically and mentally exhausting because creative energy is being used daily, hourly, and complex projects have 1000 moving pieces in the background that no one ever sees. We’re simply here in the front and juggling them. Our goal is usually to try to make it look easy, and it rarely is. So what you want is outlined and described in tangible ideas, the creative can take that and gallop with it.

We may be the unicorns in the room, but trust me, we’re not legendary creatures to be feared or the source of frustration. However, we are the optic that every business needs to cut through the noise and shine a kaleidoscope light on the brand. That’s what our main goal is. We want to make the brand, the company, the organization, or the people we work for look their absolute best. Achieve their sales goals, achieve their engagement rates, be successful.

The second rule of feedback is to ask yourself, what did you ask to be done with the project from the very beginning? Remember, what you think is the beginning may be very different from what we think it is. If you handed us a piece of printed collateral 12 months ago, and said, “Hey, I really like this. Could we do something similar?” We haven’t forgotten that. We’ve looked over that design. We’ve tried to see if it will fit for the particular brand that we’re working with. Unless you lay out exactly what you want, we’re going to be forced to guess and pull from content you’ve shared, comments you’ve made, while trying to balance all of that with design guidelines.

In the creative’s world, you don’t break. We do live by a certain set of rules that are just taboo and that you don’t break. You don’t use Comic Sans font in an ad. You don’t use all bold font in a newsletter, etc. So it’s important to know that we have these rules that we abide by. Our eyes twitch when we see things out of place. We are very much mired into the details. This is important to projects because if we’re not clear on what you want from the very get go and what you want to achieve, we’re going to work hard in a vacuum of uncertainty, it’s going to cause stress and frustration, and you will get a project that may not be in line with what you were envisioning.

We’re great at translating. I can tell my creative director, “I want something crunchy and edgy that pops,” and she’ll produce it on a dime. That is because we’ve been working together for several years and we speak the same language. But often the requester and the creator are on different continents, and no Rosetta Stone course is going to help. Please, also never, ever say, “I can’t tell you what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it.” It didn’t work for the Titanic, and it won’t work for the creative.

Last, and most importantly, when giving feedback, pause first, and ask one simple question: Can you walk me through this and tell me what your vision was or is? Trust me, this one question will save time and productivity and bridge the understanding gap. Random is not a part of our lexicon. We look at a project through a different lens that moves from wide open to microscopic in a millisecond. Most creators I know have an art background. So if it helps to picture us as Bob Ross and we’re trying to show you how to make happy trees, then you’ll see more trees.

Also, trust that we always have an end goal. It is woven into everything we do based on the organization’s priorities. Our work will never stop, whether it’s social media, marketing, website design. If the priority changes, let us know. I lost count the number of projects my team and I’ve worked on only to find out that someone changed their mind and forgot to tell us, We will scrap and start over but we’ll be frustrated, and that can be avoided entirely with open, two way communication that is consistent.

One final thought that I want to leave you with. Marketers and creatives, by nature, survive on the pat on the back and the job well done. As I mentioned earlier, we don’t need a [unintelligible] or a [unintelligible] band, but that acknowledgement of the volume of work that goes into every project goes a long way. We will increase our productivity ratio by at least 50%. It’s just how we’re wired. I know I mentioned it before but I want to close with that because it’s so important in your relationship with your creative. Bottom line, if we want to hit the target and you tell us we did or you tell us we did in a way that is actionable, we will work twice as hard to get it right. We may even go the extra mile and give you the project a sparkle dust unicorn element that you didn’t even know you needed, but you will appreciate.

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