The trouble with briefs

Briefs – those that aren’t of the underwear type – can be very difficult and awkward things when it comes to advertising or marketing.

It’s a very rare moment when a client writes a useful and complete brief. Yet this part of the promotional journey is THE MOST CRITICAL.

  • Seemingly intractable problems created between agencies and clients invariably come down to interpretation of the brief.
  • Expensive reworks and multiple versions invariably come down to interpretation of the brief.
  • Slow reaction time to market fluctuations invariably come down to interpretation of the brief.
  • Arguments about money invariably come down to interpretation of the brief.

Why is it so?

The writing of a brief requires the client to do something that they usually don’t really want to do, something they think is the agency’s job. That is, to answer the following important questions about the product being advertised:

  • What is your product benefit? (that the other products in the category don’t have)?
  • What are your target market’s needs?
  • What does your target market think regarding the product type?
  • What is your product positioning in the market?
  • What are your long-term goals?
  • What are your competitors’ activities?
  • What is your budget?

The brief should never be an execution of what the client would like to see as a possible result. See “What’s the problem, not the solution” below.

It is the client’s role to spend their energies on making the best product for a clearly defined market niche. The better they understand the answers to the questions above the better the product will be.

It is the marketer’s/advertising agency’s job to SELL the product to the target market using the most appropriate media and execution for achieving the strongest results.

This is because the agency has the unique perspective of being able to bridge the divide between client and customer.

Create the Brief together with your agency

To achieve maximum return on your investment you must work together with your agency to develop a brief that shows a strong understanding of your brand, your product/s and your potential market.

Use sound planning and together, develop a strategy that will tailor your communications so that they deliver a simple to understand product benefit in a way that demands to be read and ‘gels’ with your target group.

Brand equity needs to be built, while your marketing spend has to be strongly accountable.

Highly experienced advertising/marketing people use their experience and studied understanding of how people think and respond to your best advantage.

Results in any media

Your budget will dictate the media to use, and importantly, the idea has to be adaptable to the selected media. Experienced creatives understand the special requirements of particular media eg. You cannot put a brochure content holus-bolus on a billboard and expect it to get results!

The process is crucial

Given that the creative strategy is so important, it follows that there should be a rigid adherence by all parties to the process of developing it and its related brief. It’s easy to go off-course.

Communication: All parties form a relationship, coming together to discuss and analyse the situation
Respect: There must be mutual respect, with all parties understanding their roles
Education: All parties understand relevant information including company culture
Attention To Detail: Every detail including budget, is assessed and written into a brief which is signed off by all
Time: Good work needs a reasonable amount of time to develop. You cannot rush the process
Individuality: The creative solution (idea or concept) must be achieved through an individual’s vision
Verification: The idea is objectively and scientifically compared against the brief criteria
Execution: Lastly, once it is established that the idea answers the brief, work is commenced

Ultimately the quality of your work will be directly proportional to the quality of the partnership you have with your agency.

Changes made after execution

Advertisers who make multiple changes to their work invariably
end up in a situation where:

  • Costs skyrocket, and
  • the end result is nowhere near as good as it could have been

With a little communication and forward planning most of these changes would have been avoided.

An example:

What’s the problem, not the solution

I recently had a client send me an email with a request for an alteration to a job. Nothing unusual about that.

And there was nothing unusual about her request – she wanted me to change a background colour from pale blue to orange. “Change the blue to orange” was the straightforward directive. So I just made the change and sent it back, right? No way.

You see, making the change exactly as requested would have created a problem with the communication imperative in the job. It then makes us consider the question of ‘why?’

What is the change for? This means we have to call the client and ascertain the purpose of the alteration. In this case it was purely a subjective one – the client simply said “I don’t like the blue”. Given that blue is their corporate colour I thought this strange, but nevertheless we were able to accommodate her wishes by changing the colour from blue to taupe. This suited the application perfectly. She didn’t really have to have orange, she just thought it would be a good solution.

Trouble is, when a client gives you a specific directive – “Change the blue to orange” you have no choice but to obey. And ‘orange’ may be a disaster. If instead, they tell you their problem – “I don’t like the blue” then it’s up to you to find a solution that best suits, and you end up with a happier outcome.

So if you have a problem with something your agency has done, don’t dictate the solution, just tell them what the problem is and why. You’ll end up with an improved result and a stronger relationship. After all, this kind of client/agency dialogue is the basis for better understanding all round.

Conventional wisdom

It’s exceptionally hard to go against accepted wisdom. People don’t want to be different. They want advertising ‘in the fashion’ of the times, only better.

That’s why it’s hard to recognise a great advertising idea.
It doesn’t look right because it goes against accepted wisdom.

If the brief requires a particular story to be told then the best result will come from being as true to that story as possible.

If that means going against accepted practice then that’s great! You are really going to stand out in your category. Think about the most successful campaigns in history eg. Apple Computer’s “Think Different” or Nike’s “Just Do It” etc.

When the goalposts are moved

Some changes are inevitable and nobody is able to foresee every possible circumstance. The trick is to know how to change the game when the goalposts have been moved. This means re-consulting with all parties and altering the brief to take account of new information.

Understanding everyone’s role

Avoiding these changes requires an appreciation of everyone’s role in the process. Would you tell your electrician which cables to use – make him pull them out and replace them over and over?

Highly successful businesspeople realise that although they are the leaders of their companies, they don’t need to prove it at every level of the business. They simply set directions (their vision) and leave the getting there to those they entrust to do the job. Sure, those employees are made accountable, as they should be, but they are also rewarded and encouraged to feel as though they are in a partnership which respects their contribution.

Loss of incentive

When a service provider like an agency is made to do exactly as told, and are no longer respected as a partner in the client’s success, they very quickly lose incentive. Their employees stop bothering to think a task through or to invest their energy into it because they expect the client to change their work anyway. They lose productivity and a vicious cycle is begun.

Experience is crucial

Part of the problem lays in the fact that anybody can buy a computer and some desktop publishing programs and call themselves an advertising or marketing guru. The only true test of an agency is in its experience.

Experience in this business can only be measured by time in the field and the variety of products or services handled.

Like most things, it may seem from the outside that it is easy do this stuff, but it isn’t. There are many, many pitfalls!

Get the brief right before you go to execution!

Once you have agreed totally on the brief only then should you venture into the execution phase.

Then it is simply a matter of objectively assessing whether the creative expression matches the task set by the brief.