'Brief' is one of the biggest misnomers in the communications arena.
Contrary to its name, you should never, ever write a brief quickly or without considerable thought.
Never ‘toss one out’ at the end of a busy day. And shoot yourself if you ever entertain the thought of giving a verbal brief to your agency. If you can’t take the time to write a proper brief, no self-respecting agency should waste their time responding to it.
Because it is the single most important determinant of good marketing communications, every agency has developed their own template for the perfect brief. At EffectiveBrands, we call it a connections brief (see below), since it’s the vehicle used to connect a big idea through a myriad of executions to consumers at multiple touchpoints.
Your agency may have its own template for a brief, and that’s fine—as long as it helps it deliver a distinctive creative idea, consistent with the brand positioning, that holds your marketing activities together in an interesting and cohesive way.
A good brief is like a well-defined blueprint for something you want to build—in this case, a distinctive, effective marketing campaign. It’s going to be a journey, so you want to get it right. A few pointers are probably worth repeating:
- Keep it simple: You want to inspire, not inundate. No agency ever got bored into doing great work.
- Make choices: Strategy is as much about choosing what not to do, as what to do. So don’t try to be all things to all people. And understand the specific role of marketing and communications in the sales process.
- Beware the mandatories: Be thorough about this—it’s going to be tough to accommodate three families if you build a two-bedroom house. But at the same time, be reasonable. If you insist on half a dozen mandatories, you’ll end up with a dog’s breakfast.
- Hold yourself in check: This applies especially to ex-agency folks who’ve climbed the fence and now ‘wield the whip’ as a client. Some of them can’t help but tell their agency how to do their job. To which I’d say, why get a dog, then bark yourself?
There are many ways you can make the prime prospect come alive for your agency—like conducting the briefing in a ‘war room’ purposefully decorated with photo collages, consumer diaries, video reels, complaint columns and the like. Or, you could paint a vivid picture of the desired end-state: a video clip of an imagined future scenario where your product (or service) is ubiquitous; or a talk by an expert on trends that can potentially ignite product adoption if leveraged appropriately.
A word about briefing too many agencies: There is no defensible reason on this earth for briefing more than three agencies to respond with creative solutions on the same task. Clients delude themselves when they attach status to how many agencies they can attract to participate in such a process. The really good agencies will recognise their worth, do the math, and decline the invitation to sink their resources into a pitch they have only a slim chance of winning. Ask a long list for credentials, by all means. But if you really must see creative recommendations before selecting your agency, invite two, or at most three, agencies to go the whole hog. Anything more, and your reputation in town is mud.
Finally, how do you evaluate or judge creative work? This is probably the most under-considered aspect of the ideation journey, but clients ‘wing’ this at their peril. Think about it—the best brief, and the best work, won’t see the light of day if it is not approved. That’s why they say, the best work isn’t sold, it’s bought.
How can clients ensure they buy good work? At EffectiveBrands, we encourage the application of some simple principles; we call it the ABCDE of evaluating big ideas:
- Attention: Does it break through the clutter and catch your attention better than the competition?
- Branding: Is the idea distinctive for your brand? Does the drama focus on the benefit?
- Consumer: Does it resonate with the target audience? Is it mind- or heart-opening?
- Deliver: Does it deliver on the marketing and communication objectives?
- Endure: Is it channel-fertile and campaignable across multiple touchpoints?
Take Evian bottled water, for instance. Evian’s brand essence is to 'Live Young'. What does water have to do with it? By focusing on product efficacy (“Evian rejuvenates and gives youthful vitality from within”), the brand guardians of Evian unearthed an inspired idea statement or platform (“Bring Out the Baby in You”) that resulted in a campaign with emotion and resonance, and which—importantly—stood out from everything the competition was doing.
Absolut Vodka, for its part, is a triumph of agency ingenuity and client trust. The client took the courageous step of approving an idea based on elevating the packaging above the product—essentially making the bottle the hero of the campaign. Twenty-five years and 1,400 executions later, the client is laughing all the way to the bank.
But because human beings are a conservative lot by nature, it’s hard for clients to accept something they’ve never seen done before. They have no frame of reference; they’re really out on a limb. I’ve found it useful to remember the following additional pointers:
- Look for what is strong—before you point out what is wrong: It’s easy to criticize other people’s work. Be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
- Distinguish between the strategic idea and the executional idea: Don’t kill a great strategic idea if its executional mode is wrong. Many a great idea has been saved by changing an aspect of its execution.
- Never judge the work with the brief in hand: The consumer doesn’t have that luxury. If you do, checking off boxes in the brief, point by stultifying point, the work will end up as straight as a yardstick... and every bit as boring.
- It’s okay to be nervous: In fact, that’s often an indicator that you're looking at a great idea. Approving a ‘safe’ idea is like peeing in a wetsuit: You’ll get a nice, warm feeling... but nobody else will notice.
There’s an old adage that goes: Clients get the advertising they deserve. In business today, it’s often not advertising per se that’s needed—but the principle remains the same. Whatever expression or format your marketing efforts finally take, they will only be as good as whatever thought and effort you put into briefing your agency, and evaluating their work. Do your bit well, and you’ll enjoy your just desserts.