As the first step in getting a marketing plan off the ground, briefs continue to be perhaps the most abused or misunderstood part of rolling out a strategy for a brand.
While at the heart, marketing briefs are meant to be a succinct statement of intent, they have instead become anything but, according to the founders of BetterBriefs, Pieter-Paul von Weiler and Matt Davies. They contend that most briefs are "riddled with jargon and most agencies—external and/or internal—don’t speak up when they get a poor brief. Instead of clarifying the brief, they accept it and start work."
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As a result of bad briefs, both the agencies and marketers are struggling on a slippery slope. "This starts a negative chain reaction that costs the marketing industry billions in wasted budget and talent," says von Weiler. Fundamentally, a brief should be a summary of all the strategic thinking a brand has been doing, but instead it tends to be messy document lacking direction.
Part of the challenge is that briefs offer vague statements of intent: Examples include "We want to increase sales”, “We want something for the brand on TikTok”, “We want an idea that engages 18- to 54-year-olds", or worse, “We want to challenge the market leader".
According to von Weiler, these statements don't hit the mark because "they're ambitions, not briefs". According to him, a brief is a "plan of attack" and should ideally include linked objectives (commercial, behavioural and attitudinal), a target audience description and "the single most important message you want to communicate".
Marketers and agencies have some way to go before briefs are refined. "Our research shows that six out of 10 marketers use the creative process to clarify what their strategy is," says von Weiler. "We believe this is not good enough. The marketing strategy should shape the brief and provide a blueprint for agencies to work from."
Consider stinging feedback from BetterBriefs' research partner Vaughan Flood from Flood and Partners. "The chasm between the two parties is huge," he discloses. "We’re not talking about small differences here. Marketers and agencies are on different planets. It means the impact on the work and also people’s wellbeing is being compromised."
As marketing has become increasingly digital-driven, poor briefs have proliferated. "Yes, it has gotten worse," says von Weiler. "Marketing has never had more ways to connect with people, yet at the same time, marketing has never been more confused." The BetterBriefs founders are also seeing briefs change more often after they have been briefed-in, according to a comparison with data stretching back 18 years from the IPA.
"You could see this as being more agile and nimble," contends von Weiler. "Or you could see this as a worrying trend, that there is less certainty from the marketing side on what they actually want to achieve in a world where people care less and less about brands and advertising."
According to research from the likes of Orlando Wood (Lemon, Look Out) and Field and Binet, brands are too focused on communicating rational messages and driving short-term sales effects. "Distracted by last-click attribution, marketers don’t invest enough time in setting the attitudinal and behavioural objectives needed to deliver the desired effect, their research argues.
How can marketers and agencies find their way out of this morass? For starters, briefs need to be written more concisely and time needs to be taken in the actual briefing process, to involve both brand and agency in building out this document. "[In the past] more time was invested getting agencies excited and passionate about the product or service featured in the brief," explains von Weiler. "There was respect for the skill set of both sides because it was thought that almost every brief had the power to change the course of a brand. The brief was more of a scrum. Now it has become more of a relay race."
At the end of the day, says von Weiler, relationships that work are the ones where marketers and agencies invest time in each other. "They understand how the other party likes to be briefed," he says. "They discuss what’s working well and what isn’t. Because if the brief is poor, our data shows that up to a third of the entire marketing budget could be wasted."
Then, everyone in a marketing team should understand what constitutes a solid brief and this process shouldn't be assigned to one leader and or specialist, something that is lacking, according to BetterBriefs' research. "Our data shows that more than half of all marketers globally have never been trained in brief writing."