Jeff Estok
Aug 20, 2013

What Don Draper can teach us about briefing

Imagine how the Mad Men character, whose greatest talent is getting into the minds of his clients, would approach the briefing process.

What Don Draper can teach us about briefing

Personal failings aside, Mad Men's Don Draper is a master psychologist. His success is based on understanding what makes people tick and then connecting with them emotionally through the art (not science) of advertising. Don surrounds himself with a talented team, and challenges them, while also engaging them to challenge him. All in the spirit of achieving greatness.

But perhaps his greatest talent is getting into the minds of his clients, face-to-face (often in a more relaxed setting involving alcohol) to understand their business needs.

One could argue that those were simpler times. And indeed they would be right. But maybe a return to simplicity is what we need.

Starting with the briefing process.

Note I said "process". Because that is arguably where the biggest efficiency and effectiveness gains lie in briefing.

What would be the foundations of the ‘Don Draper Briefing Process’?

Briefstorming trumps briefing

Just as Don surrounds himself with brilliant minds, so too should you, before you write a brief. In his book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki argues that the many are smarter than the few; that groups are often smarter than the smartest people in them; and that some of the most powerful thinking is the product of disagreement and contest.

Not only is the output from client/agency briefstorming superior, but it is a more efficient way of getting to the end brief. We helped one client save 25 internal hours per brief by streamlining their cumbersome linear process of writing the brief; gaining internal stakeholder signoff; briefing the agency; and then receiving a reverse agency brief.

Start with the business problem

There is rarely an episode where Draper isn’t seen schmoozing a client, which typically is the CEO. That’s because he is trying to understand, and then solve, the real problem. Make sure that before you assemble your client/agency briefstorming team, you are able to articulate the business problem. The answer may not even lie in an advertising solution.

Focus on the insight

It’s amazing how few marketers, and agencies, actually grasp what insight means. Don Draper knows it instinctively, but for the rest, let’s use the definition: an understanding of the motivational forces behind one's actions, thoughts, or behaviour.

Now, look back at your last few briefs. How many of them contained true insights? And if you want to stress-test your insights, write them as newspaper headlines. Do these compel you to act? Your brief lives or dies on the strength of the insight. Period.

Brief briefs

How do you think Don would react to receiving a 16-page brief, which is slowly becoming the norm in many client organisations? In Don’s day, briefs were just that. Brief. They were one page long, occasionally stretching to two. Somehow, over the years, ‘more’ became equated with ‘better’.

But long briefs are typically unfocussed, cluttered, and lack single-mindedness. To quote Mark Twain: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Reinvest the time you save from briefstorming into making the brief brief.

Measure your briefs

Jeff Estok is managing partner of Navigare.

While a lot of time and effort goes into researching, analysing, and measuring the creative product; very few companies put that kind of focus on the brief. Yet the brief is the enabler. We’ve worked with many of our clients to introduce a Brief Rating Scale, and while Don’s descriptors would probably vary from ours, and would likely be unfit to print, this simple practice is yielding positive results. 

More insightful briefs. More impactful work. Lower rework rates. Everyone wins.

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