Nip it in the bud

All campaigns start with a brief, but responsibility to get it right doesn’t rest solely with the client. Agencies must involve themselves in the process too, says Ian Whiteling

Thank heavens for the blame culture. By passing the buck onto someone else, we can confidently say “that marketing disaster wasn’t our fault”. But no matter how much the client blames the agency and the agency censures the client, there is no hiding the fact that a failed sales promotion does absolutely nothing for either party.

There can be several reasons why a campaign doesn’t work, but often the failure can be traced back to the beginning of the relationship between client and agency – namely the brief.

“A superbly crafted brief is no guarantee that the activity will succeed,” says Steve Gumbrell, a consultant for the Institute of Sales Promotion (ISP) and managing partner at marketing agency Tequila/ Manchester.

“Competitors might run spoiling activity; something as simple and uncontrollable as the weather can thwart the best-laid plans. But certainly the quality of the recommendation is directly linked to the quality of the brief.”

If you ask marketing agencies specialising in sales promotion whether they think companies deliver effective briefs, the answers are far from positive.

“In general terms, the quality of marketing briefs is often poor, with too few organisations taking the appropriate amount of time to develop a good, comprehensive brief,” complains PMS Marketing Logistics managing director Ian Newby. “As a result, it can be difficult for agencies truly to understand the client’s needs and develop an appropriate strategy to meet the client’s objectives in full.”

Positive Thinking planning director Paul Godwin answers a straightforward “no” when asked whether he believes briefs are generally of a high quality, but he is keen to point out that this isn’t necessarily the fault of clients.

“In the work I do with the ISP, both on the sales promotion diploma and on the strategic thinking diploma, I try to get across the importance of briefing as a two-way process,” he explains.

“If there is something wrong with the brief, it is the responsibility of the agency to point that out and guide the client through the briefing process. Too often, agencies accept a poor brief and then try to interpret it. Having lost a pitch, agencies may moan about the quality of the brief (and they may well be right to do so), but the time to question it was just after the briefing.”

Don’t be afraid to ask

Catalyst Marketing London group accounts director Niki Hurst agrees, saying: “If an agency receives a brief that it thinks is incorrect, it is the agency’s responsibility to question and probe the client. Agencies shouldn’t be afraid to question a brief: after all, we’re working towards a common goal. It is in everyone’s interest to produce a successful promotion.”

With this in mind, Catalyst has developed an agency induction day for its clients, which Hurst claims is extremely popular and has improved understanding of the briefing process. “We run this as an interactive session at our offices, where we talk clients through the world of sales promotion,” she says.

“We include a question-and-answer session, and a guide to how to write a sales promotion brief. During the second half of the day, clients write a brief, go through this with a member of the creative team and then present it to the rest of the group at the end of the day.”

Although few sales promotion agencies offer such a comprehensive induction, many are happy to offer advice on producing a brief, as well as how to guide clients through the process. However, it’s unlikely that any agency will do this without some kind of prior commitment, so it’s far better for a company to produce a good brief in the first place.

Cause for inspiration

This not only saves time but, once a company is sure its brief is good, it is far easier to assess the response of potential agencies to it and so choose the right one. What’s more, a good brief is more likely to inspire an agency to produce the right kind of activity and if a company is adept at briefing, it is likely to have an immediate advantage over many of its competitors.

Producing an inspirational brief isn’t rocket science. It’s simply a case of planning; of thinking carefully about what is required from the promotional campaign; and of presenting it in a way that will produce the right response from an agency.

Geoff Howe Marketing and Communications managing director Ed Hughes complains that the briefs he receives often have too many objectives, unrealistic time-scales and insufficient budgets.

On objectives, he says: “Clients need to prioritise their aims. Why go for ten objectives, which are probably unachievable, when you can concentrate on three and achieve them all?”

Meanwhile, Godwin warns against couching objectives in terms of technique to the point where they become directional. “Briefs should set the parameters within which the agency can answer the objectives creatively,” he explains. He says that the problem with clients having a good understanding of sales promotion techniques is that it’s easy to fall in love with them, because they appear safe. This can lead to comments in briefs such as: “The on-pack competition worked quite well last year.” This may be so, but the market will have moved on since then.

Godwin also says that the “me-too” approach should be avoided. This manifests itself in comments such as: “Everyone is doing extra fill, so we should.” How is a company going to gain a true advantage over the competition if it uses the same marketing techniques?

Gumbrell says: “We’re more interested in seeing clients set their objectives in a way that makes it clear what advantage we should be driving home, or – let’s be frank – what disadvantage we have to overcome.”

With respect to time-scales, Hurst is keen to stress that it is vital to allow enough time for marketing activity to be developed and applied. “It is inevitable, in our industry, that briefs need to be turned around quickly and that everything is needed yesterday,” she says.

“There’s never enough time to get things done, but somehow there’s always time to put it right if it goes wrong. To get the best out of any agency, clients should be aware of timings and, wherever possible, should plan in advance.”

As for budgets, if the objectives of a campaign are realistic and clearly defined, it should be possible for a company to assess the projected benefits of a successful campaign, which should help to define the resultant monetary gain and, therefore, the initial budget. Of course, past experience of the costs of successful campaigns can also prove useful.

Brushing up on some history

Another key element in a good brief is background. To develop the brief into one that can truly prove inspirational to an agency, this should not simply be about the client company.

As Gumbrell puts it: “Tequila/ Manchester seeks to provide clients with a commercial advantage through the creative use of below-the-line communication strategies. As such, we’re more interested in comparative information rather than information relating solely to the individual brand, which typifies many briefs. Gaining commercial advantage requires outdoing competitors, and to do that we need to know as much about them as we do about our client’s brand.”

Hurst concurs, saying: “Key insights into target consumers, their behaviour, the changing nature of the market, competitors, positioning and so forth, can prove invaluable.”

As far as how to present the brief goes, a structured written format is preferred by most agencies. “Purely verbal briefs tend to focus on particular issues without filling in the background,” says Hughes.

However, although the brief may be written, it shouldn’t be written in stone. To get an agency to perform to the best of its ability, the relationship must be based on trust. It is important that a brief be flexible and take on board comments from the agency.

“We always ask for a face-to-face meeting,” says Hurst. “Briefs are subject to interpretation, and a meeting with the client provides the opportunity for it to be confident that the brief has been understood.

“From an agency’s perspective, the meeting is an opportunity to probe and question where appropriate. We tend to follow up briefing sessions a couple of days after we have received the initial brief. We often gain vital insights at these follow-up sessions that form a key part of our strategy.”

Forget the blame game

Even the best briefs must be flexible and invite input from the agency to build a culture of trust – essential to the effective development of any sales promotional activity – rather than of blame.

“All too often, the briefing stage creates a ‘them-and-us’ scenario, which is counter-productive,” says Interfocus director of innovation Kevin Jackson. “We are all on the same side. The aim is surely to create a working relationship whereby a ‘we don’t know who had the good ideas and we don’t care’ attitude can get the best results. We both want the same things: increased sales, award-winning creative work, delighted boards and buying consumers.”

But surely this is a rather Utopian vision? “No,” insists Jackson, “it is the reality of the great client-agency relationship, which begins at the briefing stage.”

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