Brief by name but not by nature

To avoid relationships going wrong from the very start, clients must find the balance between a rigid agency brief that stifles creativity and one that fails to clearly define the objectives. By Daney Parker

They may be briefs by name, but presenting a brief that is short on vital information could be a recipe for disaster. The brief should be the point where great creative work is inspired but, unfortunately, it is too often the point at which a campaign starts to go wrong. Judging by complaints from agencies, too many clients present incomplete and unclear briefs, with their justification being that following rigid guidelines will somehow stifle the creative process. But such a vital ingredient of a marketing campaign should not be left to chance.

As Scott Knox, marketing director of Marketing Communication Consultants Association (MCCA), puts it: “The brief is the most important piece of information issued by a client to an agency. It’s from this that everything else flows, so it’s vital that every effort be taken to prepare the best possible documentation of what is required. Creative thinkers need the tightest parameters to produce the most inventive response.”

Begin with the brief 

When a relationship starts going wrong between a client and an agency it is always worth investigating if the cause has been poor briefing because, theoretically, this is an area that should be straightforward to improve.

Richard Ellis, communications manager at the public relations body PRCA, believes that it is vital that both parties understand the same thing from the brief and that clients invest enough time making sure it is well written and that the key decision makers buy into it. It is then up to the agency to tell the client if they feel the brief is unclear or unrealistic. He adds: “Setting clear objectives will be a key part of the brief, but it should also include a requirement for evaluation to ensure that both parties understand how success will be measured.”

For marketers searching for comprehensive pitching guidelines, these are readily available from the Communication Agencies Federation (made up of trade bodies IPA, MCCA, PRCA, DMA and ISBA). However, a recent survey by business consultancy Reardon Smith Whittaker (RSW) of 154 marketers across a wide range of industries showed that three-quarters failed to follow such guidelines.

Clients may argue that they have their own systems in place and train their people in the art of briefing, so do not need to follow the advice of an outside body that does not really know their business. However, Adam Whittaker, chief executive of RSW, argues that the problem with clients producing their own rules is that it gives an unfair advantage to the agencies who have worked with them before, and so know how to present work that is likely to fulfil the clients’ particular briefs. He adds: “If published guidelines were adhered to then clients would be less likely to go with the same old names; it would produce a level playing field which would be to everyone’s advantage – with the possible exception of the large agencies who have most to lose.”

For those large clients that are new to running big-budget marketing campaigns, and who do not have their own guidelines, Whittaker suggests that using the published industry guidelines would allow them to run a pitch without getting outside help from introductory agencies that will ask their own favourite agencies to pitch “thereby including more fresh faces that the introductory agencies wouldn’t necessarily introduce them too”.

Experience, not training 

It is no surprise that agency bodies are in favour of clients following their guidelines and coming to them for training, but many clients and agencies feel differently. Chris Freeland (left), client services at integrated agency Tullo Marshall Warren, believes that the skills of writing a good brief are not ones you can simply be trained in. “Those clients that create good briefs are the ones who have a strong brand culture and a focus on collaboratively (rather than dictatorially) getting the best out of their agencies. They are also the companies that have a good dose of common sense and who are thorough and process driven in what they do.”

Freeland does acknowledge that clients sometimes need to think harder about their briefs, as too often key information is left out. “The trouble is, people tend to forget what they know as a result of the knowledge they’ve accumulated while working for their company, and consequently assume that other people are likely to know the same as they do.” He adds that it is important for clients to flag up what’s really important within the brief and provide as much research and customer insight as possible. It may seem a good tactic to test agencies by seeing how much they can find out about the client, but in fact the more information agencies have to work with, the better the results are likely to be.

Finding the right solution 

At least one client agrees with this. Marc Lawn (left), head of marketing service at Britvic, thinks it is a big mistake to leave a brief open to interpretation, as this will stop the right solution being found. However, he also argues the case for sometimes being brave enough to give agencies a looser rein. “It’s important for brands to remember that they outsource for a specific reason – that they don’t have the skills internally. In this sense, briefs should allow a level of flexibility for an agency to show its expertise.”

Whether there really is a need for training is debatable. As Lawn says: “Learning how to present or reply to a brief is not really something that can be learned on a training course, rather it is something that is developed through experience. It’s less about training and more about coaching.”

The problem with leaving clients and agencies to learn about briefing on the job is that, according to RSW’s Whittaker, anecdotal evidence suggests that briefs are getting worse, which could help to explain why the average length of agency/client relationships is getting shorter (according to RSW’s quantitative research).

Whittaker says that this indicates that not only briefs, but pitches are to blame. “Shortening tenures would indicate that maybe the wrong choice was made in the first place.” But he adds that this might not so much be a fault with poor briefing, as much as choosing the wrong agencies to pitch in the first place.

Too many cooks don’t spoil the brief

When Wunderman won the Orange direct marketing pitch last year, there was a business imperative for us to work closely not only with Orange but also with the other agencies, namely Fallon, Initiative, i-Level, Poke and KLP, to drive seamless communication integration across the business. Orange therefore decided to brief all the agencies together and ensure there was a good spirit of togetherness, but in a rather unusual way.

Learning to cook has never been trendier, so rather than the obvious training session, we found ourselves in a gastronomic workshop designed to bond a team of highly spirited creative people. As briefings go, this was a novel way of getting competitive agencies to work and play together. People were divided into teams, each of which had a good mix of agencies, disciplines and clients.

A chef supervised each team to keep things moving – we’ve all seen Hell’s Kitchen – and the culmination was a sublime late dinner, a good few glasses of wine, and lots of banter about who cooked the best course.
In the festival of chopping, blending, slicing, joking and tasting we bonded 100 times faster than we
would have done by attending any in-house training session.

The overall Orange team thinks “communications” not “media disciplines” and this helped kick-start what is a great and collaborative Orange and inter-agency relationship.

Richard Nunn (above), client group managing director, Wunderman

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