The horror of marketers’ strategic bankruptcy is about to be laid bare

As the Better Briefs Project will reveal this week, 90% of marketers fail to brief agencies effectively, and their failures begin with a total lack of strategy.

It was the end of a long, hot meeting in Hong Kong. I’d spent it with my client briefing a big agency on an exciting new launch campaign we were planning for the following year. The discussion had turned to chit chat and everyone around the table appeared satisfied. It was Beer O’Clock. Briefcases snapped shut, computers powered down and people stood up.

“That,” said the senior agency director, “was a great brief. Thank you.” He shook my client’s hand vigorously and then walked around the table and shook mine too. “Great,” he said again. “Just great.”

We stood in the descending elevator waiting the requisite five seconds before it felt safe to speak. “Do you reckon he was just saying that?” my client finally asked as we watched the floors ticking down. “Nah,” I said to him. “He wouldn’t have told us if our brief was shit. But I reckon he was genuinely impressed.” My client contemplated this for another 10 floors and let out a contemplative “Hmm.”

“Well,” he said as the doors pinged open, “I still don’t know if we really nailed it.”

That meeting was 15 years ago. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a very important campaign for both me and my client. A global launch of a major product that, my client explained while he was hiring me, his company “could not afford to fuck up”. And we didn’t. The product – partly thanks to an outstanding effort from the agency back up on the 40th floor – went on to become a blockbuster.

But what sticks in my mind more than the campaign or the subsequent success was that original meeting, and the genuine gratitude and respect our brief garnered from the agency. We had been so worried earlier that day at our hotel that the strategy was not good enough or clear enough. It was only much later, after I saw the ‘strategies’ of other big brands and talked with agency people about the sorry state of client briefs, that I began to understand just how good our brief had been, and just how bad things generally were.

And, oh, how much worse they have become since then.

Specifically, I am talking about two massive problems that bedevil marketing. The first problem is marketing strategy. The second problem is briefing. They are linked: like high cholesterol and heart disease. That is, they may be separate but one often helps cause the other and – taken together – they ultimately result in enormous damage. Let’s cover each, one section at a time.

Marketing strategy

My best estimate is that about 90% of marketers never develop a marketing strategy. Never enjoy a single strategic moment in their whole career. Never get that joined-up, red-line, taught sensation that everything is in place. Even though all of them should have a basic strategy underpinning their work, not only do most marketers have nothing, they have no idea that anything is missing.

They spend their days fighting tactical fires. Lost in the thick, leafy forest of brand purpose. Trapped between the nonsensical tactification of Gary Vaynerchuk and Neil Patel. Tied up in intellectual knots by the complicated, abstract musings of ‘strategists’ on social media.

While we spent the last decade variously engaged in worthy, peripheral tasks that that had relatively little to do with marketing, the fundamental basics of our trade have been in rabid decline.

Most marketers end up managing brands and campaigns almost entirely devoid of any strategic thinking. Sure, they have SWOT – the most inane and pointless invention in management history. And Maslow’s hierarchy – a concept so nonsensical even Maslow did not believe in it. And there is PEST, Boston Matrix and vague references to early adopters all tucked away among all the dusty 20th century excreta that passes for strategy in a bad marketing plan.

But these concepts aren’t indicative of the presence of strategy, they are the harbingers of its absence. They ensure that a shit marketing plan has 20 slides and 60 minutes of something, anything. But when you boil away all that filler and chaff, nothing of significance or strategy remains.

And don’t go thinking that this is a mistake just made by junior marketers at smaller companies. Many of the mightiest CMOs at the biggest brands are just as guilty. They might be masters of internal alignment and external optics, but many have no strategic clue. We are a discipline increasingly dominated by brands and thought leaders that hide the lack of a strategic skeleton beneath a flashy cloak of political grandstanding, tactical largesse and aphorisms about the future.

And that’s a shame because marketing strategy is not just essential, its also very simple. So simple you can explain it in a paragraph.

First, put down all the tactics, especially all the communications stuff. That all comes later. Second, do a decent bit of diagnosis to work out what is going on. Nothing fancy. But get some data from the market and get a basic segmentation in place. Then answer three questions to build a marketing strategy. Work out who you want to target with your marketing. Then decide on how you want to position your offer to the target(s). Finally, decide on the most important objectives that need to be achieved to be successful in the period ahead.

There you go. A strategy. You are in the 10%!

Obviously, there are pitfalls to be found across all three of these apparently easy questions. Simple answers often require very complex thinking. But your marketing training (assuming you are in the half of the discipline that thinks training actually makes sense) should have laid these out in such a way that you can confidently approach each question and eventually come up with some organising answers.

With those answers you reach the end of strategy, at least for the coming year, and face the practical challenge of executing this new strategy through the various marketing tactics at your disposal. And because many of these tactics are managed not by you, but by external or internal others, the need to be able to brief the strategy into the teams assigned to tactical execution becomes paramount. The second big marketing shit show begins.

Marketing’s Midlife Crisis: A screenplay by Mark Ritson

Briefing

Because there is always a synapse between strategy and tactics, even within internal marketing teams, briefing is right up there as one of the most important skills that any marketer can have. Over the years I’ve probably had a hundred conversations with advertising people where, thanks to the injection of a truth drug known as ‘booze, lots of booze’, I have been regaled with the state of client strategy and briefing. And it is terrifyingly bad. So bad, the advertising people genuinely look to me to explain why the big client they work for has no apparent strategy and is clearly unable to brief them even if their lives depended on it.

They appear genuinely stumped at the prospect of not just executing a strategy that appears so ill-formed it is hardly identifiable, but of swimming upstream to create the semblance of a strategy for the client so that they can then get back to their own job. Like house painters who turn up to a client’s place only to discover they have to quickly build a shoddy, rushed house so they can get on with painting it. It’s a scandal. And I don’t know anyone in advertising that does not know about this.

Up until now, however, those experiences, no matter how frequent or damning, were always anecdotal. And the terrible state of marketing strategy and briefing was largely invisible to marketers because, although it was a common bone of contention among agencies after dark, it was buried during daytime hours. No sane agency is ever going to tell a paying client that its strategy and subsequent briefing are total bollocks. But this week a new report from the Better Briefs Project will finally lay bare the true horror of modern marketers and their inability to do even the most basic tasks associated with marketing strategy and briefing.

The project is led by two experienced, awarded planners who have lived this nightmare for so long they’ve now decided to do something about it. Matt Davies and Pieter-Paul von Weiler have finally decided to show the rest of marketing just how bad things are and begin the long journey to fixing things.

Over the past six months they surveyed hundreds of those who create the briefs (marketers) and those that receive them (advertising people) to examine just what was going on. The full results will be presented this Friday at a special, free EffWorks session in London for the IPA that I encourage you to attend.

I’ve seen the data and it confirms everything that I and many experienced marketers have known for a long time: the absence of proper marketing strategy and the ability to brief agencies are at all-time lows. It’s customary at this point, faced with data on a key issue, for many marketers to start with their usual tiresome methodological critiques. Did the survey only look at good campaigns? Is there a bias here of unhappy agency people? Is this causality or more likely correlation? Doesn’t a company trying to fix the issue of bad briefing have a vested interest in showing bad briefs? On and on it goes. Armchair anti-empiricism disguised as rigour.

Forget all these caveats. What the bar chart above shows is an astonishing discrepancy between an industry of deluded marketers and the unfortunates on the other side of the net who have to take this empty BS and somehow make sense of it. In one room there are 40 marketers and all but nine of them think they write clear, strategic briefs. Winning.

In the next room are their agency partners. All 40 of them, with the exception of two delighted women, are shaking their heads and making farting sounds. The data shines an empirical flashlight on a core issue for marketers. While we spent the last decade variously engaged in worthy, peripheral tasks that that had relatively little to do with marketing, the fundamental basics of our trade have been in rabid decline.

And it’s easy to see why. Dunning-Kruger is in full effect across our industry. Marketers are so bad at briefing they have no idea they are bad at it. In fact, it’s even worse than that. The Better Briefs data shows that, in that room of 40 marketers, in which 31 are strategically hopeless, 32 of them think they are rockstars when it comes to briefs.

A recent YouGov study found 31% of men could not identify a clitoris from a giant diagram despite it, literally, staring them in the face. These men are, almost certainly, the same ones that self-identify as being superior at lovemaking in other annual studies. Such is the gift of total ignorance when it comes to self-assessments of performance: morons will always perceive themselves to be superior because they are morons.

And the same goes for marketers who brief agencies. The ones who think they are good at it, the ones who walk away from the agency boardroom with a broad smile of satisfaction and the feeling that they ‘nailed it’, are invariably the same ones that are shithouse at it. And will stay shithouse as a result.

So how do you become part of the 5% who do provide clear strategic direction to agency partners? How can you ensure that you are the one marketer in 10 that delivers a good brief? Davies and von Weiler will deliver their own insights on Friday. In advance, here are my seven observations from my own experiences.

Planning for marketing planning: 14 steps to an effective presentation

1. First, have a strategy

You can be the Beethoven of briefing, but none of it will matter unless you actually have a marketing strategy to brief in. Part of the problem is covered below in items 2 and 3, but long before we get to the agency stage, challenge yourself and your team on the three key strategic questions of marketing and whether you have clear answers in place to each one.

Do you agree on who you want to target? That’s a more complex question than it used to be.

Next, what is your position? Again, there are many names for positioning these days. Half the battle is just being clear on the concept you want to use before you opt for the positioning decision itself. But do you know what you want your target to think before you start talking to your agency? They aren’t supposed to tell you this. You are meant to already know the ‘what’ so that they can then advise on the ‘how’.

And what are your objectives? If there is one area of total weakness in most plans it is the almost total absence of clear, SMART objectives. They teach this stuff at undergraduate level. Sort it out. Then ask yourself if your team can explain these decisions in a manner free from bullshit and complexity. In a way that a precocious 10-year-old or relatively intelligent beagle would be able to grasp. Complexity is what you dealt with, not what you deliver. It took brains, training, complexity and intelligence to work out your strategy. So much so that your strategy now appears to be that incredibly rare and difficult thing: simplicity itself. Don’t worry, it’s not. You made it look that way.

2. Stay in your lane

Part of the problem is that most marketers mix up strategy (the plan) with tactics (the manner in which you will execute the plan). They aren’t able to brief because they have already jumped the fences and are running wild in the tactical pastures beyond.

Even worse, many marketers have convinced themselves that they are fundamentally creative and good at coming up with tactical ideas and campaigns. That’s not true. Compared to proper creative teams (the ones you hired to be creative) you are useless. Sure, you are more creative than the team that work in distribution or the robot that runs accounting. That’s not the point. Your job is diagnosis, then strategy, and then briefing into specialist, talented tactical people that put the executional meat on your strategic bones.

Do your job, then stop and allow the brief to inspire and direct the talent you have at your disposal. If you pick up a pen and start suggesting ideas to a creative team, you have not just gone awry, you’re an idiot. Put. The. Pen. Down.

I spent a quarter-century watching business schools teaching MBA students to be “more creative”. Why? It’s like those videos of Californians who teach their dogs to surf: possible but entirely pointless. See point 5 below and spend your training budgets on something more worthwhile.

3. Finish strategy first

In the vast majority of cases, the marketing team who meet with an agency are simply not ready to brief them. Either they underestimated how long it would take to build a coherent strategy or, more likely, have so many chefs joining the kitchen all the time, nobody has had time to cook anything yet. But these companies still turn up, not so much with a plan but a gaggle of initial ideas, tensions and disagreements.

That means three fatal things. First, the strategy is flawed because it is not coherent. Second, the team delivering the brief are all briefing different things, occasionally correcting each other mid-sentence. Third, the marketing team will be revising their thinking long after the brief has been delivered and the creative train has left the station. Diagnosis begets strategy. Strategy begets brief.

4. Who the fuck is in charge?

We live in a post-Sinek era of leadership in which soft, cuddly things have replaced proper decision-making at the top of the totem pole of management. This vacuity shows when it comes to briefing, because the modern marketing department is a mass of different, equally worthy perspectives with an abject lack of authority to shape and cut them into a coherent form.

Agencies don’t disagree with a brief anymore, or the marketer delivering it – they don’t know what the brief is or who is responsible for it. Strategy needs choice, sacrifice and leadership. Leadership does not mean emotion or empathy, it means making the call and shutting the other calls down. That may hurt some feelings and bruise some egos. Suck it the fuck up, its time to make a decision and then communicate it via the brief.

5. Get trained

Briefing is not a mystical, God-given talent that some marketers possess and some do not. It is something that can be taught, learned and then improved upon with practice and contemplation. When I joined one of the great creative companies, LVMH, we made briefing a big part of the course I taught in luxury branding. Learning to appreciate, select, support, brief and then re-brief creative people is a skill that must be learned. Sure, some people are better at it than others. But everyone can improve and become good.

The best external programs are taught by the IPA in London. Go learn from ancient advertising people who have eaten so much shit from bad briefs they are now brimming with lessons on how to fix the issue at source. The knowledge and wisdom you need to exit the moronic 90% and join the enlightened 10% is available, for about £500. Go! Be the change that our industry needs. And recognise the power of training to – clutches pearls – make marketers better at marketing.

6. A brief is more than paper

One of the things we were taught at LVMH – because our creative teams had it at the very top of their list – was that there was more to briefing than the brief itself. This contrasts with an advertising industry that still reifies the briefing document at the expense of a more extended and involved interaction.

One of my old bosses in luxury used to refer to the regular briefing that occurred between him and his creative director as “la danse”. It was a co-ordinated series of interactions, not just a cold, didactic delivery of a report. Good advice for those marketers that read the Better Briefs report and simply refocus on how to write a better document. It’s bigger than that. Most creative people need more, need less and need different from what the typical Word and PowerPoint documents can supply. Don’t build a better brief, think outside it.

7. Build a relationship with your agency

As obvious as it sounds, a longer-term trusted partnership with your agency partners might -just – engender the kind of interactions where your briefing will receive collegial critique. It’s rare, given the precarious power relationships between client and agency these days, but the truly successful partnerships in our industry are famed for honesty and feedback.

Rare is the supplier who will sit you down and explain why you are doing it wrong. But those are the people to keep close. Aim to build not only an improved ability to brief your agency, but also the kind of relationship with them that encourages a creative team to come back with questions, challenges and feedback.

In a good marketing career you might deliver 100 briefs. You can choose to drop each one like a brick in the night. Or to see each one as the start of an engagement with creative people, who can teach and improve you each and every time.

Mark Ritson is PPA Columnist of the Year. He teaches strategy, tactics and many other things on the wildly successful Mini MBA in Marketing. You can register for Friday’s Better Briefs session here.

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