question of the week

What do clients get wrong in the briefing process, and how can it be made better?

Recent IPA research shows a worrying disconnect between marketers and agencies in the briefing process

By ian darby

Advertising campaigns don't appear out of the ether. Their success is reliant on a whole system and support infrastructure to deliver the final product.

At the start is the client brief to the agency, and the vital importance of this initial stage is the focus of new IPA research and the launch of a best practice guide, 'The Best Way for a Client to Brief an Agency'.

The IPA data contains some eye-opening findings. UK marketers estimate that 26 per cent of their marketing budget is wasted on poor briefs and misdirected work, and just 6 per cent of UK agencies are clear on the strategic direction in the briefs they receive from their clients.

Moreover, it's clear that agencies are unhappy with the general quality of the briefs they are receiving from clients, which has the potential to damage the impact of many of the campaigns that they are creating. Three in four (73 per cent) UK agencies believe the briefs they receive from clients aren’t good enough, right down to clarity on basics such as audience. Just 38 per cent of UK creative agencies are clear on the target group in client briefs they receive.

The IPA's new guide is designed to help clients write the best possible briefs for their agencies. But where are advertisers currently going wrong when briefing agencies, and how do they make their briefs better?

Anna Vogt, chief strategy officer, VMLY&R London

The question most often missing from client briefs (and, to be totally honest, from agency’s creative briefs) is a very pure, very simple understanding and definition of the problem that needs to be solved.

Often reframing the problem as the more positively styled ‘opportunity’ or even starting to present it as the solution - whilst fuelled with good intentions and optimism - doesn’t help agencies drill down into what it is that’s actually wrong. And, therefore, how we can make it right.

Not being shy to say what’s buggered, what’s broken, what’s keeping them up at night holds agencies back from directing the right research, resource and insight into defining the white space for growth. Both commercially and creatively.

Albert Einstein was once said “If I only had 1 hour to save the world I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only 5 minutes finding the solution.”

A better, tighter, and absolutely ruthless definition of the problem in the brief will inevitably lead to better strategy, better creative and better results. In half the time. And who knows! It could even save the world.

Michael Lee, chief strategy officer, VCCP

The biggest challenges are getting the balance of information right and also being ruthlessly focused. I'm always surprised at how many clients don't realise that providing commercial context is really essential and useful. What's the business problem we're trying to solve here, what is the commercial ambition or objective, how does the business see the role of comms working to fix that problem or take advantage of that opportunity?

If we often don’t get enough business context, then the inverse can be said about messaging. Nothing makes the heart sink faster than being asked to shoehorn six different proof points into an advertising idea that’s going to be predominantly 20-second radio and six and 10-second social ads (probably with no sound). That’s more likely to be an announcement rather than an idea. The best client briefs are ruthlessly single-minded. They recognise the benefit of saying one thing and saying it really well are the most successful path to attention and effectiveness.

One more plea. Client briefs, should be brief. Mark Twain once said, “I didn't have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” Yes, it often does take more effort to distil and filter what is important into something more concise and focused for your agency. But it does pay off in the end. Write a concise, focused two-page brief and enjoy the silence of an agency getting on with it, and coming back with strategic thinking and creative ideas that absolutely nail it first time.

Hannah White, managing partner, New Commercial Arts

The critical factor is a simple and somewhat boring observation: time.

Brief too early and no-one client-side is aligned and there can be fundamental holes in the information provided, creating costly swirl when it comes to creative development.

But all too often agencies are briefed too late, when the critical information was ready weeks before, meaning the output suffers for lack of time.

The client brief doesn’t need to be overly elaborate – if you’re aligned on the business problem, audience, message, targets, timings and budgets, then we’re ready to go. We prefer to get started sooner and run an iterative process to refine supporting detail through our own strategic development, customer experience audit, and creative exploration.

This early collaboration means client and agency are both bought in, leads to a more holistic strategy, and to return to being a bore, saves a lot of time.

Josh Bullmore, chief strategy officer, Leo Burnett

What makes a great brief is not just what you write, but what your agency reads between the lines. The implicit is as important as the explicit.

The explicit stuff matters of course: a good brief is clear, simple and focused. Strategy is sacrifice. It’s about the avenues you exclude, the roads deliberately not taken. The brief is where all that sacrifice shows up in the form of a focused task. This is what gets a project out of the blocks.

But how do you supercharge it? Well it’s all in the implicit, the intangibles.

Smart marketers know they stand an even greater chance of success when they win the hearts of their agency teams, and not just their minds. They know that their brief is competing for attention, focus and effort with the rest of a team’s lives, with time spent with friends and loved ones. They know that to unlock great work, they need to unlock a desire to worry away at a problem in every spare moment.

So they make sure that there is no whiff of a slapdash, cursory box-ticking exercise in their brief and briefing. Instead they convey a sense of courage, care and commitment to great work.


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