Kate Howe

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Brilliant Briefs Beget Big Ideas

The executive partner of MSQ Partners says that an early focus on customer insights in pitches will yield better work for brands

By Kate Howe

I found last week’s article on Creative Salon “Don’t ply us with too much jargon – what makes a good brief” both timely and stimulating - it’s something I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently.

We’re used to seeing reports stating the average tenure of CMOs is in decline. I think the last I read said it’s now two years and two months. And having been a CMO myself (I resigned after four years and returned to agency life) it made me think about why this is and whether agencies can do anything to help address it, not least because it rarely is in our interest to have our clients leave.

There’s no doubt that marketers are grappling with more complexity, more uncertainty, and more regulation that ever so it’s certainly not an easy job. Campaign recently quoted a Forrester report suggesting that “in these challenging times, CMOs must have the financial acumen to connect their investments with direct business benefits, or risk getting left out in the cold”.

According to this study, a full 71 per cent of B2C marketing executives indicated that demonstrating the value of marketing to the CEO, CFO, and the board will be very challenging during the upcoming year.

From this I conclude clearly that marketers need the best agency partnerships they can possibly get, with a shared growth agenda.

However, I found myself contrasting this with another article published around the same time by Avi Dan. He clearly says the pitch process to find that invaluable agency partner does not serve clients well or set them up for the type of success outlined by Forrester. In fact, he goes as far as to suggest the (flawed) pitch process is at the heart of CMO churn. He paints a very dark picture of a short-termist approach which doesn’t set the agency up to be a true business partner, or a long-term one, in fact it does the opposite.

I don’t entirely agree with Avi Dan’s proposed solution which is to bring several agencies onboard for a few months and “beta test them with your team”. That may perhaps work for some brands but many marketers are over stretched/under-resourced and need to simplify their roster not expand it. And for agencies I fear that having a trial run alongside a couple of competitors will simply feel like an extended and even more expensive pitch process. However, having been in the heart of the pitch process, both client and agency side, for over 30 years I’ve been pondering a different idea. It’s all about issuing a different type of pitch brief – which brings me back to last week’s article.

My theory is that, despite the huge rise in in-housing, the two things many brands aren’t generally brilliant at is: a) identifying truly powerful relevant insights into clearly defined and deeply understood customer segments; and b) originating brilliant big ideas.

When they call a pitch, if we take a pitch for a new brand platform as an example, where the desired outcome is a big creative idea that can drive brand fame and result in sales growth, the agencies will spend half of the allotted time seeking out and validating insights into the company, its culture, the brand heritage, competitors and the customer. They will almost certainly, in this age of CXM, map out the customer journey and identify the pain points, and identify what the KPIs for success should be and how they should be measured.

Only then will they be able to focus on the big idea – which leaves nowhere near enough time to do their very best creative work, the work the client needs (because, referring back to Forrester, their job may well depend upon it), but arguably the client doesn’t deserve given the process.

Supposing that to address all of these issues, brands carried out a project with a specialist insights consultancy before issuing a pitch brief? Ever since MSQ acquired Freemavens in 2020 I’ve seen how powerful and game-changing it can be to spend a few weeks developing the deepest possible knowledge into the customer and what motivates their choices. True insights are challenging and purposeful with the potential to be game-changing and even the very best agencies can’t get to this level of insight under a time-bound pitch process. In truth, the best agencies, who have honed their pitch practice over years, will write the creative brief fast to give the creative dept the longest possible time to develop ideas and spend the rest of the process seeking evidence to validate their idea and develop a water-tight link between the client brief and the work they’ve produced in the time available. Wouldn’t it be better if that red thread connected water-tight insights to game-changing work?

If CMOs really want long-term agency partners, vested in their success, who will stand side-by-side with them with conviction about the work, then they need to issue the most powerful brief possible.

Surely they owe it to themselves to do the pre-work. Brilliant briefs that set the agencies up to do their most brilliant work. This could be a game-changing move not just for CMOs but for the industry as a whole.

Kate Howe is executive director of MSQ Partners


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