Your agency brief sucks. And this is why

Silly olympics - no sense of direction

I have a question. Please be honest with your answer.

Hands up, those of you who’ve had this experience when briefing a group of agencies – or even a single agency – on an important campaign or project?

Lots of excitement, lots of steam, lots of running in apparently different, contradictory directions? Thought so.

Now (this is the last time I’ll ask you to do this, I promise), hands up, those of you who’ve had this experience when the agency response is presented?

Ah, yes. Beautifully put together, sold with sizzle, lots of keys played…but completely out of tune with what you actually need.

Why the big analogy?

First, because I always wanted to put the late, great Les Dawson into an article about agencies (not to mention Monty Python), and today I saw my chance. Second, because I thought it might make you laugh. Third, because the analogy rings true.

It’s such a common occurrence, particularly when multiple agencies are involved, but sometimes, even when it’s just one agency. It wastes time, causes frustration, confusion and demoralisation on all sides, and leads to watered down solutions.

It’s this, it’s that, it’s everything…

If you haven’t read the title of this article, you may expect me to go wide on the perils of multi-agency relationships, the need to manage them properly, the inability of agencies to work properly together, and other related topics. All of which is relevant, but not today.

I’ve already written about the go-wide stuff and too much repetition is never good.
Today, I want to go micro on a topic which I feel hasn’t properly been covered in my earlier canon of work (or perhaps ‘my last few articles’ is a more appropriate term).

The brief. That’s the topic. To be precise – your brief, to the agencies expected to come up with the perfect campaign strategy.

It’s the first thing to rescue

If I was alone on the sea of indifferent marketing, about to be stranded on the desert island of bad performance, and in order to escape I had to choose one thing and one thing only to fix, I’d choose the brief. It really is so fundamental, so obvious, and yet so often neglected.

Overhauling your briefing – the way it’s written, what’s included and excluded, where and how it’s delivered, can work wonders. Aside from the obvious benefit of increased clarity, it can revitalise the agency teams, pushing them to think harder, and it can provide internal strategic direction to your own team and related teams in your organisation.

Perhaps best of all, a great brief can weed out the agency wheat from the chaff, it gives them a real test to provide an in-tune response, and it negates the most over-used agency excuse for average work – ‘well, it was a crap brief, wasn’t it?’

The most common types of brief-fails

So I thought I’d take you on a diverting journey around the most common types of brief-fails. The thing is, so much of this is done unconsciously – no-one sets out to write a bad brief, right? So the trick for you is to identify which of the following you might, in your heart of hearts, identify with.

  1. The everything for $2 Shop brief

We have to completely re-vamp the brand, overhaul the content, win majority share of voice in all communications, and double our sales. And we have four dollars, spread over the next eighteen months, to do it.

If your agencies don’t stand up to you on this kind of brief, then something’s not right with the agencies. There simply has to be recognition of reality versus fantasy; if not, you’ll likely get a ‘spread too thin’ response, where lots of small executions combine to generate pretty much nothing.

  1. The everything under the sun brief

A relative of the ‘Everything for $2 Shop’ brief. This time, you have the budget, that’s not necessarily a problem. But the campaign objectives are numerous and unmanageable within a single strategy.

Different objectives lead to different strategies. Too many objectives, and the result is like a dinner plate at a Vegas all you can eat buffet – lots of different foodstuffs, mixed together into a generic gooey mess.

Pick a core objective, and stick to it. Have secondary objectives if necessary, but clearly delineate them. And ideally, don’t make that objective ‘sales’. Every campaign under the sun should ultimately sell stuff; a briefing objective has to be more defined.

  1. The one liner brief

Often delivered on an email. ‘Fix the sales’. Well, OK then. With what, exactly? Quite frankly, if you can’t be bothered to inject some life and scope into a brief, then don’t expect a great agency response. Sure, you’re paying them, and they’ll work on it, but do you think they’ll be able to nail a great campaign off the back of something like this?

That hoary old cliché about the agency being an extension of the marketing team applies here. They need the right level of information, just like everyone else.

  1. The republican separatist brief

Different agencies, at different times, in different ways. I think I’ve covered this one previously in another article, although at that point I didn’t have such a snappy name for it. If you have a number of agencies and you brief them at different times, with different documents (yes, it does happen), then it’s hard to avoid an off-key response.

Brief collectively; insist that the numbers in the room stay low; ensure that the agency leaders have a clear understanding of what their respective remits are. If it’s a big project, put milestone meetings in, with a tight leadership group only, to check progress and iron out challenges as you go.

  1. The I want your strategy but I know best brief

‘I want you to be as creative as possible with this response. We have $1m, of which 70% needs to go onto television.’ This is perhaps the most common offender. What makes it particularly pernicious is that senior marketers often don’t realise that this kind of directive is being given by their teams. They then complain to agency leads about mediocre solutions.

Put simply, if your campaign has to, for example, consist of pretty much nothing but TV – and there are lots of very good reasons why this might be the case – then say so, but explain why, and don’t then ask the agencies to ‘get creative’, it’s a huge waste of everyone’s time. Just ask them to deliver a TV campaign, and adjust your briefing session accordingly.

I’ve found that a basic brief tiering system (Gold, Silver, Bronze or similar) can help agencies to direct their efforts/tailor the appropriate response, to the benefit of all concerned.

  1. The dry as a bone brief

The room is cold, dark, filled with yesterday’s coffee cups, and the brief is read off the page in a monotone.

OK, I may be exaggerating a bit for effect. And no, I don’t expect you to have strobe lights strafing the sky, dancers bursting out of cakes and a chocolate fountain at brief time. But at least put a bit of life into it!

Show the agencies how excited you are about the brief. Perhaps choose a different place to issue the brief, out of the office, related to the campaign. Do what you need to do to galvanise good thought.

  1. The Bible brief

A forty-eight page treatise containing every piece of information and every jargon point known to your organisation.

This is another common one, and one which I believe comes from good intention. But too much of anything, by definition, is not ideal, and this includes information. If the agencies are wading through unnecessary detail, then aside from the resultant waste of time, the salient points may be missed.

Think hard about the right level of detail and overview required. Invite the agencies to ask specific questions if they feel something is missing. Alternatively, consult with the agencies beforehand with regard to the key details they feel would be required.

  1. The boy who cried wolf brief

For the ninth time in succession, the agencies are expected to come back with something truly different, challenging, ground-breaking. Trouble is, in the last eight responses, when it came to the ground breaking approach your courage failed you, and what ended up going to air was the same thing you’ve always done.

Put your action behind your rhetoric. Of course the agencies may not get it right, may go too hard on the ‘ground breaking’ campaign approach. But work with them to modify it, find common ground – don’t give up and revert to the same old, same old.

There is nothing more guaranteed to de-motivate an agency than a marketer who consistently fails to follow through on the ‘we need change’ mantra. Eventually, it will get to the stage where they simply don’t believe the brief.

If what you really want or need is the same old, same old, then brief the agencies for this and explain why. Or at least, tailor your brief so that the agencies can understand how you wish to bring incremental amounts of change to marketing, rather than one big shift.

Keep it simple, and start at the beginning

You might feel that I’m asking the impossible in this piece, and having an unnecessary dig at already hard-pressed marketers.

Not so – that’s not my aim. I’m pointing out that sometimes, just sometimes, the key to better agency performance doesn’t lie in pitching, complex KPI assessments or alignment exercises.

It can be so much easier to start from the basics by fixing the brief.


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