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It's time to blow up the brief: Marketing’s 'best practice' is holding business back

Sally O’Rourke

More than ever, business needs the best strategy and execution their creative partners can offer. It won’t come from the RFP pitch process, which snags clients and agencies in a truly vicious cycle.

The marketing team writes a well-intentioned brief that can’t propel the businesses forward because the assignment has no connection to where the organization really needs to go. Agencies compete with design work that addresses the creative problem, but can’t hope to solve the real business issue. Before long, the marketing team has to go through the process again.

And again.

That’s insanity. It’s time for us to blow up the brief and create an entirely new way of working together. It’s time agencies and clients collaborated on the business problems that inform creative assignments. Ask the tough questions to provoke braver conversations, and bring honesty back to the process.

This involves redefining what a design agency can really do. It’s not simply packaging graphics. Nor is it, 'Design a brand for me'. It’s developing the strategy and creative manifestation of a multi-faceted brand program that fundamentally changes the position of a business in the minds of consumers.

Take strategy out of the vacuum

The marketing team usually can’t see the real consumer problem or opportunity a brand faces because they are too close, too accustomed to seeing the brand from one very inside perspective. They may engage a research agency to gather robust consumer input or conduct a category audit, but their basic brand beliefs and category assumptions go unchallenged.

Disrupt the process itself

That challenge needs to happen before the marketing team decides what work will be done to build, pivot or recreate a brand. Braver thinking demands new perspectives that break conventional category assumptions.

The best way to do this is to invite agencies into the brief development. Instead of summoning agencies for a creative competition, bring them together to examine the business problem and rationale. So they can bring real strategic insights to the business from a consumer perspective. Then pick the agencies to work with.

It may take a fight, but the right things often do. When I told the marketing team at a Fortune 200 corporation that they needed to uncover why they weren’t growing in a key region, not design a new range of products for it, I was shown the door. "Answer the brief or get out" prevents the possibility of future-proofing a brand.

That same week, though, I challenged the brief of an international category leader and they reveled in it. We co-created a brief that uncovered the real barriers to keeping them competitive in the current market, while identifying the real opportunity that would keep them relevant.

Co-creating the brief lets brands take on overarching problems. You can’t stitch together a cohesive brand from a patchwork of isolated components, no matter how expert they are. That’s the fallacy of integrated marketing. Business solutions require holistic resource relationships. That’s a mandate for agencies: deepen category and strategic expertise, and expand the range of campaigns.

The future is design thinking

Today’s designers honor the brief and solve a creative challenge. Tomorrow’s design thinkers honor the market and solve a business problem. Today’s designers create graphic elements to order on narrowly defined scopes of work — a logo, package, or POS scheme. Tomorrow’s design thinkers define the direction and opportunity of a brand in the mind of the market, and create the campaign that realizes this vision across platforms.

Some will argue that designers should mind their place. I say it’s time for design thinkers to take their real place: the architects of visual, visceral experiences of a brand across channels. It’s the most visceral, everyday element of marketing; and it determines the user experience. Its purpose isn’t to pretty up the marketing; it’s to cement the business on the roads consumers are paving and keep it there.

Sally O’Rourke is president and chief operating officer of brand design consultancy bluemarlin

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