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Agencies Agency Culture Business Leadership

How to brief an agency


By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

March 22, 2022 | 7 min read

Most marketing work starts with an agency brief. Excellent work often starts with an excellent brief, while errors down the line can often be traced back to an original sin in the brief/pitch process. So, how to brief an agency in a way to maximize their room for doing excellent work? We asked 9 agency leaders from The Drum Network.

A sign saying "help wanted"

Agency leaders on how to brief them to get the most out of them / Tim Mossholder via Unsplash

Milly Morris, senior digital growth specialist at Impression: long-term and short-term objectives

The best briefs from clients share immediate objectives for a particular channel, and the company's longer-term goals.

Imagine a company comes to us with a revenue objective for the year. Great, we'll focus on channel efficiency. But the longer-term company objective might be to triple revenue in 3 years. While we've been hyper-focused on driving revenue efficiently, we weren't aware of the brand-building work needed to lay the foundation for the longer-term objective.

Visibility of both short and long-term company objectives ensures immediate channel objectives ladder up to longer-term company objectives; ties work into company objectives, making it accessible to senior stakeholders; and helps avoid irrelevant work.

Michael Maslona, sales director at Summit: work with agencies, not against them

The pitch process shouldn’t be the starting point. Invest time with agencies in advance, then invite preferred agencies to pitch.

Agencies commit significant resource to pitching. Often, communication from the brand is kept to a minimum until pitch day. Offering meetings/calls in advance of the pitch allows agencies to develop better strategies and provides brands with an insight into the agency.

Inviting too many agencies to pitch can be demoralizing and lead to templated responses. Tendering is time-consuming for all, but brands need to demonstrate their commitment to the process by getting to know agencies pre-tender, and work with them during.

How the agency works with a brand during a pitch (eagerness to meet, pose the right questions and query elements of the brief; to demonstrate insight throughout; to bring their personality to life) should be a positive factor in the decision-making process.

Luke Cardy, senior business development manager at True: don’t Frankenstein it

I often review briefs written by multiple people, with one section written by the marketing director, another by IT and another by sales. Often, these sections are at odds with one another.

Everyone’s time is limited, and you want agencies to understand your challenges and present concepts or approaches that blow you away.

It’s ok to have different goals for your new website or marketing campaign, but talk to each other before you put them all into a brief. Discuss and prioritize what’s important for different stakeholders.

It can be tempting to label everything in your brief as important, but having difficult conversations up-front will make for a clearer, focused brief to your agency. A concise, prioritized, and pre-agreed brief will always lead to stronger concepts, pitches, and creative work.

Christian Perrins, head of strategy at Waste Creative: show your ambition

A brief is an ad for your ambition. If it’s clear, insightful and energized, you can expect (and deserve) clear, insightful and energized work back from your agency. If it’s messy, vague and lifeless, you can expect (and deserve) something similar coming back.

Writing great briefs is hard. It’s art and science, and some of us have spent years trying to hone it. If you’re struggling to write a great agency brief, lean on your agency. That’s what we’re here for. Talk to us about your challenges, what you know, what you don’t know, what you think the objectives are. Together we can craft a brilliant brief and brilliant work.

Dan Hall, business director at 2Heads: Word docs don’t inspire creativity

Word document briefs, which typically range from 2 pages long to 20 pages too long, don’t set you up for success. The idea that a client can predict their business environment in six months to a year’s time, and succinctly articulate it to inspire the world’s greatest ideas, is bonkers.

We need to change the way brands brief agencies, and stop asking them to pitch free ideas on only a Word document or PDF.

How about clients appoint agencies based on their credentials and then ask the agency to consult within the company to develop their own brief? The agency could ask the questions that need answering to design that world-class creative and ultimately build a relationship based on expertise, not guesswork.

Andy Griffiths, associate director for client growth at Space & Time: matchmaking

A great brand and a capable agency alone aren’t guarantees to success. Pay attention to ‘matchmaking’ compatibility, and brief agencies on what that means to you.

Briefs often focus on the scope of work, or technical requirements – the details of the kind of agency you’re looking for can be overlooked.

Great briefs give context around what concerns you have around the project/appointment, perhaps intimating where have you been let down by agencies in the past, or what you feel your internal barriers to success may be. The more context and color, the more opportunity you give an agency to showcase how they can help; and the more success you’ll have in finding the right partner.

Mark Iremonger, managing director at Nucco: keep it short

Make the process short. Pitches expand to fill the time available, which wastes client and agency time and money. Create a level playing field and run a quick process. I’ve seen £50k pitches run to months, and £1M pitches awarded in four weeks.

Short pitches are a win-win for everyone because of the huge unpaid time and cost involved for brands and agencies.

Geoff Griffiths, chief executive officer at Builtvisible: don’t restrict access once a brief is sent out

Procurement-driven processes especially have a habit of gatekeeping, which restricts the conversations that can turn a generic brief into something genuinely meaningful. Agencies need the space and freedom to respond with what the client actually needs, not just what is contained in the brief.

There’s a huge opportunity cost to restricting conversations during the early throes of a brief, in terms of getting the right response, and developing the right kind of collaborative relationship from the off.

Martin Rothwell, client relations lead at GottaBe! Marketing: multidirectional relationships

We see poor briefs all too often: brands that think they know what they want and describe something completely different.

The best advice I was ever given was to challenge the client, question, probe, and prod to get the answers you are looking for. The relationship between brand and agency needs to be multidirectional – we work together for a common goal.

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