Three principles for briefing agencies more effectively

Joseph Liu is a career consultant, keynote speaker, columnist, and host of the Career Relaunch podcast. He helps professionals relaunch their careers by more powerfully marketing their personal brands. His work is informed by 10 years of global, client-side marketing experience in the US & UK managing brands including Glad, Liquid-Plumr, Gü Puds, and Häagen-Dazs, his involvement with four major brand relaunches, and 500+ hours of professional career coaching. He now applies principles used to build & relaunch consumer brands to help professionals and business owners build & relaunch their personal brands. He's been a speaker at TEDx and MarketingWeek Live, and served as a judge for The Drum’s Social Buzz Awards.

Following my article on “Rethinking the client-agency relationship,” this is the first in a three-part series on how to more effectively manage agencies through the initial brief, pitch process, and creative work. Let’s start with the brief.

Inspiring briefs are the foundation for inspiring campaigns. The brief is your first step toward translating your marketing objectives into memorable pieces of consumer-facing creative. The quality of creative work is driven by the quality of the creative process, jointly managed by the client-side marketer and agency, but often disproportionately influenced by the owner of the budget—in this case, the brand-owner client.

Delivering an effective brief sparks creative that cuts through, creates clear intent, and drives business results. On the other hand, a confusing, imprecise, and dull brief using brand documents never intended for creative briefings will almost certainly result in unoriginal and watered down work. Simply handing an agency existing internal strategy documents, text-heavy frameworks, brand templates, and long presentations is one of the least inspiring ways to kick off the creative process.

My recommendation to deliver a great brief to an agency is to follow three principles:

Be Brief

Too often, we as clients have a tendency of “throwing the kitchen sink” at agencies. Consumer ethnographies, company financials, brand history, benefit ladders, launch plans, brand growth plans, brand architecture, brand purpose. Information overload rarely is effective. Be brief with your briefs. In their deck “Great Presentations Are Like Ads,” Slide Comet shares a useful tip about the purpose of “briefs” (the kind you wear). They cover what’s important. When briefing, strive to provide clarity quickly. Share only what you feel is critical to the project. Nothing more, nothing less. Even before you brief, ask the agency what information they desire to get started. I’ve found in almost every instance, agencies require less detail than what we clients think they need. Some of the most effective briefs I’ve seen have been summarized in 15 words or less. On the other hand, when I’ve caught myself going into long explanations, I’ve realized our team wasn’t clear or aligned on what we wanted.

Be Creative

One of favourite hobbies is cooking. I was once in a cooking class when one of my fellow students asked, “Does it matter what kind of wine you use when you’re cooking? Because it’s going to just boil off anyway.” The instructor responded yes, it does matter because the wine won’t taste any better as you cook it. The same goes for a brief. Garbage in, garbage out. Nothing says, “please create a dull, unoriginal campaign” like a dry, text-heavy brand template. However, if you deliver your brief in a creative matter, you will help inspire creativity on your agency team. Step away from the long PointPoints and brand documents. Instead, appeal to your creative team’s senses in the same way you want your product to appeal to your consumers’ senses. The emotion you instil in your agency team will come through in their work. So have the agency hear what makes your product special straight from your head chef, lead developer, or better yet, have your agency interact with or walk in the shoes of your consumer for a day. You can also brief without using words. Reference a popular song that represents how people feel when they use your product. Use an object that directly links to the benefit of your brand. I once heard a story of how a marketing director for a well-known cereal brand put an alarm clock on the table during the agency briefing and said, “Connect the sound of this alarm with this cereal. That’s your brief.” Brilliant.

Be Clear

As clients, we can fall into the trap of wanting everything, which results in vague briefs. We sometimes struggle to be decisive, to rule things out, to state exactly what we are trying to accomplish, and more importantly, what we’re not. To make matters worse, stuffing briefs with competing objectives not only confuses agency teams but also results in scattered work. To create great work, you have to be specific, decisive, and selective with objectives, metrics of success, and exact deliverables desired. Borrowing a page out of Seth Godin’s ShipIt Journal, I’d recommend sharing the following points with agencies, which will also force you to be crystal clear about exactly what you want:

  1. What would “good enough” look like?
  2. What would “perfect” look like?
  3. Who are the key decision makers?
  4. What is the specific deadline?
  5. What is the exact budget we will commit to?
  6. What’s hard about creating this campaign?

In summary, if you can be brief, creative, and clear when you’re kicking off work with any agency, both teams will be 100 per cent aligned on objectives, your agencies will appreciate the clarity, you’ll inspire more precise work, and you’ll set your client-agency partnership for success.

What other tactics have work welled for you, either client or agency side? How would you describe the characteristics of great briefs? What are your biggest frustrations during the briefing process? What’s the best brief you’ve ever received?

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With over eight years of client-side brand management & marketing experience at Fortune 500 FMCG and start-up companies in the US & UK, managing brands that include Glad, Liquid-Plumr, Gü Puds, and Häagen-Dazs, Joseph Liu helps professionals & small business owners relaunch their careers with resources to help them navigate career change and more powerfully market their personal brands at josephpliu.com. He's also the host of the Career Relaunch podcast, featuring inspiring stories of career change.

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