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The brief: how to resurrect the perfect style

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Daniel Ward-Murphy at Salad Creative takes us through the importance of the resurrected brief

A good brief is the foundation of great work. But while we agree with this statement as an agency community, we regularly betray it.

If you walk through an agency and listen carefully, you will often experience an account manager groan “I’ve got that brief to write”. The life of an account manager is a busy one, and while other tasks are seen as necessary, sadly many view this as a chore.

Yet the ramifications of a bad brief are far-reaching and can be deadly. In terms of accountability, it is often used as an excuse if a creative doesn’t hit the expected standards. In terms of culture, it is often at the very centre of ‘us and them’, which is something I have experienced in every other agency apart from my current one. In terms of speed, it often takes more time to fill in the gaps. In terms of quality, it leads to a lower standard of work. Period. In terms of effectiveness, it can often fail to deliver against client objectives.

There are too many bad briefs. It’s client losing, it’s ultimately staff losing; it’s business-health threatening behaviour. So let’s pause and rewind.

Generally speaking, briefs fall into four categories:

1. A brief that requires research and/or serious thought (strategy and planning)

2. A brief that requires some strategic or tactical thinking (strategy and planning)

3. A brief where the brand work or strategic thinking is already done (account direction and account management)

4. A brief so simple that you can just get on with it (account direction and account management)

Now agencies vary in the role they expect client services as a department to play and what they recruit for. But an agency gets into serious problems when they treat ‘think’ jobs as ‘do’ jobs, so it is crucial you are categorising them correctly.

Beyond this, you rely on the ability of your planners, the capability of your account managers and the capability of your creatives to work to brief. Of course, a huge dollop of skill on top of this can turn good work into amazing work.

So, what makes a great brief?

First of all, don’t make it too long. But don’t be obsessed with making it too short either. Include the information you need to include. Each client and project is unique and will likely require a different combination of people and experience to solve the problem. However, there are always fundamental pieces of information that give us a fantastic basis to get started:

What are we doing? What problem are we solving?

Deliverables: What actually needs to be delivered?

Background: This is a depository for relevant information. It can be communicating what they do in a bit more detail or explaining what has lead up to them writing the brief, such as business decisions supporting the project, context for the project and reasons that have led to this project’s emergence.

Objectives: What do they want to achieve? What must the project do or communicate?

Audience: Who are we talking to? And what do we know about them? Who are the specific audience profiles to be considered?

Channels: What channel will this work live in? Is it known at this stage? This is increasingly part of our role and we rarely approach projects channel first. This usually comes last, once we know what you need to say and to who.

What is the message? What are we saying? This is perhaps the most important section. Answering it effectively can mean a large research programme, adhering to previous brand work/campaigns or simply making a call after some planning work.

Tone of Voice: How should we talk to your audience? Has this already been defined for us to utilise?

Budget: It’s easy to say “how long is a piece of string?” here but ultimately, no-one wins. Any indication of the affordability from client side will help you to scope out the project in the most cost-effective way. However, this shouldn’t be taken as the dictated figure unless instructed. There may be more or less available to invest in the end, depending on a number of factors.

Measurement: How will success be measured? By painting this picture, clients offer a deeper understanding of the purpose of our work and what it must achieve.

Mandatories: There will always be some things that must be avoided or included in the work. This is such a crucial, directional section. Give direction, failing to mention some client preference here can be critical.

Possible routes: Don’t be afraid to give some starters for ten in terms of what the solution could look like. A secure creative who is confident in their own ability should not be afraid of taking a good idea and running with it. It can also help spark a different idea.

Here are a few directional tips:

  • Know the difference between a brief from a client and an internal brief.
  • Clients have the prerogative to provide the brief how they want, you have the duty to provide the brief in an optimal, recognisable way that leads the best work.
  • Get better at writing them.
  • We’re used to writing briefs on a weekly basis and we understand which details are often the difference between creating award-winning work or not.
  • Help your client to write their brief. For some clients, especially those without the experience of working with an agency partner, creating this document can seem daunting. It’s coming to you eventually and the deadline is often unmoving so help it come in quicker and better.
  • The verbal brief is just as important as the written one. Written and verbal communication both have their strengths – and their combination can be extremely effective. In a verbal brief you can answer questions to aid comprehension, as well as really hammer home the key brief information. You can also inspire great effort and work.
  • Allow pushback.

Nothing is final until the work is produced and nothing should be sacrosanct. So let your creative team challenge it if it needs challenging. The flip side is that creatives should trust their planners to be good at their part of the job.

We are huge believers in the value of a brief and delivering against it is always our goal. Our proposition of Beautifully Effective overarches everything we do.

Daniel Ward-Murphy is strategy director at Salad Creative.

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