The foundation of any creative collaboration between a marketer and their agency backing band is The Brief, the essential song sheet that could decide if the work is a hit. We asked Bryce Groves, a freelance Creative Director with big-agency experience to lift the lid on the process, why the brief is so important, what makes a great brief and to spill the beans on the worst he’s seen…
Why does a bad brief present such a risk for a creative project?
Essentially, a good brief is about having an articulated common goal. There are different ways to define a ‘bad brief’ but when you don’t have that common goal, it can waste a lot of people’s time; agency-side, client-side, and contractors. Creatives can flounder around trying to figure out what the product/brand is, what they’re meant to communicate about it, and potentially focus their work around the wrong thing. Then when it comes to reviews, with a bad brief creating confusion about the objective, it can end up creating disagreement, frustration, backtracking, rework and so on – wasting time, money, and harming business relationships.
Let’s start with the bad – what’s the worst brief you ever got? Feel free to change the names to protect the innocent.
Actually I have two examples in equal first place for this. But not because the brief was badly written or too complex etc. Those are things that can be usually be ironed out with a good chat and some open minds.
These two examples I call the worst because of how demotivating they were in how they were presented and what the goal was. These quotes are both very much verbatim by the way, at least as well as memory serves.
At a London agency not too many years ago, I recall a reasonably solid animation brief being presented by a mid-level account manager. It was a bit fuzzy though, so I asked, “What’s the core goal of this animation?” The answer was “to get our client a promotion”. Now I know account side people have a different focus to creatives, but really?! To me, that meant the film had no genuine purpose to come into the world. I can get on board with most objectives, even a crass sales target, but I’m not on this planet to promote somebody else’s career.
The other contender was an initial verbal brief during an opportunity to pitch for an animation with a tech company in Canary Wharf. The entrepreneurs talked excitedly about the Internet of Things, how in 5 years time (this was around 2012, by the way J) everybody’s toothbrush would be sending data to their dentist, and so forth. They wanted an animation to sell this excitement. Great! I was starting to ponder animators to fit their budget, so asked about any thoughts they had on the style…. The answer was “Oh we don’t really care what it looks like”.
What was the result?
I don’t properly recall the first one, beyond being flabbergasted, but I think I managed to interrogate an actual business objective to anchor the creative process around. It wasn’t a project-killer, just a bit astonishing.
As for the second one, cue a polite but hasty wrap-up, and saying I wasn’t the right person for their job. In retrospect it was a pleasure to have dodged what would have been a horrible project.
And the best brief?
That’s hard to pin down exactly, as I have a lot of work I think turned out well and over time it’s hard to remember the first part of a project versus the production and final result.
But one campaign I worked on at M&C Saatchi New Zealand was such a joy that I did keep the paper brief for posterity. It was a classic M&C brief – simple, enough background and information – but not an overload, no conflicting messages, and a clear single-minded proposition. This was a small campaign for Tourism New Zealand, creating ads and posters and some surrounding collateral to promote their NZ-themed garden display at the Chelsea Flower Show.
How did the work turn out?
I can still remember the ‘lightning bolt’ moment when the core visual idea hit me. It’s a creativity cliché perhaps. But like actual lightning bolts, which look spontaneous but are created by a complex interaction of winds, humidity, temperature, ice crystals (and, time!) a creative lightning bolt is also the product of a complex interaction of elements from a good brief.
This is still one of my favourite pieces, for both the result and the process – a lovely well-budgeted craft exercise of set building, botanical photography, expert retouching, and some travel to a remote area of native bush. The artwork was sent to M&C London who created further executions across buses and Underground posters and the idea even got a compliment from Jeremy Sinclair, chairman and Worldwide ECD.
Got any other examples?
This piece is a less traditional story where I essentially wrote the brief for myself. I was brought in to a small corporate filmmaking project by a director friend of mine – ostensibly to simply write a voiceover, and create some typography. But as the discussions evolved and emails bounced around, it became more and more confusing what the product was, and what we were supposed to say about it. So I created a Google doc blank brief, full of questions and prompts, which was sent to the client to fill in. The answers didn’t fill every gap, but it became the spark for more discussions and a meeting with the client until there was enough fuel to ignite a creative process. From there we were able to craft a narrative structure, shooting plan, and most importantly, understand and tackle the core business need. While the result here isn’t exactly a Cannes-worthy piece of creative, it was a really good experience being able to bring some order to chaos and bring some genuine human engagement to the film, rather than just making a sterile, glossy montage.
You can watch the full length version of the video here.
It sounds to me like a bad brief is bad for the client, the agency and the talent, who do you think should own the brief? Is it “buyer beware”, should clients be a bit more focused on this or is it the agency to stand firm?
Certainly clients should be focused on having a clear vision of what they want – and don’t want. They don’t have to give the agency some amazing piece of writing, that’s for the agency to interrogate and streamline and create their own version to brief their creatives internally. And of course this shouldn’t just be a Word doc fired across – a face to face is always best practice to talk through and identify the missing pieces and what the real direction is. From there the agency should ‘own’ the brief, including presenting back a ‘reverse brief’ that the client signs off, to ensure the common goal is agreed upon by both sides.
In a large agency, there’s an interface between the creative team and the client – the “suits” – how, as a creative can you nudge them in the right direction?
You shouldn’t be afraid to challenge the brief. Ultimately you could be saving everyone a lot of time and wild goose chases! I was a bit surprised some years ago to see my CD literally reject the creative brief – he walked across the floor to the account director and said ‘this isn’t good enough’. The result was a better brief and a better creative product. This isn’t something to be done lightly of course, but perhaps a tool could be to write yourself a core checklist to compare the briefs to. Don’t just stew over a Word doc, make a sit-down chat with the suit(s) happen, and extract some answers. They may or may not have the answers, but you can also discuss and discover those together.
But certainly, don’t accept a brief that’s just the client’s web copy cut and pasted, or worse, a forwarded email. Insist on a robust process!
I’ve overheard some gems over the years that really anchor my work and thinking. I’ve always remembered one from the strategist a UK agency: “Our job is not to make the client happy. Our job is to sell their product.”
From all that experience, what would you recommend to our CMO community in how clients create briefs?
From a client perspective I would suggest firstly thinking about your agency or contractor as human beings who are invested in doing great work, not just as robotic ‘suppliers’ with a linear money-in, product-out relationship. See if you can share and convey what excites you about the project, what you’d be proud to show off.
Then from a more pragmatic angle, firstly give the agency or contractor as much relevant information as possible. Not just a product-data dump, but thoughts, research, and real-world examples and anecdotes. Secondly try to think single-mindedly and convey what’s the one most important thing you want to communicate to your target audience. A good agency should figure this out anyway and/or come back to you with a different idea, but it helps if you can provide a steer.
The same goes for an agency briefing their external contractor. Does a photographer need to know the business background and the ethos of the brand? In theory, no. But your contractors are more than button-pushers, and the more they can live and breathe your project and the motivations, the more beautiful nuance you’ll get out of it.
When the work is presented back to you, remember that the brief (if it’s a good one) is your common ground; your benchmark against which the work should be judged, around the core questions, “Does it answer the brief”? The agency (if it’s a good one) will have curated the work internally by the same criteria. This helps everyone rise above subjective likes and dislikes, and focus on the core business objectives of the work.
Splendid, thank you Bryce, and if our CMO’s have a good brief, where might they find you?
You’ll find me at www.bvg.nz, on LinkedIn, or for a more personal touch on my Instagram and Twitter. I also pop out sporadic blog posts. I’m based in Brighton but love a good train ride and meeting new people to talk over new possibilities, however speculative!
Bryce is an eclectic advertising creative with a big-agency pedigree but a hands-on approach. Originally from New Zealand, he’s currently freelancing from Brighton, London, or wherever he can plug in his mac or point his camera. He strives to always bring an insight-led edge and genuine human storytelling to every project.