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Guerilla Guide: Briefing ad agencies


Guerilla Guide: Briefing ad agencies


I’m sitting in a city café and it ain’t as simple as ‘white with one’ anymore. Skinny cap, soy mocha, skinny soy latte in a mug with the handle facing south. So many variations. People have too much time, too little to do. Here I am ordering a boring old skinny latte, which means cow’s milk… what an environmental sin! Fancy buying the juice of a methane-producing polluter… Do I try to fit in and order a soy drink? Bugger it. I hear soy gives you cancer anyway. Plus I’m already the odd one out: I’m the only person I can see who’s not wearing a tie.

Opposite me is the client, a major player in the finance industry. She’s very bright, very professional, but struggling with her role today. She asks me if I take on briefs. I’m appalled at her forwardness… (Sorry, had to try the joke, but pathetic, I know.) She ignores me, like the entire world population who are under 30, and goes on to explain her dilemma. They are having trouble penetrating the teenage market. Seems teenagers think and respond completely differently to anyone else in their customer base. Amazing. (It is always quite a problem for those in mass marketing. How do you keep a level of brand consistency when the message has to be radically different? But I digress again…) I should mention this is a professional organisation we’re discussing here. While they represent older, conservative, mostly white men, their core target market (for members) is younger, hipper and, like every group today, they are trying to be non-gender specific, non-racially biased.

We go though her understanding of the mindset of the target teenagers. We discuss the findings from a few focus groups they’ve just run. Then she pulls out a folder – it’s neatly blocked together in colours per issue – under headings like ‘pricing’, ‘psychological impacts’, ‘media use’ etc. She squirms, from what I’m guessing is embarrassment. It’s so big I start to feel faint. (Like those folders you get handed on a two-week live-in course.) Maybe I need a glass of water. I catch the eye of a waiter…

I’m hoping, as you do, they don’t really want us to take this all in and come back with something sensible. But, yes, they do. Yes, she expects us to wade through hundreds of pages of tightly typed notes to understand her brief. I think, as I smile and go slowly pale, that it’s got to come from above. This isn’t her. This anal, control freak stuff must be from senior management. I tell her I’ll email back my understanding of her brief, before I send it on to the creatives. That will save her time/money and stop me losing a few from jumping out the window into oncoming traffic.

There’s a point in life where you want to be professional, and there’s a point in life where you have to say, “This is over the top”. Two hundred pages of detail for a job that’s only worth a few hundred grand is a waste of a couple weeks. All it says is one of two things. Either you need another job ‘cause you’re so bored you actually have got time to put together a folder like this, or you need another job because someone in your organisation thinks you need to put together folders like this to brief somebody.

Which brings me neatly to the issue this month. Agency briefing. What works, what doesn’t and what costs you double as much for half as good?

Clients briefing an agency can vary hugely in their approach. From the ‘Just tell us what you think’ as they pass you in the street types, to the very serious this is the brief types who have 23 pages of closely typed thoughts just on the buying process – neither of which is exactly ideal. To get it out of the way, high cost briefings (assuming you’re paying people by the hour) are those that give way too much detail, that send creatives down unnecessary paths that waste time and/or that change frequently.

One of the roles of agency people is often to train clients into what makes a good brief for their agency. This is usually part of the ‘bedding down’ process, followed by all agencies and other creative groups, where you take a client and educate them about your systems and processes under the guise of getting to know them, but that is itself deserving of an entire article.

The public doesn’t care what your brief is

Don’t kid yourself that your cause is the cause of the general public. Their key causes are food, gratuitous entertainment, saving the globe and world peace. Yours only rates a mention if you’ve managed to grab their attention and hold onto it long enough to register on their personal radar. So don’t brief like it’s about you and your cause. Brief when you’ve worked out what it is that will work for the public. What is it the punters want from your widget?

It helps if you make up your mind

“My God, I’ll have to know what I want. And what we need as a company? All we really want is sales in December that are 15 percent better than last year’s, but that makes us sound shallow and this is a national, annual campaign, so maybe I better rethink what it is we want…”. If this is you, don’t panic. We in Adland expect you to be uncertain about it. “Seventy-nine percent of agencies claim clients (yes, you) use the briefing process to establish their own strategy, while 55 percent of clients say that briefs often change after the project begins.” (Paul-Mark Rendon, Marketing Magazine, Canada, September 2006)

Sometimes it’s best to make other people debate it

This paragraph could have been headed ‘leave it to the agency’, but that would have been saying agencies know all, and they just don’t. ‘Getting other people helping’ is a better thought. People who ask tricky questions and debate issues with you at briefing stage are way more valuable than those who just nod and come back in a week with crap. This heavy duty thinking is often the role of the accounts manager (or ‘strategy planner’ in a big, pretentious agency). It’s their job to take a crap brief and distil it down to a message or strategy/concept the creative team can get their heads around and respond to.

The agency needs to understand the job

First and foremost, it’s your job as a client to make sure the agency understands the job. (This is not your only responsibility. Your other key one is approving great creative.) Frankly you shouldn’t be working with them if they don’t understand your briefs. If you’re not sure they understand fully, ask some sneaky questions, like “What is your take-out from what I’ve said?” Or “How do you expect us to be positioned in a year from this brief?” etc.

Don’t be intimidated by suits/creatives

They give you forms to fill out, make a fuss about the content and go over details you didn’t think mattered. It’s all part of the ‘take us seriously, we’re professionals’ bullshit they throw at you to justify their retainers/nice cars.

We can blame anything on the brief in Adland

It’s so much easier than saying, “We didn’t come up with the goods.” Common comments are “the perfect brief is pure fantasy, like putting a rainbow in a jar”. Or, as Neil French (ex WPP creative head) once said, “Client briefs should be skipped altogether – taking things out is always better.”

The brief can be taken way too seriously

My most favourite quote has to be, “Forget just for a minute that you are briefing an agency. Instead, pretend you are standing on the bank of a river, about to build a bridge.” Taken, I kid you not, from the ‘Joint Industry Guidelines for Young Marketing Professionals’ in the UK, which includes marketers, PR people etc.

Mind you, I may be playing down the briefing process. Alan Doyle got it right by saying, “The key to effective briefing is to provide a simple insight that can be dramatised memorably” (‘Joint Industry Guidelines’). Certain information is crucial to any good campaign. So let’s cover what’s absolutely necessary in a brief.

Briefing basics – give this info to the agency

What’s this about?

What’s the actual job? Is it time to refresh the brand’s identity, do you need a new press campaign (because you’re sick of average in-house media jobs) or is your boss on your back to get better results? Whichever way, we all need to know why you’re doing it before you do it.

Who is it you’re targeting?

Demographics: who, how old, income levels, education, where they are, gender, relationships, jobs, etc. If you’re a mass marketer, like Coke, this could be as short as ‘anyone with a mouth’.

Psychographics: how they think, buy, behave, attitudes, perceptions, stage in life, political or entertainment mindset, star sign, hobbies, sports, etc. Again, this could be as short as ‘grumpy dumb people’.

Your company or brand’s position

Where you’ve been, where you are now, where you’re going and how you intend to get there.

What you need to achieve

Key goals and KPIs, time-frames, budgets.

Branding issues

What does the brand stand for (values, features/benefits), how is the brand portrayed (visually/audio/characters), previous recent creative (if they don’t know it) and any brand projections (future plans, if not obvious).

What hasn’t worked in the past?

Previous creative and media buys.

Why this matters

How this brief fits into the overall scheme of things in life, the universe and your career. Politics in your organisation – what does the big boss’s wife like? Is the finance department angry or happy about this sale and why etc.

Media thoughts

Media spend/rationale, if not being developed by the creative agency (always seek their input on this – media groups want to sell more space, costing you money. Better creative uses less, so costs less, saving you money.)


Core thrust/objectives of the brief – what is the key issue? If you say to a creative team that each one of these briefing points matter, they will be all over the shop. They’ll be doing work on issues to which no one will respond. They’ll waste days chasing moonbeams. Days you’re paying for. On the other hand, if you say this point is critical, this point is number two and the rest are just background you can ignore if you like, then that’s perfect. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t discuss things from a range of perspectives. But you must have an idea what it is you want back…

Present how?

Do it a bit face-to-face, and a bit written down. Make the written stuff just the basics and a couple of dreamy thoughts. Keep it under three pages. Background stuff (10 to 20 pages) is OK, but the more info, the more confusing the brief, the more costly it will be.

Avoid too much information

Information overload confuses and freezes creatives. Creatives will always say to you, “We need more information.” Background stuff is great, because it gives them an opportunity to work their head around an issue and this is important because the creative process takes days to filter through from a briefing to great work. And you must allow them to take this time, or you’ll get shit creative. And that process needs bits of information to chew on. But the danger is in giving too much priority to too many issues.

Briefing forms

There are lots of them out there. They are good to fill out when you’re a bit unsure and you want to look busy one morning. I’ve never seen one that fits all circumstances at all times and invariably the short briefing paragraph works better to focus creative efforts than a 20-point form from your head office in Luxembourg.

Bites at the cherry

Many of my best clients will ring in over a couple of days (or send a few short emails) with other thoughts on a tricky brief, as things occur to them. Better to pass on more information or your changing thoughts on focus, than get it a little wrong and leave it wrong. If there’s a bit of information that is critical, give it to the creatives. Don’t assume they’ll ‘get it’ by osmosis.

The reality

Clients are strapped for time and often don’t have anyone inside the operation with whom they can debate these points. And they do need debating. The onus is often on the agency to find the information. If the client can’t provide it, the agency ought to go out and get it. Yes, fill out the best practice briefing list but if you don’t know what one particular answer is that’s not the end. A good agency ought to be able to work with you on finding the answer. All of the above will take time, so cost you money. Get over it.

Rejection is good

Trust the agency who argues the brief. If they put in a decent body of thought, they are worth their retainer.

Limiting your outcomes by your briefing

Many great products don’t go mass market because they think their product is ‘exclusive’. I know factory workers who drive BMWs, millionaires who drive Falcons. What I’m getting around to is that many briefs assume things that are plainly wrong (but seem right to a passing observer), because their authors are in fact ignorant of how the world really works. Don’t limit your career/business by briefing too narrowly.

Hidden agendas

These always exist. Yours are most probably career advancement, making sales, building the brand and, most importantly, being noticed, so it’s easier to explain what you do at the gym when someone asks. Your real need, to give the brother-in-law some work, may never come up at all. Their hidden agendas usually relate to the politics of the boardroom, and/or who’s shagging who in your office or theirs. These agendas rarely cross-pollinate in a positive manner, but one can hope. I’m a big believer in ignoring most agendas, ‘cause if I worried about them, I’d never get any sleep.

Value for money

How to get it is by thinking about what’s needed first, briefing accurately (note it’s called briefing) and then letting go of your baby and allowing people to actually be creative – that’s basically what you’re paying for.

Paying for briefing

If it’s an ongoing relationship, then you’ve already sorted out how the money works and the agency is either formally charging you for taking a brief or you’ve somehow agreed they’ll hide it in other costs (like everyone else in the world does). If it’s a pitch, taking a brief and more so, responding to a brief costs a fortune. If you are a half-decent company you will suggest a payment for the exercise. This normally won’t cover much more than the coffee and croissants run, but it goes a long way to being taken seriously and getting a far better response from management/creatives than those companies who feel (because they don’t get paid to put a pitch to Coles Myer or NAB) that they shouldn’t pay others to pitch. Most agencies nowadays charge by the hour. Like your lawyers. If you asked them to do 50 hours of work, would you expect to pay for it?


Give people budgets. Some wankers believe in keeping it to themselves and think that saying something like “tell us what you think we should spend” is clever, like it will magically make your agency ask for less. But all it does is make things too hard for the agency, so you go to the bottom of the pile. Grow up and trust people. The agency is trusting you – they’re investing good money/time in answering your brief.

Sex is quicker with people you know

The better you know each other – agency/client – the less detail you need to give them each time. It can get down to basically a nod and a wink in a dark alley. “Oh, we can finally do the chocolate range. Usual budget. I need something for the board to approve, say next Friday?” That might be it as a brief from a very familiar client.


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