Your Agency Hates You and You Don't Even Know It: The Brief

A Former CMO Gives Tips on How to Create a Better Brief

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In a previous column, I shared what I have learned over the years about working with agencies, which hopefully has made me a better client. Now, I'll break it up in pieces. First, the brief.

The brief is, by far, the most important part of your creative development journey as a client. The brief is not glamorous, it's not sexy, and there will be no one standing on a table singing a song when you are pulling this together (that comes later). But you, the client, stand very little chance of getting something good at the other end if you don't spend the time to develop a tight brief.

Like building a house, if the foundation is shaky, good luck. And as you move through the process, you will let go little by little. But at this point, it's you, baby (and a great planner). A really good planner is like having a best friend who, when you go on and on about your problems, sits back, listens, and then gives you one piece of great advice that you never thought of yourself.

Here are five tips to help you build a better brief:

1. Know thy brand. Let's start with the problem you are solving. I'm sure I am oversimplifying here, but in my experience, if your brand is rationally driven (e.g., gum) your brief needs to have the rational benefit at its core ("Stride lasts too long"). If your brand is highly emotional (e.g., beer), your brief needs to have emotion at its core ("Newcastle Brown Ale is a refreshingly honest beer"). Good creative may have elements of each -- rational or emotional -- but it is driven by the core benefit.

2. Don't get bored with a great brief. At one point, our Dentyne advertising seemed to be getting less effective, so we thought the brief ("Dentyne makes your breath kissably fresh") needed a change. We made the brief broader ("Life is better face to face"). Disaster. While we made some really cool, emotional and beautiful spots, the benefit of the gum was lost. We ended up going back to the original brief and just took the creative in a fresh new direction ("Practice safe breath"). The brand saw double-digit growth. Whew.

3. Every word counts. Sometimes, one word can make all the difference. Our original brief for Newcastle Brown Ale was "Call out bollocks in beer." We saw a round of creative and found it to be, well, just ok. But it seemed that there was a better idea out there. So we shortened it to "Call out bollocks." On everything. That led to calling bollocks on the Super Bowl with the incredibly successful Anna Kendricks digital campaign which ended up getting 1 billion impressions and winning a place on every Top 10 list -- for the only campaign which wasn't even in the Super Bowl.

Oh, and one more thing about being ruthless with the words you choose. No "ands." This brand does this AND that. It tastes great AND is low fat. It is beautiful AND functional. It is fast AND efficient. No. Pick the one main thing. It's scary, but you can do it. It will lead to much better creative.

4. How much creative is actually needed? Sounds like a very basic thing, but divvy up your media budget upfront. You can adjust if something is a huge hit (and you should). But doing it upfront can be very sobering. In my experience, we fall in love with an elaborate (and expensive) TV campaign which needs a bunch of executions to understand, only to realize the consumer will only see one-quarter of it. On the other hand, the social channels are a bottomless pit and the more content the better. And what a great place to test and learn than in real time. Nothing is as clarifying as a Facebook post which gets 25 likes compared with one that gets 15,000.

5. Mandatories. This is the graveyard of everything you didn't get to cram in anywhere else. Talk about a great way to kill creativity before it even begins. Everyone has something to say about this area -- your brand people, sales people, senior management. Again, be ruthless. It's comforting for you, the client, to have everything in there, but it will ruin what could be something great. Try for three, tops.

Good luck. As I have said before, this whole thing is incredibly difficult. Like raising kids, most of the time you are wondering if you're doing the right thing and just hoping for the best. And you won't know if you made the right decisions until they end up being a Rhodes Scholar or going to prison. The best you can do is follow your instincts, trust your planner, and don't be afraid to adjust along the way.

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