In a survey I conducted a few years ago, I was keen to discover what agencies thought about the quality of the briefing process. The results were disconcerting, though not surprising. For example, asked to score the statement ‘Clients are good at writing briefs’, with 7 as strongly agree and 1 as strongly disagree, the average score from 150 completed questionnaires was 2.88. Similarly, the average score for ‘The brief provides the information we need’ was 2.85. Essentially, both scores are the wrong side of the midpoint of the scale. These scores matter because the briefing document and briefing process are fundamental to agency effectiveness and efficiency. The brief provides direction, information, and scope. The adage ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’ was never more germane.
In an effort to understand why briefing is, more often than not, a flawed process, I interviewed 35 senior clients. Reassuringly, they all acknowledged the importance of the brief, the resources they need to contribute to the process, and their co-creative role in the quality of the outcome. Furthermore, they admitted that agencies did not always receive the quality of brief they deserved. What emerged from the interviews was that clients face tensions emanating from contradictory demands, resulting in a deficit of resources allocated to the brief. They are pulled in two directions and a simple compromise is not always the best solution. Analysis of my research with clients revealed six tensions that, individually or collectively, compromise the brief and briefing process. The benefit of talking to experienced clients was that they were also able to identify potential solutions to these paradoxes.
In the words of one client: “We’re guilty of cutting corners, not because of laziness but because of a false impression that we’re being efficient. I have so many tasks to complete in a day that the brief is left to the last minute, because it’s perceived as onerous.” Clients grapple with the tension of devoting quality time to writing a brief versus tackling their multitude of daily tasks. The proposed solution was a co-crafted brief, which demands less time from the client. The brief is also superior because the agency can capture the information it needs and ensure client and agency interpretations are aligned from the start. Clients also admitted that they are not always able to articulate what they want in a brief. Talking it through with the agency helps to crystallise their thoughts.
Clients appreciate that without sufficient information the agency is paralysed. On the other hand, they are aware that too much information leaves the agency looking for the needle in a haystack, unable to isolate the essence of the problem. The proposed solution was a jointly developed briefing template that ensures agencies receive the information they need at the start of the project. This approach delivers a ‘complementary’ benefit too. It demonstrates the client’s respect for the agency which helps maintain agency motivation.
“I can’t be involved with the agency on a day-to-day basis. I have to delegate and it’s only right for my team to own projects and learn on the job. Inevitably, they will make mistakes.” Clients struggle with the obligation to delegate the task of briefing to juniors versus agency demands to receive the brief from the expert so as to avoid the risk of misinterpretation. Of course, senior managers can monitor the work of juniors, but the more novel approach was for agencies to take control and train juniors in the art of briefing. There is a synergy too from this approach. It builds a relationship with the junior manager and demonstrates agency goodwill which strengthens the client-agency relationship.
“It isn’t how it used to be. I say to my boss ‘If you want a good job, I need six months. If you want a reasonable job, I need three months.’ He says, ‘You’ve got three weeks’.”
Clients acknowledge agencies need a sufficient allocation of time to do a good job, and yet are constrained by tight deadlines. Rather than simply reducing the time available, some clients would invite agencies to strategic planning meetings at the start of the year to make them aware of upcoming jobs. This allows an element of resource planning within the agency and the potential to mull over potential approaches to larger jobs in advance of the brief. This level of involvement and demonstration of trust in the agency has the added benefit of making it feel more like a partner than a supplier.
“You need to give the agency some slack. I have to remind myself to focus on the problem not the solution. If I step into their territory and start being prescriptive, what am I paying them for?”
Respondents depicted a paradox of, on the one hand, conceding freedom to the agency to be creative, while at the same time grappling with the need to provide sufficient direction to ensure the outcome meets expectations first time. The proposed solution is, rather than wait with bated breath to see the agency’s solutions only to risk them being off-target, schedule a series of ‘tissue meetings’ to ensure that respective interpretations of the brief remain aligned and ideas are both creative and relevant. In this way, the process oscillates between periods of freedom and control, keeping the process on track without demotivating the creative team.
“We might say to the agency ‘Yeah, do some left-field stuff’ but in reality, we aren’t going there. There is a lot of conservative pressure within the organization.”
While clients hire external agencies to access originality, they are constrained by internal stakeholders and pressure to achieve a return on investment that ultimately encourages incremental rather than radical change. This can be incredibly demotivating to agencies who see their ideas diluted until they are unrecognisable. The proposed solution was to encourage agencies to take an 80/20 approach with 80% ‘safe’ and 20% boundary breaking response to a brief. Although the radical ideas are unlikely to be progressed immediately, they can prompt a re-assessment of the brand’s positioning.
What can we draw from this? First, clients are aware of agency frustration around the briefing process. Second, they want to help and are prepared to explore alternative ways of working. However, there is, unfortunately, a ‘but’. The proposed solutions require additional resource investment by agencies. Finally, not all clients are as enlightened as those I was fortunate to speak to. The proposed solutions won’t work in all scenarios. In less-than-ideal situations, agencies have to decide if they can tolerate working with a particular client and if the benefits outweigh the pain.
This post was written by Mario Vafeas, Associate Professor of Marketing & Leader of the Applied Marketing Research Group at Bristol Business School, UWE Bristol.