Briefing: questions and answers

Our latest In-House Life panel delved deeper into the problems with briefing


Briefing is at the heart of so many of the issues that we see affecting in-house agencies. Whether it’s lack of time, incomplete information, a lack of clarity around objectives, misunderstanding of roles and responsibilities, approvals logjams, wasted time and resource spent on changes, or campaigns that simply don’t meet objectives, the briefing process is at the centre of it all.

Just before Christmas, we ran a breakfast event led by Wunderman Thompson Strategy Director Will Humphrey on writing better briefs. So much came out of that session that we returned to the topic for our first In-House Life panel session of the New Year. Will kindly came back to pick up on some of the key issues which he’d identified from our previous session. He was joined on the call by Pieter-Paul von Weiler and Matt Davies, founders of BetterBriefs, whose research last year was sparked by what they saw as increasingly mediocre briefs coming in to their agencies.

What emerged was a worrisome picture of a long-term denigration of the importance of the brief and briefing (in external as well as in-house agencies) leading to a lack of time and respect given to the process. Marketers with little training in brief-writing failing to provide clear objectives in their briefs, and agency recipients of those briefs – either through lack of confidence or experience – not feeling able to request what they need.

“We don’t want to blame marketers,” Pieter-Paul said. “There’s a real issue that both parties are guilty of. The brief-writer is not checking in with the recipient – do you get what I’m saying? Is the language clear enough? And the recipient is not putting their hand up and saying ‘I don’t feel inspired by this’ or ‘I don’t understand the language’.”

Will saw this as partly a symptom of a shift to project-based rather than retained business for external agencies, resulting in less time to build trust. “You have to have a certain level of seniority to say ‘I don’t know, I don’t get it’. We need to acknowledge when we don’t know something or it’s not clear.” Will highlighted the need to share, to involve others in the brief-writing process and get their opinions rather than treating it like an exam paper where no-one else can see it until it’s finished. A point which was picked up by Pieter-Paul: “It shouldn’t be a relay race, but a scrum. Get as many people as possible involved – start with colleagues, with your CFO even – ask them, what can marketing do to solve this business problem? Don’t do it alone.”

Much of the problem, we heard in the session, stems from a lack of clear objectives in marketing or client briefs. According to Pieter-Paul, the objectives set in a client or marketing brief should be a “summary of all the thinking the marketing team has been doing” rather than a starting point. “There’s three layers to it. It starts with commercial objectives – what is the business trying to do and what is the effect that marketing is going to contribute to? That needs to be translated into a behavioural objective – something people need to do, like pay more for something or buy more often or stop smoking. Then we get to the attitudinal objective – what do we need to switch in people’s brains to get them to do the desired behaviour that will achieve the commercial result? Those three things are linked and they need to be thought through before we even start to write the marketing brief or the client brief. Way too often we are seeing that people are just focusing on attitudinal objectives and not the other two.”

There also needs to be a clear understanding of the difference between a marketing or client brief and a creative brief. External agencies and larger in-house agencies have strategists who can take a marketing brief and use it to write an inspiring creative brief, but the difference between the two is not always clear. “The client brief is the commercial grounding of why we are going to make the investment in marketing,” said Pieter-Paul. “It should focus on some kind of commercial problem. When it the gets translated into the creative brief, that’s the launchpad for creative thinking. So it goes from commercial grounding to creative launchpad. Briefs are science (client brief) and art (creative brief) coming together.

And what are the critical elements for any good creative brief to include? According to Will, any creative brief needs to answer the following: “Does it relate to the agreed objectives of the marketing brief? Does it relate to the audience? Most people who write briefs aren’t the audience so does it speak to them in ways they both understand and find compelling? And then, is it interesting and inspiring? I was always taught that creative briefs act as springboard to work. If a creative brief is dull, chances are you won’t get interesting work.”

That brief, as Matt said, should then provide the criteria against which creative work should be judged. How to judge or assess creative work objectively was another huge issue raised by the panel, but one that can be helped by a rigorous briefing process. As Will said, “A brief is almost like a contract of what you are judging things against. Start at a fixed point, because without that firm footing, the creative process becomes totally unmoored and there is no clear sense of how we are going to solve this problem.”

It’s also important in-house to identify the different types of brief that come in. In-house teams deal with a lot of ‘task’ briefs that do not require the full marketing-creative briefing process. But too often, task and creative briefs come in through the same funnel, using the same templates – or are even combined in the same marketing brief. As Pieter-Paul said “if you need a new idea, then you need a creative brief. If you don’t need a new idea, just write a task brief – those are very different things.”

And even if the creative brief you do get in doesn’t have a huge budget, don’t forget that “every brief that requires new thinking is a creative opportunity to shape the future of your brand. It doesn’t need a big budget or high production values, every brief is an opportunity.”

My thanks to Matt, Pieter-Paul and Will for a hugely valuable session which covered way more ground that I can ever here. If you would like a recording of the session, drop me an email.


For more on BetterBriefs, including how to download their research and information on the training they offer, please visit

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