Let me tell you a story about the worst meeting of my career…
Before my time at Builtvisible, I was project managing a new website development. The primary goal was to simplify customer user journey. All was going well: we had completed the customer research, user journey mapping, site architecture and were presenting the initial web template wireframes to the client for first review. Out of nowhere, a budget stakeholder from the IT department said, “What is this? This isn’t innovative! Where’s the app?!”
My key marketing stakeholder and I were blindsided. How had this crucial piece of the project been missed?
The brief was checked, revealing no mention of an app. Somewhere, somehow, the communication ball had been dropped. The stakeholder walked away from the meeting feeling disappointed. As an agency, we hadn’t delivered to his requirements and the budget had gone to waste.
Although this experience is still wince-worthy, it taught me a valuable lesson: the importance of a robust brief.
From a client services perspective, I’ll impart what I’ve learnt about the fundamental elements of briefing, how to improve briefing quality and why collaboration results in an effective brief. The right brief kills all mystery around fine details, streamlines projects and minimises mistakes, avoiding any awkwardness akin to the above.
What is a brief?
From a practical point of view, a brief is the who, what, when, where, why, and how (5Ws + H) of the work you’re setting out to do for a client, wrapped up in a succinct-yet-detailed document. Briefs are, literally, brief.
A brief is the means to an end, a way of ensuring you get better delivery. It ensures the output you get is in line with what you need, when you need it by, and within the available budget. A good brief is one that includes all pertinent information around a project, but a great brief has full stakeholder contribution and is constructed through a client/agency partnership.
NB: They are not exclusive to marketing or account management. Briefs should be used as a mode of project communication across all teams.
Writing a brief
Take the 5Ws + H literally when writing a brief. It can be helpful to use them in a pre-made template as headers, guaranteeing all details are accounted for. Within each, consider outlining this information:
- Who: relevant background information of the client, a summary of their goals, the stakeholders, brand guidelines and target audience.
- What: a breakdown of the deliverable(s), perhaps with examples of work you’ve previously produced that are in a similar ilk.
- When: a detailed timeline of deadlines and sign-off stages, including stakeholders.
- Where: where the deliverables are going upon completion. This could include outreach plans, target publications or specific social media platforms, informing the approach you take to creative assets, for instance.
- Why: what is the point of this project? Is it to build links? Increase organic reach? What KPI(s) are you targeting?
- How: what output is the client looking for? What stages/processes do you need to achieve this?
At the very least, every brief – client services or otherwise – should include this information. Once completed, various teams can embellish the above, creating specialised briefs to suit their needs.
The responsibility of a brief for the agency
Just because a brief is to the point, doesn’t mean it’s easy. It requires a level of empathy to truly understand your client’s needs and, even on our most compassionate days, executing empathy in a business capacity is no easy feat.
If we strip our business back to its bare bones, clients have a problem and agencies provide a solution – a brief is the first step in that problem-solving process. To do this, you need to empathise with your client. If you get on their level, you’ll understand what they need and why they need it – a brief is merely a written record of this interaction. It is up to the person in the agency who is on the receiving end of the information from the client to capture the essence of this empathy and act as a middle man to them and the wider internal team using the brief as their recitation.
As the project manager, you need to ask the right kinds of questions to execute empathy correctly, remain on-brand and respond adequately to the client’s request.
Making good briefs great
You’ve got the core 5Ws + H on your brief. It’s looking okay, but it could be better. Here are some tips to improve the quality of your briefs:
- Non-negotiables: do you know the budget? or when the deadline is? There’s no point coming up with an all-singing-all-dancing campaign if the budget won’t allow for it or if the need is urgent.
- Be crystal clear: avoid vague objectives that are open to interpretation. Add detail and quantify it. ‘I want to grow my organic traffic’ turns into ‘improve the dresses category organic traffic by 10% YoY’.
- Replay: repeat the brief back to the client to make sure you’ve got it 100% correct.
- Avoid assumptions: when presenting briefs to other stakeholders (internal or external) don’t assume they’ve read your briefing document – discussing each point promotes understanding, allows everybody to ask questions and refines any grey areas.
- Lean on your templates: as discussed, use briefs with preordained headers. This speeds up the process and may reveal elements previously detailed in older briefs that you may have missed.
Briefs in action
At Builtvisible, we execute many growth campaigns, which use content to build links to strategic URLs on our clients’ websites.
By nature, these projects are very complex, requiring multiple stages of idea generation, and research. In terms of input, involvement may be needed from multiple client stakeholders outside of marketing such as PR, brand and product teams, as well as collaboration across various Builtvisible teams.
Upon noticing the briefs for these projects didn’t match the scale needed, our Senior Account Manager, Megan, created new templates for multi-stage briefs to act as cornerstones for each stage of our growth campaigns. The new format advocates:
- Understanding – all project members (client-side and agency) are up-to-date with the client’s background and requests.
- Transparency – no one is left in the dark about any details.
- Effectiveness – minimal risk of straying from the agreed idea, giving the client gets as much bang for their budget as possible.
Use of multi-stage briefs like these would have helped my past self to avoid alienation of that IT stakeholder, making sure everyone was on the same page every step of the way.
The role of a brief for the client
Every project starts with a client. As an agency, that’s who we’re here for. So, obviously, a brief cannot be written without involvement from them. Therefore, the onus falls just as much on their shoulders as the agency’s in terms of briefing responsibility. While the agency takes the crux of an idea and builds upon it, the client has to firstly offer up that pain point in order to spark all solutions henceforth.
A survey by AdAge of 1,200 agency leaders found that most agencies reported some level of frustration with the quality of client information within briefs:
- 53% found briefs complete but lacking in focus
- 27% found them incomplete and inconsistent
- 20% found them complete and focused most of the time
- Zero respondents found them complete and focused all the time.
Without proper information given, a brief is open to interpretation, meaning the work may not always be on the money when it goes back to clients.
In a client/agency panel event, John Allert, group brand director at McLaren, acknowledged how briefing his chosen creative agency poorly led to lower quality work over time:
“The great shame was the brief degradation over a period of time… the best piece of work… was actually the work they did for us in the pitch. Any work that we (briefed) subsequent to that just got more and more vague… less and less insightful and we ended up with worse and worse work through no fault of the agency – it was completely down to us.”
It sounds obvious but if you’re scoping out a project, only the client can give you the guidance you need. You need client input to deliver that top-quality piece of work they are looking for and make the most efficient and productive use of their marketing budget in the process.
Collaborating for success
While everything above will help you create solid, useful briefs, it’s up to you to go forth and create great briefs. They will become the catalyst to your team’s proudest moments and a product of watertight collaboration, through dialogue, trust and empathy across the board.
Past me could have avoided disappointing that stakeholder by engaging him prior to the scoping stage, understanding his desired outcome, and building innovation into that brief.
Make briefs the sacred texts of your agency, kill the mystery and watch as awe replaces scepticism in your clients’ eyes. You’ll deliver better work, keep clients satisfied and – ultimately – get better results.