Surprise: good briefs lead to great work

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A document that’s done the rounds of ad agencies is the one about the brief Michelangelo received (download the presentation here) for the Sistine Chapel. It outlines what could have happened if he had received mediocre briefs that are so common in advertising. It ends with the actual brief that lead to the great work: Please paint our ceiling for the greater glory of God and as an inspiration and lesson to his people. One doesn’t expect such inspirational (open?) briefs in advertising – as we are dealing with a measurable creative solution to a business problem which involves setting parameter & boundaries. But it is commonly believed the briefing process – both from the client and within the agency – needs to improve.

On the heels of the astonishing revelation that Twitter is 40% ‘pointless babble’, comes this report of a survey. 250 senior executives in US agencies were interviewed and they all agree that poor ‘client brief’ to agency leads to wastage and misguided ad campaigns. Some highlights:

– At least 30% of their staffs’ time is ineffective or wasted due to poor communication from their clients

– Client briefs were ranked poorest when it came to providing competitive information and describing how a client’s offering ranked in the competitive landscape.

– 75% of respondents reported that client briefs go through an average of up to five significant revisions after a project has begun. 8% of respondents said they’ve seen briefs go through a whopping 45 or more iterations!

– More than half (54%) of respondents said fewer than 40% of client briefs give them clear indication of what’s expected from their agencies.

– Agencies’ view that clients provide them with inadequate success metrics could lead to lackluster work and questionable payment practices.

Would it be any different if such a survey was to be conducted in India? In my view, this is true universally. But it is not always about poor client briefs. Even when the client brief is clear, there is a lot that happens (or doesn’t happen) within the agency that prevents all from ‘getting it right the first time’. Leading to re-work and waste of resources. Why is this so?

1. Creative as a brief creator: when an ad is created and presented it usually opens up debate on the lines of ‘are we saying the right thing?’. This is true of the agency folks as much as the client, in most cases. In a world where Account Management is caught up in operational jobs and Planning resources are not always available, the creative brief becomes a casualty. It is hurriedly written, as if a Leave Application form is being filled. There is usually not enough time to mull over it and think it through. So it ends up being a requisition for a job rather than a brief. At the agency side, it could also be about not asking the right questions at the right time. If a client brief has changed 45 times (as claimed above) in one single project, why was the agency quiet 44 times? The fear of losing a client or displeasing him is also a factor that lurks in agencies.

2. Lack of senior management involvement at briefing and evaluation stages: the advertising business was once about the agency & client CEOs having a chat, agreeing on a brief and discussing the creative solution among them. It didn’t have layers of approvals to go through. The CEO’s then passed the baton to the marketing folks who then set up a process. Nothing wrong with that, except that it involves someone writing a brief or communicating a brief, second-guessing someone else. So when the work is produced, ‘show me more options’ is a cool way of buying more time. The real decision maker sees perhaps the 5th iteration of the project and if his brief or expectation is different, it is huge price to pay in terms of delay.

Speaking of time, Bill Bernbach is credited to have said in the ’70s that, ‘The trouble with advertising today is that we stopped wanting it great and started wanting it Tuesday‘.

The reality of today’s competitive scenario in most categories is that things are required great and on Tuesday (preferably earlier). Fuzzy briefs are even more criminal in that context.

Any thoughts on how to improve the briefing process?

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