The brief, in brief
10 September 2019
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The conventional approach here would be to start with the profound Google definition of a 'brief' and cleverly interrogate that, poking holes in it, or building on it, with intent to seem clever and bigger than the infamous brief itself. I'm not going to do that.

The brief carries varying levels of connotations and associations. For a client, it's admin. It's hours of wordsmithing and populating a template with intent to impress their boss (not inspire creativity in unconventional ways). For a suit, the brief is an instruction, or task, taken as accurate and binding – copy, paste, commence. Yes, this is a broad-stroke generalisation, but sadly more frequent than we'd like.

There are abundant clichés and adages on briefing and good 'ol sayings like "one degree off upfront and you'll end up in China" – meaning that if the brief is marginally unclear in the beginning, you will never get to the right creative solve. Let's deviate from those adages, and look at an unscientific, very subjective interpretation of the broader process: my take.

In sum, the brief should never be exchanged in a transactional manner. If you really want to grate a client, send a mail that says, "Thank you for your time today and for all the info, please find attached brief template. Please complete and send back."

It actually shouldn't be called a brief at all, but I'll hang on to that descriptor for now. 'Brief' alludes to prescription. For some reason when I think of a briefing, it's an intense gathering in a mysterious venue where a hardcore Sergeant issues orders to his men – failing to execute, and deviating from these instructions results in court martial, or death. Listen, agree, do, is the mentality.

We all know by now it should rather be an engaged discussion, and some of those real 'innovators' out there who propose writing the brief together, agency with client, deserve a back pat. But in my opinion, that's still not quite there. The intent should never be to populate or write something, even if it's together. The intent should be to listen, absorb, think, and then plot.

Beyond this, the concept of an inspirational briefing is sound, but shouldn't be what it has become: a reason to go paintballing and get awkwardly tipsy with your client. If you do engage in something inspirational as a means of conveying the challenge in an unconventional way, it should be a proper immersion, not just a reason to spend the client entertainment budget. It should be relevant – if it's a dog shampoo you are selling, then go wash dogs at the SPCA. In fact, the way the brief is presented/shared/drawn should be inspiring enough, regardless of whether you're in a body-odour riddled brainstorm room, or on a super yacht. Where isn't always paramount. How is.

So, lets unpack what the ultimate briefing session should be.

Post the initial formality-exchange and croissants, this client-agency session needs to evolve into an awkward discussion with brow raising questions at the heart of it. It's an interrogation. Then it needs to become an intense argument and debate, hands flung in the air in disbelief, and then the same hands clapping and high-fiving. Ultimately you need to land on a few key things. Focally, what is the exact problem at hand, or what is the problem going to be if we don't do something now? What do we need to solve, fix or change? What is the ultimate ambition? (here you transport yourself to the future where you're all heroes because you won this battle). Quality trumps quantity in terms of who you take to this meeting. The sense-check should be: who will get fired if we mess this up? Take them. The DTP Operator can hold the fort.

Next, you dig your heels in. You start unraveling any key insights or deep observations that may unknowingly be golden nuggets that inspire creative epiphanies. This is collaborative. It is not the duty of the lone Strategist. Often clients lean back and don't download even the most seemingly trivial things, like why the product tastes like a camel's hoof. Or worse, they just blindly regurgitate their brand blueprint propaganda and don't drop their guard to give you the cold hard facts (what they really know and feel about their beloved brand). Remember that people further removed from the brand (AKA the Agency) often don't know (or care) half as much as you think they do about your world. They will tell you that they do, but they don't. So be a good client and become borderline condescending in your info download. More is more.

Clearly the brief needs to become more intuitive, immersive and less instructional. The brief itself and the nature of collaborating and engaging earlier is actually the first step in solving the problem at play. Half the time, in these truly meaningful sessions, someone will blurt something that silences the room and warrants a 'holy sh*t, that could be the big idea'. One old advertising mantra, Ideas can come from anywhere, reigns true. Embrace that.

From here the suit (I still like to use 'suit', it makes us sound cool) walks out of that room feeling uncomfortable and panicked. A fruitful session but now what? How to distill all this verbal intrigue into a neatly wrapped parcel for the creative team – his 'kickstart' is tomorrow at 09h00 in the Ideation Chamber (gotta love agency room names). Panic is good. It means the suit is thinking and is invested. This now should keep him/her awake just as much as it has supposedly been keeping the client awake (another much-loved industry cliché). A bad suit will default to the template with the quirky name like the {Agency Name} Magic Maker. If they try to retrofit what they believe the client should have written, they have regressed.

Good suits, or as some of the more acclaimed account managers label themselves, Super Suits will create their own template. In fact, they'll say "F you" to anything that resembles a formulaic template. They will click 'create new' PowerPoint, GIF generator or MS 97 Paint doc. They will commence the download and revisit every ounce of trivial, or profound commentary in that session. They will commence on their blank canvas with intent to inspire the creative team and guide them to greatness. The suit becomes an artist. Beautiful.

One of our more recent presentations (AKA brief) to a team of creatives was done like this (and this is by no means a good way, or deserving of accolade, but it was at least a deviation from predictability). The number four was chosen. An axis plotted. Four arbitrary pictures drawn. Each picture was a depiction of something that was deemed to be worthy of mention – images informed by depth and meaning, albeit seemingly random. These pictures were horrendous, so that was a decent icebreaker. The images forged their way into everyone's memory. They covered:

Problem (why is the client paying us to think?)

Target (who are we talking to? – psychographics, not their dual family income)

Insight (there will be plenty of these if you have truly invested – choose one)

Do (become the consumer – hell, role play if you need to, whether it's an octogenarian or an ADHD toddler. Define what you should feel and then ultimately 'do' once exposed to the comms)

Here the stimulus was poorly drawn stick imagery, but there was a supporting story and underpinning context. The team listened because it was intriguing. Briefing is about storytelling. Tell a story, aim to inspire by packaging what matters most, in the most memorable way.

Yes, there is always a need for the granular stuff, but that is the hygiene stuff. The 42-page background, the 'find attached annual report', the past 12 campaigns and other bland info should passively live somewhere (um, maybe in the suit's head). But never front and centre. If you start your brief with the granularity, you've lost them.

In sum, my advice to any suit... when it comes to briefing, get immersed, ask dumb questions, think unconventionally and defy the 'transaction'. You need to drill down to the heart of the brief and find more than just information. Then find insights (don't wait for them to find you). But most importantly get creative around how you package it. Be unpredictable. Be 'song and dance'. Show you care.

By Greg Pfuhl
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