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  • Writer's pictureLucas Bergmans

Six ways to balls up your advertising brief

Updated: Jan 4

“A brief is a cheque that's about to be cashed.”

 I find this quote a useful reminder of the importance of brief-writing (and briefing) and why all too often it’s not given the focus and respect it deserves. The brief marks the start of a process that has the intention of delivering something (eg advertising) that could drive a step-change in the growth of your business.

That something will cost money to produce (agency fees, production costs) and typically an awful lot more to get in front of your intended audience (media costs) If it works well, this investment will be entirely worthwhile and the client responsible will be praised and no doubt deservedly promoted. On the flipside, it could have no discernible impact other than a sizeable gap in your Marketing budget and red faces all round.

 Your chance of failure is greatly enhanced by a poorly thought-through and badly written brief.

 The bad news is that there are many ways in which to balls up your brief, not just one.

The good news is that help is at hand!


In the third part of my Delivering Creative Effectiveness series, I spoke to Katie Pople. Katie was an Account Director at BBH during their 'golden era' and delivered some of the most iconic ad campaigns of recent decades on brands like Levi’s, Sony and Boddington’s. Today she trains and coaches marketeers and agencies on how to develop ‘work that works’, by briefing brilliantly, judging and giving feedback fantastically and maintaining a strong client-agency relationship.

The article below includes some great advice on how to create a great brief and six mistakes to avoid. Or as I’ve tastefully it called it: Six Ways to Balls Up Your Brief!

Katie, thanks for joining. Could you start by telling us about your career highlights and what you do today? 

I started my career at Saatchi and Saatchi in 1990, which feels like 100 years ago. To begin with, you learn the core skills of account handling as an Account Manager, the importance of being a safe pair of hands, relationship building and drive. As you become more established, you start to learn and slowly build up your ability to think strategically and focus on getting great work out. That was the reason why I went into advertising in the first instance and briefing is part of that: how we input into writing great briefs and judging work. I worked on a cross-section of different accounts like Procter & Gamble, Royal Insurance, Burger King and a smaller charity. And a frustration for me there - much as I loved it – was that I wasn't producing the kind of work that I'd come into the industry to do.

I then moved to become an Account Director at BBH where I had the privilege and pleasure to work on accounts which were known for outstanding, award-winning effective work, and more importantly, the opportunity to work closely with three of the ‘Mad Men’ idols of advertising: John Hegarty and Nigel Bogle on Levi's and John Bartle on Sony. What I wanted to learn was that rigour around strategy and briefs and how you get to great work. What BBH was particularly known for was the belief that you increase the odds of being effective if you're creative. And the culture was that creativity is absolutely part of everything you do.

I stayed at BBH for a really long time - 10 years - and then set up my own consultancy doing training, development, facilitation and coaching, and I qualified as a practitioner whilst at BBH. Now I work with clients and agencies in this area of getting to great output, and of course briefs is a central part of that, as well as judging creative and the importance of your relationship with an agency.


When it comes to creative development, what do you think are the biggest challenges specifically for scale-ups?

"People think process gets in the way and that you don't need it (...) I think the opposite is true: a lack of process, that total freedom and no boundaries leads to confusion and lost time and actually doesn't always lead to great work."

I’ve worked with a number of scale-ups including Cazoo, Thortful and Global Council and I think there are a few key observations when it comes to creating great work.

Firstly, the need for process is really important. The importance of process to liberate creativity, so that we have a very clear and standardised approach to how we deliver great work so that people don't waste their time spinning their wheels in irrelevant areas. Process brings consistency and rigour. It removes chaos. As you grow, it ensures the right people are involved in the right room at the right time. And it brings that focus to how we brief, how we judge, who signs off what when, all in the context of a calendar plan of activity. 

Process to me has always been absolutely central to getting to great work, and sometimes when you're small and growing, people think process gets in the way and that you don't need it. We're agile, we’re quick, we're growing. I think the opposite is true: a lack of process, that total freedom and no boundaries leads to confusion and lost time and actually doesn't always lead to great work. I think the same is true of briefs as well: that real rigour and focus that process brings. Process liberates creativity and I think it's just as true in a scale-up.

I also think it is really important to have to have a really clear sense of what kind of work you want to make. An agreed benchmark of what good looks like including, importantly, alignment with your founder. If it's a founder-led business I think that's key.  And the creative filters: we've agreed filters on how we're going to judge the work and then we can collectively give permission to our agency to be brave and deliver it with us. With a small team clearly defined: who's in and who's not. And involvement from those senior players throughout. The worst-case scenario is when they come in late and they completely disagree with the strategic direction in the brief. And so we have to go around the loop again.


I think that can be a real shift in mindset for a scale-up that has grown through Performance Marketing and is used to high frequency experimentation. You try 10 different paid search ads and you see which one works. That kind of approach just doesn't really apply to developing broadcast advertising that's going to be quite consistent once it's live. You don't have the luxury of chopping and changing all the time. It wastes a lot of time and money if that's how you're going to manage your agency. And the role of the founder is key, probably more than senior stakeholders in a more established business.

And they will want to have a view, presumably. And if they want to have a view on the work, they have to have a view on the brief. At Unilever, the Brand Director equivalent are mandated to sign off the brief and they are mandated to be at first presentation of idea. This is to avoid those scenarios which I hear time and time again where work is presented to multiple junior clients, then to the senior level, and then the Chief Marketing Officer comes in and blows the whole thing out because they disagree fundamentally with the strategic direction. What a waste of time.


So, why is it so important to get briefs right?

"A proper written brief is important because it increases the odds of us being commercially effective and successful"

Lots of reasons. Firstly, I think clarity. Clarity on what we're doing. We're about to spend significant amounts of hard-earned money. There's a great quote from the IPA in support of this, which is ‘a brief is a cheque that's about to be cashed’. The point about it is that it identifies the aim, the focus, the ‘job to be done’ within the communications. And also, it aligns stakeholders, which is so important. This is why, with many companies I work with, we make sure the senior stakeholders have signed off the brief in the first instance. Another point is that briefs travel in this multi-team environment. Briefs travel from agency to agency, so it's important that we set the measures of success within the brief. Otherwise, how will we know if we've been effective or not?

Finally, I think it's important that the brief demonstrates the excitement and passion and ambition we have for the project. It shows that someone has cared about it. It isn't just a ‘copy and paste’. Often you hear people go ‘well I haven't got time, I just do a copy and paste’ and I think it's so much more important than that.

Or they do a verbal brief.

Or a verbal brief. Or a one-line email. A proper written brief is important because it increases the odds of us being commercially effective and successful. And it's important because it focuses the minds of the agency or the partner that we're working with on the story we want to tell. The point of view we have decided will achieve the job to be done.

And you're managing agency time too, the clock is ticking. And rather than using precious, creative time to work out what you want the brief to be, it's really important we get it right in the first instance.


And what do you think makes a great brief?

 "Great briefs direct and inspire in equal measure."

Well, my summary for this is always: great briefs direct and inspire in equal measure. But there are a few things that I think are really important.

The first and most important thing is a singular, clear message. The single-minded proposition, the single most important thing we want to say. The discipline to commit to a key message that becomes the focus for all our activity. I think there is genuinely a misguided belief that an open-ended brief full of information liberates the creative mind. Quite the opposite is true. Say one thing and say it well, because the truth is, that creative freedom, no parameters and loads of information leads to confusion. The absolute best way to shoot yourself in the foot and waste precious budget is to be unfocused. The classic Ogilvy quote is: ‘give me the freedom of a tight brief. ‘ 

The framework I use, and lots of planners use, is ‘get who, to do what, by telling them what’ and that becomes the ‘brief in a nutshell’ at the top in any brief template I work with, or the ‘brief in brief’.


Number twoa real target audience. My planner that I worked with at BBH, Steve Walls, used to refer to the target audience in a brief as ‘the third member of the creative team’. It's someone that you've met, that's real. It's not just a collection of numbers, or letters: ABC1, 25 to 45. It's not that. Or buzzwords or false motivations, or dodgy segmentations. I have a real bugbear about things like ‘Muesli Mums’ or ‘Active Families’ - I don't really know what that means.

And fake categorisations as well. I've got a real thing against using ‘Millennials’ and ‘Gen Z’. ‘Millennials’ is my son at bottom end and me not far off the top end. He's a student, I am a mother of three. We are entirely different. How can there be one catch-all for us? And the same is true of Gen Z: that’s a primary school kid aged eight, and a 23 year old in their first job. I really struggle with that.

What I think is interesting in a great brief, is where you see a real target audience with attitudes that unite their lifestyle, what they think, their psychographics and a little bit of insight in there as well. Insight is incredibly difficult to get to and obvious in hindsight, but it must be written in human language, not this ridiculous language we speak in this business sometimes.


Number three is clear campaign objectives. And that's really important because marketing is unlikely to be effective and difficult, if not impossible, to measure if we haven't got the measures right within the brief. Clearly spelled out so it makes all that we do accountable. Objectives quantified with intended timescales and prioritised. Commercials first: the impact on the business. Then, what we are asking people to do: the behavioural objectives. And then, what we call the softer objectives: awareness, how we want people to feel in order to get them to do what we want them to do. And if they do that, what will be the commercial impact on the business? Prioritised in that way, we increase the odds of being effective.


The fourth thing builds on the singular point: a really good single-minded proposition. That's the ‘by’ in the ‘get who, to do what, by telling them what’. It’s customer-focused in everyday language. That’s simple and single-minded and succinct. Disruptive if it can be. We don't always have something disruptive to say, but if you have got something you need to say, say it. Say in the simplest of terms. I'm working with Canterbury at the moment, and they've introduced the lightest rugby boot ever. How brilliant is that as a proposition? The lightest rugby boot ever.

You might have a proposition that is more insightful. John Lewis: the home of thoughtful gifting. They executed that for many, many years. Or it might be a proposition that is a functional benefit of something you have. Audi technology helps you drive safely, regardless of the idiots you meet on the road. So that might be a functional benefit. Single-minded, simple, category-defining if it can be, insightful if it can be, ownable by your brand, definitely.


So those are the things I think define ‘great’ when I'm looking at briefs.


Then I’ve got my top tips.

Keep it short. It's called a brief for a reason. It should be brief.

Be honest. if it isn't unique, or if it isn't innovative, don't say it is.

Don’t overload with ‘wordage’. You've got to remember the end user of a brief is a creative, and often where they look first of all is your proposition and your killer facts in the service of that proposition. And if there's a lot of gobble and wordage in front of it, they just don't look at it. So keeping the brief brief is important, not overloaded.

 Sign off is really, really important: senior client, senior creative agency, senior media agency. They are the people that sign off. With initial channel recommendations and an idea of budget, so that the creative team know in which initial channels they need to execute their idea. I must have seen over the last two months, about 50 briefs on various clients I'm working with and I would say probably about 5% of them have a budget on them. A production budget. And not many have a single-minded proposition either.


I saw in a recent report (from the Better Briefs Project) that only 10% of agencies felt that their clients were good at writing briefs and that about 1/3 of marketing budgets are wasted on poor briefs. Could you give us five key mistakes in brief writing and how should people then try and avoid them?

Mistake number one is not knowing where the brief fits in the calendar plan of activity. What you can often find, particularly if it's a sizable marketing department with multiple verticals operating in silo, is the agency is being briefed on the same brief by three different teams. So you get that duplication of effort. And they haven't spoken to each other about when their activity is intended to run so it's all focusing on the same month in the year, which puts enormous pressure on the resources of the agency.


Mistake number two is thinking that you need to write the brief by yourself. The best briefs are collaborations between either you as the Client and your Planner, or the Planner and the Business Director. Or as a marketing person speaking to somebody else that you're working with in your marketing department. Those ‘think big’ moments where we come together in the process at brief stage and judging, where we have space and time to discuss and collaborate and disagree and pull it apart. The ‘tyranny of a blank sheet of paper’ and thinking you need to write it yourself is, a mistake. A brief will always be better when it's written with somebody else.


The third big mistake is not getting sign off from senior leads. A real example is where the agency and the client could have avoided wasting a month and a half of creative development time, rounds of changes and ideas that they then put forward to the Chief Marketing Officer who disagreed with the strategic focus right from the get-go. If the CMO had seen the brief, all of that time and energy and cost of a creative team coming up with a great idea could have been avoided had we had the right conversation at the right point in time.


The fourth one would be too much information, as we’ve mentioned before. Focus. That belief that open-ended briefs liberate the creative mind is mistaken. Quite the opposite is true.


And then mistake number five is what I call ‘sticky fingers on the diamond’ or too many players. Small teams make great work. The right people, in the right room at the right time, focusing on the strategic direction as summarised in the brief, and at the point of creative judgement. To me, that's your ‘triumvirate’ at the agency, which is your Business lead, your Planning lead and your Creative Director. And at the client side, it’s the brief writer and the Marketing Director. And if you've got Insight people or Strategists, yes of course they input, but any more than that and you risk fading away to the lowest common denominator.


Mistake number six is just emailing it over. ‘Briefings’ matter and they help because it's where you're able to communicate the ambition you've got for the brief and the project. And it's the start of the creative development process and a really good briefing is where you start having ideas. The piece of paper is the ‘leave-behind’. That conversation really matters as well. I’m working with a client and their in-house agency say: ‘We have never once in two years had anybody challenge our briefs. We email them over, they go into this box, and then out pops the work in two or three months.’ There has to be a conversation. The moment where we come together is a really important part of the briefing process.


And the word I would keep coming back to again and again is ‘edit’. 

Edit, edit and edit again. I know everyone says ‘I haven't got time’, but that ability to be ruthlessly single-minded in human language, with evidence in support of your proposition, signed off by the right people, is so important.


It might take more time, but then ultimately, you'll save time in the long run and you get to better work, right?

You save time, you save money, you increase the odds of getting to better work. It's never a guarantee, right? It's art, not a science. So however good our brief, you can never guarantee you'll get to great work, but you increase the odds. Because the brief acts as the springboard for the idea elsewhere, you increase the odds of getting better work if your brief meets all the criteria that we've talked about


Fantastic. Thanks very much, Katie. Incredibly valuable tips and important things to bear in mind when writing a brief!

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