Poor briefs are destroying your marketing

I’ve never worked client-side, but I can say with some certainty from the agency perspective that we generally receive briefs which are lacking in one way or another – and that has far-reaching consequences beyond winding up whoever is responsible for delivering your marketing.

Writing a (good) brief is harder than you think

In 2022, Matt Davies and Pieter-Paul von Weiler launched the Better Briefs Project which aims to do exactly what it says on the tin, i.e. to provide the tools for everyone to write better briefs. They were motivated to do this by the results of their own research into client and agency perceptions of briefs, which confirmed the staggering disconnect between the two sides of the fence, not least that 80% of clients believed that they wrote a good brief… but only 1 in 10 agencies agreed. As with any form of communication, it’s the recipient who gets the final say on whether it was effective or not so we can be fairly confident that poor briefs are pretty much the norm. In fairness, 86% of those surveyed did acknowledge that writing briefs is hard, but presumably the deluded majority subconsciously added, “for everyone else”.

Without a clear objective, you’re going to get lost

You’d think every brief would include a clear objective, the desired outcome of the activity, and 71% of agencies would agree with you that this is the most important element of a marketing brief. But again, the Better Briefs data reveals that 55% of briefs don’t even meet this bare minimum requirement and this causes a number of problems, both in the short and long run.

The first is a simple question of wasted time, with a study by Farmer & Co indicating that the average brief gets batted back and forth between client and agency 3.6 times before they reach alignment. And even then, there may be slight discrepancies in the two parties’ understanding. Either way, that works out as something like two months wasted at the outset of any project just getting to some semblance of clarity in terms of what you’re trying to achieve.

The second consequence is that it’s impossible to be strategic if you don’t have a destination in mind. At its core, strategy exists to answer “How do we get there?” but it can only do that if “there” is properly defined. Seeing as that’s the case less than half the time, it’s hardly surprising that strategy is far less common than most of us would like to admit. In times of uncertainty, it’s human nature to be risk-averse and to hyperfocus on what is known, so most of us in these circumstances will – consciously or otherwise – fixate on the bottom line, chasing short-term sales figures at the expense of broader marketing principles.

Your brief is almost certainly losing you money

There’s a tangible cost to the business when briefs don’t do what they need to do: the Better Briefs Project found that 26% of UK marketing budgets are wasted on misdirected work, and the IPA estimates that including clear strategic direction in your brief generates a 31% improvement in marketing ROI. Essentially, the less well-written the brief, the more likely you are to fall into the trap of over-tactification and an inevitable race to the bottom.  By failing to develop your skills and then not investing enough time to write a genuinely good brief, the vast majority of businesses are both wasting resources and leaving a serious amount of cash on the table.

The solution is remarkably simple

As is so often the case, the challenge is massively reduced if your strategy is embedded in everything you do, so it stands to reason that this should be your starting point. Begin by identifying your single purpose, the commercial outcome which unequivocally means “success”, and break this down into its constituent parts to define SMART marketing objectives.

The second pillar of your strategy relies on having a solid understanding of who you can sell to, and why they might buy from you. Where this is truly strategic, and not just plain tactical, is where you look beyond your existing customers and consider new segments outside your traditional competitive market. Use these insights to prioritise audiences and allocate your budgets accordingly.

Once you have defined your priority segments, think about where you can find them at scale (your channel mix) and what you need to say to them (your messaging) at each touchpoint on the buying journey, bearing in mind that this journey may look different for each segment. Mapping out those purchase paths will also enable you to define channel-specific KPIs aligned to the journey.

Communicate this in clear, concise language so that it provides actionable direction but leaves scope for whoever is going to execute your strategy to respond to the day-to-day realities of the market. Doing so will put you ahead of 93% of other brief-writers and, according to the IPA, lead to an 88% improvement in marketing effectiveness. It is undoubtedly complex, but getting it right will make everything else seem so simple.

Article by Phil Eaves

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