Do you need to write a brief?

This is going to sound controversial, but many of the written briefs we receive are crap and aren’t worth it.

Let me start by saying that I know I'm being deliberately provocative here, and if you want a more balanced agency view of good briefing, you should read this article about creating the perfect brief, but I think there is some merit in testing the argument.

I can almost feel the Account Handling team recoil in disgust and to be fair, I do understand why. When you get started in the world of agencies, and particularly in the handling team, you’re told that ‘briefs’ are the fuel the agency runs on. If someone doesn’t know what to do, they ask for a brief. Without a brief, we’re all just shuffling around drinking coffee and talking about TV shows.

Creatives need briefed.

Copywriters need briefed.

Photographers need briefed.

Illustrators need briefed.

Agency people need briefs!

We, as agency people, tend to put such store around ‘what the brief says’ that it doesn’t seem to matter if what’s written is nonsense or not. It’s been conditioned into us for years, and I think that we often miss the opportunity to challenge what’s in them - in a sort of deferential shrug to the all-knowing client.

What’s the problem?

Well, I think that there needs to be a distinction made between a functional brief - which is quite prescriptive and tells the reader exactly what it is that is required, and the broader client question which is more open and asks a strategic or diagnostic question: ‘what’s the nature of the problem or challenge we’re trying to solve?’

The problem comes when we try to use a generic briefing approach in both cases. Especially when we try to use a template to force the thinking into narrow, predetermined boxes designed for ticking. These templates encourage generic, formulaic thinking by both the client and agency. Resist them at all costs!

So what should be in a client brief?

Good question. And I don’t have a definite answer, but I do have some thoughts about what shouldn’t be in it. Oftentimes we receive client briefs that are so ‘closed’ there’s no room for discussion. In these situations, clients have self-diagnosed their own issues and challenges and have written a brief prescribing their own solution. It’s the equivalent of deciding your own ailment, writing your medical prescription and then going to see the doctor or pharmacist to have it dispensed. 

I’m not not saying that this is always wrong. Sometimes it’s right. But the key thing for a firm like ours is that a large part of the value we bring is in doing the diagnostic. Talking about the big, difficult chin rubbing stuff that happens before any decisions are made. We’re experts in our own field, and we see patterns and issues reoccurring across many different clients, so I’m concerned when potential clients don’t seem to want to take advantage of that expertise and come to us with their own solution. It’s a sign that they’re perhaps looking for an order taker rather than a consultant. So, my preference is that there is no client brief. Just a broad-ranging conversation which can act as a starting point for both parties to decide if there’s a decent fit. That’s the most important thing. Issues like ‘who are we targeting’ and ‘what are the timescales’ all have their place, but not at this initial stage.

Writing up notes and summarising the task into a document is a useful exercise - but be careful not to fall down the rabbit hole of brief templates and box-ticking.

What about internal briefs?

This is where they do have a place. But in my view, they should be restricted as much as possible, to functional requirements, which are downstream of the initial task. For example, print specs, artwork, production requirements - they’re all crucial in the delivery of the final solution and rely on accurate information, supplied succinctly and efficiently in a brief.

But writing a brief for every single task is busy work that favours process and bureaucracy over progress and action. Senior creatives within agencies should be part of the client conversation that flushes out the key challenge. And in my experience, these creatives then know exactly how to address the issue, and they don’t need a brief to help them. Like the parable about the old man and the hammer - they just know where to tap. Let that be a lesson to us all.

So, next time you think you might need to brief an agency, please have a think about the best way to do it. In my view, there’s more value in a good old chat, than ploughing through a 10-page brief. You might find out that the solution you thought you wanted may not be the one that you need.