Tips on how to run a brand workshop

I had an experience recently that forced me to boil down the essence of a brand workshop to its constituent parts, so that we could be through it in an hour. This wasn’t particularly easy, given that we usually run these sessions over a half day period.

But – with the right people in the room, it was liberating to get rid of all the usual brand bullshit, cut straight to the most valuable elements and soak up what was said around the room. The result was that we managed to run through most of what was needed within 45mins.

So, what was the secret - how were we able to condense all the value into 45mins with no loss of quality? Here are seven observations that may help:

1.0 The right (client & agency) heads
In my view this is the most important aspect of any brand workshop. From the client, it’s essential you have the right senior people in the room. Ideally you want the decision makers as they can get to the value quickly. Similarly, you need senior and experienced agency personnel in the room to make sure there’s a good matchup. In our case we had both and the mix delivered good results, quickly.

2.0 Pre-reads circulated
Our audience had been sent pre-read material before the workshop. So, they were primed and had had time to think about some of the answers beforehand. This is a big part of getting them into the right headspace before they arrive. I think this is a good practice to get into – it’s a professional courtesy which helps facilitate and speed up the session.

3.0 Clarity & focus of discussion areas
When it’s boiled down – there are only four discussion areas that really mattered for us in the workshop:

  • 3.1 What’s the ‘internal perspective’?

Understanding how aligned the team is on the brand, its characteristics, the product offering and associated challenges.

  • 3.2 Who is the Customer?

Get a view on who they think they’re serving and how our product/service is relevant to them.

  • 3.3 Where’s the Competition?

It’s important to understand the marketplace dynamics. Who else is playing and how are they positioned.

  • 3.4 What are the brands you aspire to?

This is a nice to have (and could be cut) but it’s a useful signpost to get a feel of which brands - and what aspect of them - the client admires or feels we could learn from. 

I reckon there’s a lesson in simplicity for us here. Even though we only had an hour, when we did the analysis and follow up, it didn’t feel like we’d lost anything by focusing solely on these four areas.

4.0 Plain language speeds everything up
When you’ve no time to waste, you don’t flower things up. You cut straight to the central questions. By asking for a set of defining brand characteristics, it’s easy for everyone to understand what you mean – and they bring a list along to the meeting. But if we say that we want to explore the stretch between the intrinsic and extrinsic brand attributes… (which, shamefully I have done in the past)…everyone stares blankly at you (as they should) and you then spend 20mins explaining what you mean.

5.0 Drive it and keep the discussion focused
These things can drift off course very easily, so you need to be able to keep everyone focused on the specific question at hand. It’s not rude to interrupt someone to keep the discussion on track - it’s an essential part of the task. I used to worry about this, but with experience I now enjoy it and think it adds to the focus of the discussion. Saying things like “that’s a great point…and we’ll get to it…but I want to keep us focused on this topic for a little longer” is a perfectly polite and professional way to keep control and get what you need out of the session.

6.0 Keep the PowerPoint deck short
You need to think more about the conversation rather than the presentation. Agencies are so used to creating masterpiece presentation decks, and often feel they’re needed as a crutch. But there’s a discipline and a real benefit in focusing on the discussion, not the deck.

7.0 Watch the clock and move on when you know you’ve got enough
You MUST keep track of time. Placing your watch on the table is a statement of intent. And when you’re underway, be mindful of flogging dead horses. You get the good stuff early and most of the time it can be obvious. Capture it and move on otherwise you’ll end up in a discursive cul-de-sac…the killer of time in a brand workshop.

I’m sure that we’re no different from any other industry in the way we make things more complicated than they need to be to confer a notion of expertise around our specialism of branding. But as is often the way in life, when things are made simpler, they just work better. 

So, what’s true about a brand workshop will no doubt be true about other aspects of branding. From here on in let’s keep it focused, simple and use plain language whenever possible.