The perfect client brief: Does it exist?

Five agencies hammer out the ultimate brief and what it takes to get there.

The perfect client brief is a clear statement of the business problem that needs solving. The perfect client brief is in-person. The perfect client brief is co-written. The perfect client brief has a numerical KPI. The perfect client brief is small. The perfect client brief is more than just a piece of paper.

The perfect client brief is all of these. And about one hundred other things.

Industry chatter points to much re-working or entire re-creating of briefs by agencies for brands which routinely miss the mark. Campaign US asked five agencies to outline the dream mission statement, and the process in place that cushions the inevitable back-and-forth.

Angela Steele, chief strategy officer at Carat USA

The perfect client brief is co-written. Agencies have so much to offer to input into the brief; it shouldn’t be a one way, client to agency, process. The client shouldn’t bear the sole burden of the brief when we, as agencies, have so much information and resources at our fingertips to help clients understand and define the challenge ahead.

That said, agencies need to be prepared to self-brief. It’s our job to help clients see around corners. As agencies, we have a unique perspective on the world and on consumers. As a result, we have the ability to face challenges from different angles, and therefore we should be part of defining the business challenge and framing up the opportunity we intend to solve.

The most critical success factor in a brief is an agreed upon, clear, numerical KPI. As an agency, if we have that, we can work wonders.


Christian Cocker, SVP group strategic planning director at RPA

My personal preference is that the client brief is not the creative brief, rather it’s a clear statement of the business problem they want to solve. Ideally the client brief includes as much context, product understanding, market dynamics, competitive insight, and customer insight as they can muster. If it is a brand new client this would ideally include context of how their company came to exist, it’s corporate culture, it’s brand, it’s vision for the future and so on.

At this point you start to realize that the perfect client brief is not so brief. If there has to be a one-page document, then it should be laser-focused on their business problem, the target audience, the product/service/message to focus on, any secondary communication points, sales goals/key performance indicators, and finally any other key challenges to be aware of.

As with a creative briefing, it’s not just the piece of paper, but rather the in-person conversations during the development of the brief and the actual in-person briefing that is critical.

So from the standpoint of the "perfect client brief" being more than just a piece of paper, it would actually be a series of in-person meetings and discussions with the client. They would take the agency through their best understanding of the thing they want to advertise, their understanding of their customers, and how their business works -- production, distribution, research and development, how they actually make money, their company culture/philosophy, what makes their approach different etc.

If the client briefing process is more about this kind of sharing and dialogue, then when the agency develops the creative brief in partnership with the client, it is way more likely to be on point with solving the real problem, and way less likely to lead to wasted creative development time due to mis-interpretation of a client briefing document (i.e. if that document is taken as the direction without all the in-person back-and-forth).

When you think about it, briefs should be designed for the audiences that need to use them. Therefore, a client brief to an agency should be as focused as possible on making the agency team as a whole, i.e. account, strategy, media etc.

On the other hand, the creative brief is to help direct and inspire creatives as they start to concept, so it should be laser-focused on providing a powerful insight -- without all the business and marketing speak you might see in a client brief -- that they can leverage to solve the agreed upon business problem.


Brent Vartan, managing partner at Bullish

When it comes to our process for developing briefs -- actually any strategic artifact -- we have a very simple philosophy that governs everything we do: Find the good. Don't wallow too long in the problem(s). Then, focus on the unlocking mechanism. The perfect brief is one that's just as inspiring as it is instructive.


Evan Russack, partner at WorkInProgress

The perfect brief can exist, but it takes a lot of work and collaboration with the client and agency to get it right. Agencies and clients speak different languages, so there are times when the brief needs to be translated into something that's actionable for the agency while still delivering on the client's business needs. Then there are times when the brief just needs to be reworked because the insight is off or the problem that needs to be solved is not right, or the ask has too many things in it. The goal is to align on a brief that is single-mindedly focused. This clarity leads to the best creative thinking.

Sometimes the brief completely changes, or a slight nuance is what's needed, but regardless of the how much the brief changes it’s essential to spend the time to get it right because if it's not right then it won't yield great work and this can lead to churn and frustration.

At WorkInProgress we focus on defining your passionate reason for being and proving that through taking action and then creating memorable advertising to promote the action. Our approach leads to a pipeline of actions that can be executed over multiple years. This allows us to move away from the reactionary cycle of briefing and rebriefing and stay focused on consistently taking action to prove what the brand stands for. New products, offers or services can be inserted into this process quite easily because the focus is on communicating how this new product, offer or service is an action that proves what the brand stands for.

The biggest thing about developing a creative brief is to be open about what it can evolve into. The best briefs are ones that change and morph based on discussions with key partners to something that is clear, concise and actionable.


Joanne McKinney, CEO at Burns Group

We believe the smallest strategic box sparks expansive creativity. So, our briefs are designed to do just that -- identify the tightest definition of the strategy, to allow our creatives the freedom of execution. We find this can sound counterintuitive to many clients, whose initial briefings often cover a lot of information and allow for multiple strategic interpretations, believing that will allow for multiple creative interpretations. For us, a great brief sets up creative options, but not strategic options. Essentially, the smaller the brief, the bigger the ideas that come from it.

We love a great marketing brief from a client -- one that really helps us understand their business holistically and sets up the immediate problem that creativity can solve (creativity can’t solve every problem). We see it as our job to translate that broader marketing strategy into a creative brief -- and love clients who debate the wording of that brief with us until we all absolutely agree.

The best briefs should begin by answering two basic questions: who are we targeting and what behavior are we driving? We are in the business of behavior change -- so understanding what behavior we are focused on is critical. Even the best creative idea can’t simultaneously change how people feel, think and act -- so focus is critical. From there, our most important word is one. One objective, one tightly defined target, one driving insight, one main benefit to convey.

The place that we tend to spend the most time finessing is the key insight. Great brand advertising needs a real insight -- a fundamental human truth that we can leverage to drive growth. Often the insight provided feels manufactured to meet the brand benefit, or the insight is a real human truth, but not one that the brand really has the ability or right to truly leverage.

We definitely have played with the brief format over the years – and have shared all our thoughts and modifications directly with various clients for their feedback. A big addition that we’ve added based on this work is a visual brief. Creatives, and consumers for that matter, for the most part are visual thinkers, yet the typical creative brief from a client is words only. Our visual briefs have words, but also have a whole page of visual inspiration including cultural context, category heuristics and consumer affiliations.

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