Better briefs mean better business

There’s a quote that goes along the lines of ‘I’m sorry this letter is so long, if I’d had time I’d have made it shorter’. It’s attributed to many, but the best advice still is that if you’re ever in any doubt about the source of a quote let Churchill claim it and you’ll usually get away with it. (Unless it’s about the Metaverse or Love Island.)

Jun 20, 2022

By Neil Davidson

It’s an over-used quote when it comes to talking about briefs, but rightly so. Briefs need to be succinct and pointed, and this takes time. This isn’t just because the recipients of a brief in 8-point Times Roman crammed into two pages lose the will to live after reading it, although they do. It’s because if you have invested time in writing a smart strategy then writing a brief brief should be easy. (I’d happily vote for a law that gives life sentences out to people who continue to reference the brief for Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel in brief workshops.) 

Better briefs start with smart strategies 

The Better Briefs project estimates that 33% of every marketing budget is wasted on poor briefs and misdirected work. The project is focused on fixing the quality of client briefs, recognising that while many clients believe that they are good brief writers generally they also have a less rosy view of the briefs they have recently been writing, and admit they could do better. This also explains the gap between how good clients think they are at writing briefs and how good their agencies think they are. 

Richard Rumelt’s Good Strategy/Bad Strategy is one of the best books on strategy, shattering so many illusions. Rumelt is clear on what good strategy is, starting with the kernel of strategy (a diagnosis, a guiding policy and a series of actions), and that it’s simple, obvious, and coherent. It identifies the key actions to overcome the challenge, but most importantly its focused so that decisions are made about where to focus scarce resources. 

Bad strategies are fluffy, fail to truly face the challenge, mistake goals for strategy and have poor strategic objectives. These objectives don’t address critical issues and are usually impracticable. You can usually tell a bad strategy because it’s got all the elements but doesn’t bring them together. You can see the wool but you can’t see the jumper. 

Smart strategies don’t swim in the shallows 

I remember watching a colleague reading a copy of Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows on a flight and making ridiculously slow progress because he couldn’t get past a page without checking his iPhone, a real-time case study. Carr examines the effects of technology on our minds and how intelligence is no longer seen as the ability to sit quietly and use deep thinking to solve complex problems. Multi-tasking, speed and efficiency in doing stuff is valued over time spent getting to a strategic leap, accelerating a world of tech-driven dopamine hits that many in marketing and business live in today. Carr argues that the digital age has rewired our brains in a way that makes us more susceptible to distraction and less able to focus on complex thoughts or develop subtle emotions. (At last there’s an easy explanation for Capitol Hill.) 

Getting into the right frame of mind for smart strategic thinking is the intellectual equivalent of weaning someone off fast food being consumed to the levels seen in Super Size Me. Shallow thinking is a quarter pounder with cheese and fries, and deep thinking is Nut Roast Wellington (but actually a lot more fun). 

Better ways to better briefs 

Marketing is full of bright people, so the real issue is devoting time to smarter strategies and brief briefs and kicking the shallow thinking habit. A Trainspotting inspired deep thinking approach is an option. It just requires a locked room, ten tins of tomato soup, eight tins of mushroom soup and a few other items it’s better not to list here. 

One more realistic way to avoid shallow thinking habits that works for me is avoiding technology and just thinking about essence of a strategy and therefore a brief before committing to anything. Avoid the desire to get out your laptop to start banging out content in PowerPoint or a briefing template at all costs. What’s the diagnosis, the solution to the diagnosis and the actions as a result? 

Spend even longer before committing your thinking, capture it in writing first and knock it about with colleagues and your agency before you even think you’ve come to a solution. This may even just be spending time on the diagnosis only as the smarter the diagnosis the more likely that the strategy will be smart too. 

We’ve never needed smart creative thinking in strategies and great creativity in marketing more, and your agency needs great briefs to give them an unfair advantage to achieving this, spending more time on building the brief than unpicking a poor one. We’re working on a better client briefs initiative at HeyHuman too, including best practice, tips and collaborative brief writing workshops.

Drop me a line if you’re interested in learning more.