The Importance of Smart Briefs and the Impotence of Not

By Helena Wand

“Make me a sandwich will you darling? “, I shout out to my other half, from my seated position in my control centre, often referred to in many households as ‘the kitchen table’.

It is not that I am lazy, but it is getting late and not a morsel has troubled my colon since I got back in from my 3 hour audition for the next instalment of ‘The Whacky Races’ on the M3. My stomach is now shaking hands with my backbone and like many of us know we shouldn’t but inevitably do, I feel the need to make a small, but considered investment in a snack before I hit the unmade hay.

Let us be clear. I am not a fussy eater. Hungry enough, and pretty much nothing is safe. I have always been taught to appreciate the efforts made by others when they are in the culinary hot seat, more than the final product. This snippet of etiquette and hopefulness has been passed down to my three girls and, I trust, will continue on to their progeny’s progeny – such is the shelf life of the wisdom within it – akin to an Aborginal tale.

But. I draw the line at one thing and one thing only. Crab sticks. Crab sticks in mayo, in a salad, on a pizza, in a shoe, in a plastic tub, in my eye or in my mouth. Crabs do not, and never have had, sticks. Not even the crippled ones. They are nothing other than a cruel invention designed to torture any creature born with a palate. The world would not miss crab sticks if the Government chasing my vote banned them tomorrow, and I for one would be ticking the ballot paper before dawn. In short, it is fair to say, I do not like them.

What sits before me now, you will have guessed, is a crab stick, lettuce and salad cream sandwich: devised with good intent, not a little devotion, and some invention given the implicit deadline and the contents of our fridge – and most importantly, on my behalf because I lacked the time and energy to make a sarnie myself.

This will not cause a row. Maybe my other half has forgotten the palpable enmity between me and the crabstick. Maybe it is all he could find. Maybe he did his best. Maybe he is an idiot. Yes, that is probably it. Probably all of them. It causes a row.

I would rather have had just the lettuce. He could have made me toast and Bovril. He could have made me anything from a small but not insignificant selection of ingredients at his disposal. But he didn’t – yet he is standing there, close enough to see the crabsticks coming toward him, wondering what he has done to cause my shoulder to become so frosty.

It is at this point that I have decided to change the subject matter of this blog. I was going to write about sales effectiveness in the retail sector – but this fishy little nightmare has forced me down another path, given the earlier lack of clarity in request producing an indigestible and wholly unsatisfactory result : the importance of a quality brief.

We have all been there so often. Business and time pressures, 1000 emails to read a day, the majority of which need some sort of response, skimming over some matters and hoping we have done that to the ones which warranted it, being forced sometimes by our own will and sometimes by other’s, to spend time where we shouldn’t and not enough where we should.

There was a time when luxury for many of us would have been a hot bath and a glass of wine, an hour or two in front of a good film, a great book, a flick through ebay, a time with a loved one when the kids have gone to bed or better still, all of them rolled up in to one great, uneventful evening.

Now, I find one of the greatest luxuries, or indulgencies if you will, is having the time to think. Not about the small stuff, not about exquisite normalcy (which I happen to find rather cathartic), but about the things that really count – be that in life or in work. Tell me they are separate things, please ..tell me!

Many of my friends, colleagues and clients find this to be increasingly true. We spend so much time implementing strategies to cope or to create or to protect or to sell, that we often forget why we are doing ‘it’ in the first place. What is the reason, what value will it bring, how will it affect our fortunes, our families, our business or our customers.

I used to run my own technology business and with a slice of luck, a fair wind and I like to think, a smattering of ‘smarts’, sold a very solid company at a solid time. I am now a consultant – a poacher turned gamekeeper in some respects and truly love the breadth of companies with whom I get to work, their diversity, their challenges and above all, the magnificent people I get to meet.

We want to produce great work for great clients and in doing so, get great results. The clients with which I am fortunate enough to work want the same, probably with even more vigour and zeal – no one feels so protective or so proud of a product or service for which they are responsible.

However, given the atmospheric pressure inside the business bubble, it is not always the case that some clients have the time to brief properly – and sometimes, the result would have been of better quality, arrived quicker and smarter and for less cost, with less hair on fire, had they done so.

So, I want to talk about the importance of the client brief.

Both client and agency should derive enormous benefit in starting with a written document produced by the client, which is then analysed by the agency and debated between the two teams.

The process of developing, discussing and agreeing the brief in this manner in itself adds value. If more than one agency is involved in developing the campaign or project (trainers, designers, specialists, brand experts, retail experts etc) it is advisable to brief all parties together – with one written brief and one subsequent briefing meeting.

A written brief is also vital in ensuring the ‘buy-in’ of other key people in the client organisation. This buy-in is essential in order to avoid the significant waste of time and resources that can happen when senior executives – often outside the product and/or marketing department – challenge key assumptions in the brief, leading to belated changes in direction. Written briefs should have the buy-in of all interested parties before they are allowed to leave the corporate HQ and are delivered to an agency.

No brief, no work. Great brief, great work.

The client should make their biggest mental investment as early on in the strategic or creative process as possible, which helps to guarantee the safeguarding of the commercial investment they have made, some way down the line. Taking the time to think hard up front about what you need to do or say, about what, to whom, why, how and when simply put, saves time, money, frustration, relationships and psychiatrist’s fees.

Getting it right first time, pays.

Nowadays, when a client may retain three, four or more agencies to work on different aspects of your organisation’s corporate or brand communications, training requirements, new product launches or new strategic developments the premium on convening a key meeting to enable all parties to debate and contribute to the brief has never been greater. Having people with advertising, media, direct marketing, strategic sales skills, training expertise, public relations, sales promotion and other communications skills together in one room at the beginning of the project will add enormous value and set the shared agenda for the work ahead.

A good brief is not the longest or most detailed, it’s the one whose clarity and focus creates the platform for a great strategic leap, a blinding customer insight and an effective solution.

Briefs are called ‘briefs’ because they are meant to be just that: brief. Not a brain dump of everything you know about a subject matter or a product or a service. They are a summation of your thinking. A distillation of everything that is important to your business effort in a certain direction and the essence of what is most crucial and compelling to your customers.

“I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter” as Blaise Pascal put it in his Lettres Provinciales of 1657.

The client brief should therefore be a concentration of your current thinking. It should contain key nuggets of information and it should focus on setting out the objectives of your product or service that commercial communications can play a key role in achieving.

This appeal for clarity and objectivity, however, is not an attempt to supress creativity. For instance, often your depiction of the brand’s situation and the key issues it faces can spark off great creative thinking. There may be myriad innovative ways that you could light the creative fuse, whatever your sector, whatever your customer type. It is up to you to work out what they are.

Start by making sure that your objectives are crystal clear. Use concrete business objectives rather than vague terms such as ‘to improve brand image’, ‘to increase sales’ or ‘to position our product better in our market’.

If your objective is indeed to improve your product image and positioning, then go further. Explain the desired improvement that you want to achieve. From what to what? What will it do for your business?. What’s your business rationale for spending valuable budget to achieve this? Concrete business objectives rather than woolly intermediate objectives are not desirable but essential.

Client briefs should focus on making sure the business problem is properly defined. Only then can any agency work with you to reach a mighty solution.

Now, where are those cornflakes….?


About The Author

images_Profiles_Consultants_HelenaWandHelena has delivered highly successful business transformation projects on behalf of some of the World’s leading companies over the past 15 years.

She specialises in the business-wide adoption of customer-centric strategies, transitioning organisations from product focus to customer orientation, underpinned by the successful automation and synchronisation of sales processes, marketing functions and all other supporting operations.

Her many years of experience as a high performing sales executive combined with C- level positions in leading UK and international IT and Media companies has resulted in a keen understanding of the challenges faced by any organisation wishing to adopt and successfully implement customer-centric strategies.