How to write a decent agency brief

A couple of years ago I was invited to a pitch briefing to several agencies to develop our next annual report. My first question to my colleague who invited me was: “What is our brief?” and he assured me that I shouldn’t worry; this was under control. So full of confidence, I went to the meeting.

Once in the pitch, the brief that given was the following: “Please provide three proposals for our next annual report; here is the report of last year which our CEO liked very much and especially the picture on pages 11, 25 and 48. Send the proposal by end of next week to our office, so we can present beginning of the week after.”

When the agency asked for more details, my colleague answered: “The annual report should be in full colour and ready within three months, in total we need 2,000 copies in print”.

I still hoped that the agencies would push back, but after two attempts for more information they stopped asking and promised to get back to us with their creative proposals.

Two weeks later we received at least three creative proposals from each agency for the annual report which were presented to the executive team. The CEO chose his favourite design.

First of all, I felt quite embarrassed in front of the agencies about such a poor brief, but this disappeared when I saw that the agencies accepted this as ‘normal’. Why did none of the agencies say 'no’? I never got a clear answer to this question, but most probably they all were afraid to lose an opportunity.

A couple of years later, when I was in charge of leading the communication department and worked directly with several agencies, my approach was different. Different towards the agencies and different towards my own internal team.

Good brief

It all starts with the brief. A bad brief might deliver a nice creative concept, but does not create a sustainable result in the end.

Together with the agencies we developed a briefing format to ensure we provide the right information to the agency that made clear what is expected from the agency (the deliverables). By signing the document, a clear briefing contract is in place against which result and success (but also failure) can be measured.

My team learned especially how to use the brief as a tool to judge the creative concept of the agency, rather than being overwhelmed by a beautiful design.

Writing a good brief is not easy and requires good insights in your business, analytical skills and time. In close co-operation we worked to train my staff to learn to write good and better briefs. A worthwhile exercise that paid back in better results from the agencies.

Information overload

It is easy to put too much information into the brief and let the agency decide what is useful.

First of all, this will waste a lot of agency time (and money). Second, it doesn’t put you in the driving seat.

I always pushed my team to select and properly document the information to be shared with the agency, but I also challenged the agency to be critical and push back when it receives an overflow of non-useful information.

Be accountable

It is easy to go to the C-suite, let the agency present and when the result is not what is expected, let the C-suite blame the agency.

Make sure the C-suite knows what to expect and on which criteria the agency should be judged. It is our responsibility as in-house leaders to ensure that what C-suite sees is fully backed by us (we are accountable) and if they don’t like it, it is our role to discuss and if needed, take the blame.

Based on the outcome you will have your conversation with your agencies and conclude the next step; not the C-suite.

The team

Here come the big one. Make sure the team in the pitch, is also the team doing the work, or is at least heavily involved. On both sides of the table.

If the team in the execution phase is well involved in the pitch phase, it is much easier to manage expectations and deliver successfully.

Agency role

Pushing back as an agency is not always easy, especially not in a pitch. I have always encouraged agencies to push back and when they did, this always led to a better product in the end.

Written by Ger Peerboom, strategic communications leader

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