The Importance of a Brief


Marketing tends to attract the reactionary. Clients maintain the status quo until their business slows down, and the agency model encourages partners to wait until getting marching orders from the client. The result tends to be lots of “ready, fire, aim” work. The simple fact is that bad briefings cost money, as the team spends more time figuring out what they need to do, than actually doing it.

I’ve been lucky enough to site on both sides of the marketer/agency table, and nothing is more overlooked than the brief. Any kind of brief. Almost every profession has a brief before starting work. Surgeons confer with a Chief of Surgery, accountants have an understanding of what to look for to save money or an efficiency goal for specific expenditures, Army Rangers know what the primary goal of a mission is, rules to engage and what obstacles are expected, architects understand what’s important in an environment and how it will be used and contractors understand what you will use the most, how it will be used and where to put the most durable/expensive materials. 

The majority of these briefs are simpler and clearer than marketing briefs. These jobs also tend to be more successful on a project-by-project basis, because simplicity of the brief tends to directly effect the outcome. So we can learn from that.

With more responsibility than ever before, senior marketers need to remember a brief is the primary tool that will keep a project efficient, establish good work as a point of entry, with great work and success becoming the rule rather than the exception.

A good brief, of any kind, has the following:

Clear, simple objectives

If these objectives don’t lead to something fulfilling the marketing plan, start over or rethink the project.

A singular idea to be communicated

The simpler here the better, since the goal of the campaign is to catalyze action or create sales. Give a customer a little nudge and some inspiration and they’ll finish the process for you, especially when your brief will have a clear call to action because of…

Well-stated mandatories

If there’s a logo, tagline or call-to-action that's important, share these in the brief. This is your chance to think about how this campaign will fit into the overall marketing of the product and brand that customers see, how you’ll approach PR and how it will create a customer experience. If the CEO hates the color blue, state that here. This is the chance to clearly state what to avoid so the work isn't killed by the final decision-maker.

Add up the number of things listed above in your brief, and if there are more than five, start over. Odds are that you’re trying to do too much and none of it will be accomplished well. This is measuring before cutting, so it’s OK to do this a few times and rework a brief before sharing.

After you do this, write up a simple background/reason why for the brief as the introduction. This will help stimulate a conversation with your partner up front when briefing and more importantly, focus them and put them in the proper mindset to think about the task at hand.

But I don’t have the time…


If you’re a marketer, you spend over 40 hours a week working on your business. You know what the company is investing in, what they are good at and what they aren’t. A first draft of a brief should take 15 minutes, revising/rethinking 15 to 30 more minutes, depending on the size, scope and strategic nature of the project.

Think of the cost of a bad brief: Half the time the early creative, UX or back-end measures need to be reworked on a campaign, costing days in man hours and at least an hour (if not two) of you and your agency partner's time wasted. More importantly, a bad brief leads to reviews and work sessions being about creating the campaign, rather than making it better. That's dozens, if not hundreds of man-hours wasted, including yours.

If you’re an agency, you have reams of marketing plans, historical performance data, and consumer insights to cull from. If you don’t, reach out and spend 15 minutes talking through the project objective and mandatories with your client and they’ll realize they are sitting on reams of valuable information about the project you can use.

The cost of a bad agency brief is the same -- wasted time by the most expensive resource (multiple creative teams), and long internal reviews where to refine work and multiple client presentations to "get it right."

So now you have a good brief. Time to make it great.

Make it inspiring

The APG book (one of those paper things with the hard covers that we don’t use anymore), “How to Plan Advertising,” has the great way of illustrating what makes an inspiring brief using the example of the Sistine Chapel and potential briefs for the job. Here’s an annotated version:

#1: Please paint the ceiling

#2: Please paint the ceiling using green and yellow paint

#3: We have terrible problem with leaks and cracks in the ceiling, and would be do grateful for you to cover it up

The first three briefs tend to be the norm today, using being “too busy” as an excuse. Tactical, terse, restricting through a lack of information and lacking in a focus and understanding of the audience, these briefs are almost doomed to fail and waste everyone’s time.

#4: Please paint the ceiling with biblical images or scenes using God, Angels, Adam, Cupid, Devils and Saints

The fourth gets to a place where it’s a “good brief,” provided the marketer and agency are inherently close to the business problems and have a chemistry that helps them work well together. It fills all the mandatories, the job is clear, but it lacks inspiration for the best work.

#5: “Please paint the ceiling for the greater glory of God and as an inspiration and lesson for his people. Frescoes which depict the creation of the world, the Fall, Mankind’s degradation by sin, the divine wrath of the deluge and the preservation of Noah and his family."

This is a brief. 

A clear objective, mandatory, message and inspiration provided by a lofty goal and the inherent importance of the project. It becomes easy to see how this can result in the best work, as even the most talented artist would have to bring his or her A-game to paint something worthy of the “greater glory of God and an inspiration for his people.”

Today, we can tweak, revise and optimize any campaign so it performs as well as possible, but unless the brief is good, we’re simply putting a fresh coat of paint on ceiling and not building an idea that will grow stronger and better with time or robbing ourselves of the time to actually optimize our work.

I’ll leave you with a final example. My Morning Jacket wanted a song that would bring to life their idea of hitting it big and going on tour as a young band. But it was written to be a hit, blending every eclectic influence they have as a band, from classic rock, to blues, to soul, to punk to create the joy and high of being the ones to hit it big.

Click here to enjoy.