Challenging thinking series – article 8

Why challenging briefs lead to great work  

Like a shot of adrenaline, a really good brief can breathe life into a brand, unlock a client’s problems, change the fortunes of a business, make an agency’s reputation and win awards.

Briefs are often overlooked, especially in the context of agency Client Services. As the first marked stage in the creative process, briefs are typically regarded as the domain of the creative team. But as the writers and keepers of briefs, they’re an integral part of our job, and something we spend a great deal of time trying to get right.

Mad Men, not Yes Men

It’s no exaggeration to say that the success or failure of every creative job rests on the brief. Where many fall down is the way they are treated as a template to be completed in rapid box-ticking style, rather than the critical first phase of the communications journey.

An agency can’t even begin to write a brief without developing a thorough understanding of the business problem that a client is asking them to solve. And that starts with uncovering the real challenge at the heart of the brief. This means asking the client some searching questions before taking their first request at face value. How does their brief relate to their brand, their sector, their strategy and critically, their biggest business challenges?

Sometimes, this means challenging the client’s assumptions too. Not always straightforward when for most clients, their brand is so central to their life. But it’s no bad thing to have an agency question your brief; it means they care, take pride in their job and in the work. Mad Men’s Don Draper may not have given Hilton the moon he expected in his ads, but he created a campaign that precisely hit the mark in terms of Hilton Hotels’ global ambitions.

Please paint the ceiling

How do you get to an almost instinctive level of understanding of what makes the right brief?

Great briefs think beyond the words on the page to what the ultimate goal is. In the very best briefs, the writer has already begun the first phase of the creative thinking. That heavy lifting phase involving strategy, insight and an overarching single-minded proposition that will help shape the creative response.

Damian O’Malley’s now famous example of the brief by the Vatican to Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel always crops up when the subject of briefing is being discussed. It’s still a brilliant example of how the right brief can lead to something truly amazing. In essence, if the brief to Michelangelo had simply been ‘please paint the ceiling’ the resulting wall-to-wall magnolia paint job would never have resulted in huge queues of awestruck tourists who now travel to Italy from every country on the globe to see the glory of what Michelangelo finally created.

So where do these ideas come from? Often, it’s worth looking around for ways to solve a client’s problems by looking at how similar problems have been solved in other sectors. In his book, The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande describes how surgical outcomes were improved by borrowing thinking from experts in other sectors. Although surgeons are highly skilled, surgery is a hugely complex task, creating multiple possibilities for error. They needed the kind of detailed checklists used by pilots and the people who build skyscrapers.

Similarly, when the airline Delta was looking to solve the problem of airport queues its team borrowed some thinking from Disney, the experts in queue design.

Pushing the boundaries

Part of the skill, and indeed the value, of the Client Services team is in collecting and digesting all the information – a genuine understanding of the problem and the context, married with the client’s expertise in their specific field and their vision for success, perhaps drawing ideas from unexpected sectors – and collating this into a brief that informs and inspires creative thinking.

Whilst Client Services are responsible for spinning the thread that leads to strong agency/client relationships (In ‘The Art of Client Service’, Robert Solomon illustrates this perfectly by describing how relationships build trust, which leads to great work, which in turn builds relationships), great briefs don’t come from working in isolation. Working collaboratively to effectively harness the skills and experiences of the whole project team always results in a better, more meaningful brief.

The best creative work is founded on agency/client relationships that encourage and enable exciting conversations with endless possibilities – where the Client Services team are emotionally invested in your business and brand, and are able to genuinely weave this into the briefing process.

The best creative briefs challenge the initial brief but also invite the client, creative and strategy teams to challenge how they respond to the brief. Challenging thinking and pushing the boundaries gives everyone the freedom to develop big ideas that transcend the constraints of the obvious solution.