What’s the best way to brief your ad agency?

At Magnum Opus Partners we are often asked this question, especially with new clients or in agency pitches, but some clients are often surprised by our answers.

They expect us to say “tell us everything we need to know, what medium it’s running in, all the technical details, and so on.”

And yes, whilst your agency needs to know these things, they’re often secondary to the real task at hand.

"Now clap your hands and tell us what you really think."
“Now clap your hands and tell us what you really think.”

See: a brief can be a beautiful, encouraging thing, or it can be a horrid straightjacket.

The more it leans to the beautiful and encouraging the more likely it is you’ll get great work from your ad agency.

The more of a straightjacket it is, the more you will get back a mirror image of your own brain. And in that case, why have an ad agency at all?

So the first cardinal rule of great briefs, is “don’t buy a dog and bark yourself”.

Here’s a clutch of quick rules to ensure you get a great ad or campaign from your agency.

Make your brief “media neutral”

Don’t decide in advance, “we need a thirty second radio ad, or we need a TV ad, or we need banner ads” or whatever.

Your ad agency, even if it doesn’t do your media buying for you, are usually experts in all types of media.

Tell them what message you need to communicate, and who you think you need to communicate it to, and let them advise you as to which media you should use, driven by both their strategic insights and their creative genius.

A massive one-word headline billboard with a killer pic, for example, may be the most dramatic and successful ad you’ve ever run.

EconomistOr what about this superb piece of motion-responsive outdoor advertising for the Economist magazine. Really, what else does the public need to know? But if you tell the creatives in advance to think of a radio ad, you’ll never even see it across your desk.

Especially, don’t get your media buying agency to tell your creative agency what they need to produce.

Nothing generates more bad advertising than a great idea squeezed into the wrong medium merely because the media agency has locked in too much of your media schedule ahead of time and are inflexible about changing it.

Don’t be too restrictive about target audiences

Creative people aren’t just creative about generating content. They can be creative in a business sense too.

Note that in that previous section that we said who you “think” you need to communicate your message to.

haroldWe all hear about “targeting” advertising so often that it’s a cliche. And sometimes target audiences are very tightly defined – but sometimes they are too tightly defined, too.

You should expect your advertising agency to analyse your product and service and have ideas about who you could sell it to, and sometimes that will be to people you haven’t considered.

Consumers who are actually way off your radar because you haven’t thought about how your product or service could apply to them yet, or simply because you are thinking about what constitutes “success” too narrowly.

Also, your agency might be thinking about the “halo” effect of your advertising – who else it reaches as well as your targets – and they should be. See common advertising mistakes, here.

Ask your agency to make you nervous. In fact, insist on it.

You may be brilliant at your job. But you might not necessarily spend your entire life drenched in media, music, comedy, art, and culture. Even many marketing managers come from other disciplines, or may be excellent administrators but not necessarily the most creative people in town. (Some are, for sure, but not all.)

A "creative" ad that absolutely targets the mindset of the Porsche buyer. Just as, years ago, we gave Holden Special Vehicles the company slogan "I just want one." to encapsulate the defiant determination of their owners. It is now the longest-running car slogan in Australia.
A “creative” ad that absolutely targets the mindset of the Porsche buyer. Just as, years ago, we gave Holden Special Vehicles the company slogan “I just want one.” to encapsulate the defiant determination of their owners. It is now the longest-running car slogan in Australia.

So expect your agency to put up ideas that seem, at first blush, to be “out there”, a little wild, or not at all what you expected. They may even be challenging, or slightly confronting. And they should always be based on an insight into your market.

Indeed, if you’re getting what you expected from your ad agency, then you are either briefing them too tightly, or they may (which is even worse) be dumbing down their output because you are consciously or subconsciously sending them messages that you don’t want very creative content, perhaps because you feel it’s too “risky”.

Creativity is used to punch through the complacency that surrounds most advertising – because most advertising is, frankly, rather dull. But the best advertising is exactly the opposite. It’s striking, impactful, and attention grabbing.

We even have TV shows dedicated to the best advertising produced around the world – they are some of the most popular TV shows on any channel! People enjoy great ads!

So ask for the best, and you just might get it. And if you don’t, change your ad agency.

And remember, the riskiest ad you will ever run is an ad that no one notices. Because you risk losing every cent you invested in it, and risk losing the sales that it didn’t generate.

Don’t write the ads for your agency

Especially don’t insist on certain specific pictures, shots or copy unless there is a very strong reason to do so.

Now, of course, you can tell them certain details are mandatory, but don’t write the whole ad for them or lock them into a shape, format or tone that is so prescriptive that you are essentially stifling their creative abilities.

In any good ad agency you will find highly skilled artists, and some of society’s wittiest (in the true sense of that word, that is to say, intelligent) writers. And just about everyone in any good agency is skilled at understanding consumer motivations and behaviour – in fact, they live or die based on their understanding of the market and the insights they can offer you. Mass communication is their thing.

So let them do their job.

Let your agency fail. As often as they need to, to offer you greatness.

Some clients seem to treat each brief for an ad agency as if it’s a life and death test – “Let’s see how you do with this one, (insert maniacal laugh here), and if you get any part of it wrong, watch out!”

Edison tried 1,000 filaments for the electric lightbulb before he found one that worked. He called them "my one thousand magnificent failures".
Edison tried 1,000 filaments for the electric lightbulb before he found one that worked. He called them “My one thousand magnificent failures”.

That’s a guarantee you will receive safe, un-inspirational and un-criticisable advertising. Which is advertising that will very likely under-perform, at best, or not work at all, at worst.

So make it safe for your ad agency to come to you with ideas that might actually be crazy (not just sound crazy at first hearing) but which also show that they are deeply passionate about your business and will to push the envelope to achieve great things on your behalf.

Very few ideas have zero merit at all – your agency will have weeded them out before showing you. So oftentimes a first-time failure will reappear with judicious editing and re-thinking as a new and brilliant solution.

Remember: if your agency is anxious about showing you the first idea, you’ll never see that second, refined one.

Last but not least, do you LIKE the people you’re dealing with?

Great relationships between client and agency invariably produce better work. Sometimes it’s that wine-soaked lunch where a brilliant idea pops up at 4pm. (Not always – or even often – but it does happen. We’ve seen it.) Sometimes it’s an in-depth, heartfelt phone call at midnight.

Do your agency welcome your input? Do they plug you with off-the-cuff ideas, proactively? And do they simply love talking about your business with you, drilling down for all sorts of details you didn’t think they’d be interested in?

That’s how you spot a truly engaged agency, and an engaged agency will always respond better to any brief you give them. So encourage them by discussing your brief with them, not just emailing it to them with a deadline.

And by the by, do they treat your money as carefully as you do? Because that’s the sign of an engaged agency, too.

MOP logoMost of all, ask yourself, do you trust them? Deep in your gut. Because there are always bound to be hiccups, in any busy relationship. When those inevitable hiccups occur, are you on the same side? If you can’t answer yes to this question you shouldn’t be briefing them at all. Find someone you do trust.

Follow these simple rules, and your relationship with your ad agency will be more productive, more profitable, harder working, and much more fun.

Go for it!

Author: Stephen Yolland

Director of Creative Strategy and Partner @ Magnum Opus Partners.

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