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Why a Tight Agency Brief is so Powerful and How to Write One


In my mid 20s, I was poached from my corporate automotive job by one of my agency account directors and into his team to lead the launch of a well-known telecommunications brand into the Australian market.

What a steep learning curve! Not only was the move into a new sector a challenge, but the shift to agency side took a lot of adjusting. In truth, I didn’t much like the other side back then, and so I soon moved back to client side, where I spent the next 15 years or so before launching TSM.

But my stint inside a creative agency taught me a valuable lesson, one I have carried forward and honed over the course of my career — the importance of a tight brief.

Let’s set the scene

As a client, I knew my business inside and out. Like a sponge I would absorb information through osmosis, hearing customer comments and questions directly, get insider knowledge on product development challenges and opportunities, listen to the highs and lows of the sales team, and keep tabs on those pesky competitors. Internal marketers are exposed to a wealth of information. It’s our job to understand the nuances of our market, audience, product or service and use that to inform marketing strategy and activity.

What does this have to do with a brief?

Amongst the busyness, when it’s time to call on agency partners, two scenarios typically play out:

  1. Very little information is shared or clear direction given on the core problem and why it needs to be solved.
  2. A mountain of information is shared, but little clear direction is given on the core problem and why it needs to be solved.

Agencies don’t sit within your business, and so you can’t assume they have the level of internal knowledge and context you have, to determine the right direction. This dramatic shift in access to business knowledge, political context and other ‘insider’ information was palpable in my first agency role. Being young at the time (like many account services staff), I also didn’t have the business experience, confidence or diplomacy to identify the gaps, and challenge clients to give me what I needed.

Too much information is also a problem.

It’s not the agency’s role to be the marketer or product expert for your organisation, or to drive strategy and direction.

In fact, one of the biggest attributes an agency can bring, is their objectivity. They’re not weighed down by all the detail and politics, and so they can rise above it and bring fresh ideas to the table. What they need is information delivered with the right context and insight to set them on the right path.

What makes a good brief?

It’s not rocket science. And that’s the point. A brief should be simple, but hugely insightful, and that’s hard. It takes time and lots of practise to master. And 20 odd years ago when I was adjusting to agency life, practise I did.

The agency was obsessive about strong one-page briefs. The creative department relied on them to deliver their best work. As suits, every creative brief we wrote was critiqued and scored, with the best each week winning its writer an accolade. The standards were high, the competition fierce, and the learnings immense!

What I realised, and still carry through to this day is:

The purpose of a good brief is to synthesise all the information you have and focus it to just the points that matter for the person who’s acting on your brief. A good brief is not just an operational process, it’s a strategic one. And much like a strategy, what you don’t put in is just as important (or even more so) as what you do.

As the advertising great, David Ogilvy famously said “Give me the freedom of a tight brief.”  That’s because focus and constraint can fuel creativity. 

How can marketers improve their agency briefs?

Whilst an internal creative brief is different to the brief a marketer would give to their agency, there are some useful pointers to keep in mind: 

  1. Spend the time writing a brief. I know, you’re busy and it’s much faster to give a verbal brief than to write one. But the process of writing helps you clarify what you need, what’s important, and what’s white noise. In return, the agency response should be much closer to the mark. So whilst it takes a little more time at the outset, it saves time (and often money and frustration) at the pointy end. 
  2. Refine and synthesise, so it’s crystal clear what you need your agency to do. Leave it for a day, pass it to a colleague for feedback, and edit. Then edit again. This helps tighten and focus your thoughts. And remember, your agency doesn’t need to know everything you know, just what’s relevant to your ask. Of course, you can add useful resources as an appendix, but good agencies will have their process for uncovering further information, whether that’s access to research, interviewing an SME, or other analysis. Providing a concise brief gives them the freedom to ask and search for what they need, rather than spend budget wading through information that is likely irrelevant.
  3. Define your ONE key message or proposition. All too often, briefs list a number of messages they want to communicate, or nothing in particular. Attempting to communicate lots of messages often weakens the outcome. Rather than reinforcing a core message with your audience, campaigns fail to hit the mark because the message isn’t clear or consistent. Of course messaging hierarchy can help cover key pillars, but they should align under an umbrella proposition. 
  4. Provide a budget – and be realistic! For most reputable agencies, their aim is to use the available budget to give you the most value. That can’t happen if agencies don’t know what your budget is. A Toyota and Rolls-Royce will both get you from A to B, but what goes into their making and the quality of the output is chalk and cheese. Budget impacts the scale of the idea or solution, executions, formats and platforms recommended. It’s far better to divulge the budget you have available for a brief and assess the agency’s ability to deliver within that budget, than to ask them to develop ideas that you may not have the budget to execute effectively. If an agency can right-size their response to work with your budget, great. If they can’t, or your budget is unrealistic, you’re best to know that upfront and move on.

So whilst briefs can often feel like a chore, in truth they are the basis for great marketing and creative, especially when time is spent on getting them right. If you’re not quite sure how to get started, you can download our simple briefing template here. Happy writing!