How to give a monster brief

Earlier this year, I was speaking to a marketer who had just called an open pitch.

In the short few minutes asking for details on the pitch, this marketer clearly seemed to check all the boxes on how to give a monster brief.

Here’s how the conversation went:

Me: “Hi, I hear you’re calling a pitch for _____. Can you give me a few details?”

Marketer: “Yes, we want someone to buy space on online media, paid media, social media for our campaign.”

Me: Which part of the business is this for?

Marketer: “You can go on our website and look at any of our core businesses and choose one. Actually, we’re more interested in seeing what the agencies come up with and going through that.”

Me: Well, what’s the main objective?

Marketer:“Basically we want someone who has contacts to Google, Facebook, because we don’t know anyone there.”

An open tender had been called for this. I ended the phone call thinking that any agency that tried to pick up this business would be left ten times more frustrated then I was.

Unfortunately, monster briefs are common in the industry, as senior industry executives share their frustrations on the things clients do in briefs in this article.

Marketers, take note, here’s how to tell if your brief needs tweaking:

1. No indication of budget

Several industry executives highlight the issue of not indicating the budget on a brief.

“The first sign of trouble is when there’s no budget range provided, which often signals that the prospect will be deciding the outcome on commoditized price more than on creative quality,” said Bob Pickard, chairman, Huntsworth, Asia Pacific.

2. The ever evolving brief

Multiple changes of the brief over a long period is another problem, said Lars Voedisch, founder of PRecious Communications.

“The worst briefs change the rules of the game as the process progresses, regardless of how much time and effort the agencies have invested thus far,” said Pickard.

“I remember one a few years ago where the budget was slashed and then the senior decision-makers disappeared from the process at the last moment. Having had teams across the region prepare a fully-loaded top-tier proposal that was based on the original scenario, we were left holding the bag and there was absolutely no contrition at the client end. We had flown in key leaders from top A-P markets and suddenly found ourselves meeting with a single marketing manager who explained that 'things have suddenly changed.' Obviously that kind of ‘bait and switch’ is toxic to the prospect company’s reputation,” said Pickard.

3. The “up to the agency” brief

“Some of the bad habits I have witnessed include the cut and paste mentality - where someone takes a past brief and then literally cuts and pastes its components onto a new one without regard to its relevance. This means that some irrelevant information to the current project is included and it sends us on a wild goose chase that ultimately wastes time for all parties,” said client service director, Havas Worldwide, Lionel Goh.

The worst things you could say to an agency? "Up to you", "Agency to recommend" and my personal favourite: "I am not sure what we want, but I will know it when I see it", adds Goh.

“The worst brief I have ever worked on (and I still keep a copy!), had on the cover of a 10+ page document titled: “Objective: Generally to create awareness".  That said, while it was the worst brief, but it turned out to be one of the most profitable projects I had the privilege of working on,” said Goh.

4. The beauty parade

Spamming out a brief to a dozen or more agencies is another bad sign, say agency professionals.

Calling it a “beauty parade”, Huntsworth’s Pickard said it is disconcerting for a pitching agency. However, so far in the local market, this is not uncommon. Several larger government tenders as well as the major brand assignments have been known to have anywhere more than a dozen agencies, and Scoot's reputedly pulling in up to 30 agencies when the budget carrier called its first pitch.

5. The “top secret” brief

A big frustration is when clients get too secretive with their company’s strategies, not wanting to give away confidential information. While this is understandable, don’t take this too far in a brief.

“There was one brief that was too secretive about its company’s strategy and direction - just indicating that it’s a major shift and the brand strategy should support that”, said Voedisch, highlighting one of the worst briefs he’s encountered.

“Be clear in the objectives of what you want to achieve. Provide some guidance either on the deliverables or budget,” said Voedisch.

6. The internal client war

If it isn’t difficult enough trying to understand what the client wants, its worse when they don’t know what they want because of internal conflict.

When dissonance between internal stakeholders comes up – for instance, in communications and marketing, those are more ingredients for a bad brief, said Tarun Deo, managing director of Golin Harris, Southeast Asia and Singapore.

“Both have a different view of the results they seek and so the brief is unclear and muddled with the agency trying to cope with the politics of it all,” said Deo.

7. The bloody boring brief

Another ingredient for a bad brief is when the client only wants to play it safe, asking for repetitive work – resulting in a completely uninspiring brief. Sure the agency will do it, but you can expect zero enthusiasm and even less creativity.

Deo adds a note to agencies as well – if you don’t like the brief, hold out for something better.

“Good agencies respond to good briefs – we live in the days of good agencies being in a position to pick and choose who they would like to work for, so prospects need to think of their briefs as tools to attract the best agencies and not just assume that if we put “something” out there the best will come,” he said.