Briefing in a fragmented, multi-channel media world requires a radical rethink, says Alex Smith, planning director at real-world marketing agency Sense.
All brands want to create fantastic work. Happily, they are pretty aware of the different factors that contribute to this goal. Creative inspiration from the agency is an obvious one. Transformative insights are another. Many think that the raw potential of the brand is a key contributing factor. Take your pick, but what does it matter? These are all either unpredictable or out of your control. Like it or not, advertising remains the eternal crap shoot.
There is one other factor, however, that very few consider – a factor not only more influential than any of the above, but also completely within the brand’s control: the brief.
There is nothing more material to the quality of work that is produced today than the client brief, driven by the sad fact that the standard approach – still utilised by the vast majority of brands – is so utterly ill-suited to the modern media landscape.
Currently briefs tend to start with a specific media breakdown in mind, and creative work is produced to fit. Call this approach ‘media first, idea second’. The problem here is that, with the concept playing second fiddle to the media, you’re not fully focused on the objectives of the campaign. Despite this, the approach worked fabulously for many years, resulting in entire marketing departments effectively being designed around it. So why is something that was so effective in the past, so poisonous to successful campaigns today?
The answer lies in the changing nature of media itself. This method was designed for a mix of channels that were ‘behaviour-neutral’. When enjoying TV, radio, and print, the consumer was essentially passive, allowing any idea to fit onto any channel. There was no chance of mismatching channel and idea, as it all went down the same way.
Compare that with today’s channels, most notably social. These aren’t behaviour-neutral, they are ‘behaviour-specific’. When using Facebook, for instance, you behave in a fundamentally different way to when you are on, say, Instagram. This means certain concepts are going to be more appropriate for one channel than another.
Imagine that Pampers wanted to do a campaign that involved getting mums together with each other to share advice. You can completely imagine this working on Facebook, because Facebook is a community building platform – the channels fits the idea. Instagram however? The utility of this channel is much fuzzier.
This new pressure to match ideas and channels requires a reversal of the old process. No longer should media lead the idea, as this restricts the creative process. Instead, the idea should lead the media. This liberates creative thinking and allows you to focus fully on the objectives of the campaign.
A new approach
If you start with an idea in the absence of media, you can easily build a media plan around it, custom made for the concept. Taking the Pampers example, in addition to Facebook you can see how it would make sense to get mums together in person, so experiential would have a role. Naturally you wouldn’t want these meet-ups to fall flat, so why not promote them with a bit of print advertising and some listings partnerships? Keep burrowing in this direction and before you know it you have a robust media plan which is a perfect fit for the idea at hand, with every element working in harmony and integration.
So what would a great client brief look like taking into account this process reversal?
This brief would pay no heed to channels, disciplines or budget splits – it would be focused solely on the business problem at hand. The brief wouldn’t care how the problem was solved, only that it is solved. It would have confidence and faith that media will fall into place in due course.
A brief like this would be a catalyst for truly business-changing ideas. Take this fabulous example from Vodafone in Egypt, where the mobile provider repurposed phone minutes as loose change.
What is the channel being used here? Basically there isn’t one. The central concept is an action, a real world idea rather than a media one. Naturally, you can see some great media potential fall off the back of it (definitely some shopper, probably some outdoor), but at its heart the campaign exists outside of channel constraints, and could only have come from a brief which did the same.
So, it’s a pretty simple thought. Brief to the problem, not to the media, and let the budget splits sort themselves out later. But writing the brief is only half of the battle. The way it’s issued has to evolve too.
Who gets the brief?
This new system invites an elephant into the room. If you don’t care how a solution is reached, then who the hell do you brief?
The short answer: everyone. Think of different agency specialisms as different philosophies. If you give an identical business challenge to a digital agency, a PR agency, and an experiential agency, you will receive a tremendous variety of viewpoints on how you solve it, leaving you to make a judgement on which, in this instance, is the most effective.
Naturally once the core concept is agreed on, specialist agencies will resume their normal roles in activating their pieces of the ‘custom’ media plan that you’ll have created – but as for creating the core concept in the first place? That’s anyone’s for the taking.
This simple reversal of process is the single most powerful thing a brand can do to change the nature of its creative output. If clients can show the discipline to remain focussed on the business challenges at hand, and agencies can show the maturity and sophistication to answer them, then the canvas of advertising will be blown wide open. To the early adopters, go the spoils.
Alex Smith is Planning Director at Sense