The Briefing Gap

Why we need to improve the quality of briefings given to creative people

Picture the scene…

I sit at my workspace in an open plan office. It’s mid-summer and the heat created by a piercing shaft of sunshine that falls on my face is not quite offset by the cool generated by the office air conditioning system. I stare at the boxes of a company template I need to fill in. It’s titled ‘Agency Brief’ and represents the most challenging writing exercise that Microsoft Word has yet offered up beyond the application letter that got me the job in the first place. My name isn’t James Brown, and I haven’t woken up in a ‘cold sweat’, but this definitely isn’t no.1 fun day of my career so far.

When I joined the marketing department I didn’t realise writing a brief would be as difficult as this. The document that I will write will be scrutinised and have ‘builds’ from several colleague stakeholders in my company. This will inevitably mean compromises and my career will depend on these other people seeing me as a responsible business person and a safe shepherd of the brand I am working on so I’ll have to accommodate these. That’s enough of a challenge but then we get to the real point of the brief which is to get some people from outside of our organisation, aka ‘the agency’, to use their creative talents to help us solve a problem that we can’t solve on our own. I like those guys, they’re fun, but they don’t tend to think the same way as most of my ‘internal stakeholders’ and I am worried that the responsible approval I will receive from my colleagues for my description of the marketing objectives of this project may not quite get the neurons sparking of the creative team who likely spent last night having their new ink applied before attending a South London grime gig. They probably won’t express their disapproval directly – their business depends on our business – but we’ll all know by the body language, and way that we say goodbye to each other whether or not this brief inspired them to do a great job.

What is killing me is that this should be the most exciting part of my job, the opportunity to create something new and exciting, to see all the effort we’ve put into this project catching fire but as I approach the box which says  ’single most important thing to communicate’ a sense of dread fills my heart…


The problem with briefs

This scenario is clearly an exaggeration and riddled with some truly awful clichés. Briefing can be enjoyable and some people and companies consistently get it right. Not all briefs are the result of compromise, not all have a ‘single most important thing to communicate’, not all creative people listen to grime or have tattoos, and not all offices have sunshine or air-conditioning. However, I believe that it represents a situation with which many can empathise and may well have experienced at some point – the challenging position we find ourselves in when we have to write or give a creative brief. How, as my friend the designer Maurice McGinley insightfully describes, to “instruct someone to surprise you”.


The industrial scale of brief writing

In the agency I most recently worked for, I would estimate that an average of 250 new briefs were given to the creative department in a year.

Multiply that number by two because for every agency creative brief there is a brief from a client that caused it.

Multiply that by the number of advertising agencies working in the UK.

Multiply that by the major economies of the world with an advertising industry.

Multiply that number by the number of industries that also use creative briefs – architecture, design, innovation, technology, media, PR, to name but a few.

What you end up with is a very very big number indeed – my conservative estimate would be that the world generates at least a million creative briefs a year and I would imagine that the real figure is actually much higher. It is surely not hubris to say that brief writing is now happening at an industrial scale across the globe. And as with anything that is manufactured on an industrial scale, quality control is sure to be a major concern.


The value of a good brief

A good brief doesn’t guarantee outstanding creative results but it does makes them more likely. In the advertising industry there is a saying “rubbish in rubbish out” because everyone knows that a bad brief inhibits the ability of people to deliver creative results. Anyone with experience in handling creative projects knows that they always bring an element of chance and happenstance. A good brief is way of helping to load the dice in your favour.

The need for good briefs also has a powerful economic and cultural imperative. For a business, the economic implications of a brief can be huge. First of all it creates efficiency. Good briefs lead to creative solutions more quickly than bad briefs and given that the primary cost in most creative development projects is the time of the people working on them a good brief can have massive cost savings.

Secondly there is the creative magnifier effect of a good brief. Good briefs are more likely to generate standout creative solutions. In the advertising field, studies by the IPA such as ‘The long and short of it’ and ‘Marketing in the era of accountability’ demonstrate that creative work that stands out from the crowd means you don’t need to spend as much on media to get people to notice you and that the impact on brand perceptions and sales returns are incrementally higher from more creative solutions. This is true in all the other industries that use creative briefs – better quality design, innovation, TV programmes, architecture all pay back exponentially when the standard of creativity stands out from the pack.

Thirdly, the end result of a creative brief is what fills much of the culture and experiences of our world. Not everything in the world is the result of ‘briefed creativity’, much art or invention is still the result of individual initiative, but a huge proportion of the creative output of the world starts with a brief. If we care about what we experience, and the cultures we inhabit, we’ve all got an interest in improving the quality of the briefs that are given.


A problem to fix

When we look at what the advertising industry says about the quality of briefs it receives we see a clear problem. In a 2009 survey of people at creative agencies working with a major FMCG manufacturer, only 13% agreed that the briefs they received from the company were ‘single minded and inspiring’. In a 2015 survey by the ANA in the USA 58% of clients thought that they gave clear assignments to agencies but only 27% of agency personnel concurred. There is clearly a gap in perception between those giving briefs and those receiving them. A fundamental objective of any brief is to make the people who will work on it feel as though it is clear and inspiring. For that figure to be so low reflects a big problem. The fact that less than two thirds of clients in this survey thought that their briefs were good illustrate that many on the client side acknowledge the problem.


The art of the brief blog

On this blog I’ll be publishing research, theories, examples and advice based on what I’ve learnt and have discovered about briefing. Hopefully there will be learning and inspiration for those who want to improve the quality of the briefs they get. Fixing briefing may not fix all the problems of the world but hopefully if we can improve the quality of the briefs we give to creative people the results will be better for all. If you’re interested in this subject and want to hear more feel free to subscribe.

  • Image sourced from
  • ANA research quoted in the Drum
  • Pdf of ANA research findings can be downloaded from here