Jan. 12th, 2016

What if agency briefs were faster, better, briefier?


2015 taught us that the brief could be shorter. Briefs developed in a day can be as effective as documents developed after months of study. I’ll explain.

For the last 12 years pretty much everything we have developed has been built after securing approval of a brief that fits on one page.

Every Mortar brief has seven sections: i. our objectives; ii. what we know to be true about the target audience—and why they will care; iii. several key insights about the project; iv. the story we want to tell; v. a single big idea (the Big) designed to point the team in the right direction; vi. important decisions about style (personality and voice); and vii. details about anticipated deliverables.

This year we added a new section: viii. what is the strategic decision? i.e. What are we willing to give up in order to gain an advantage.

The point is to fit it all onto one page. So if you find yourself in a conference room about to work on a Mortar Big, everything you need to contribute will be right there in black and white on one side of a single page.

Mortar is not alone in our fanaticism about short briefs. Still, this piece would hardly be worthy of “What if” if we didn’t pick a fight with our own process. So here’s what 2015 revealed:

Yes, you can get to a Big in a day.  And the brief shortly after. That’s can, not should. To get to a decent Big quickly, you will need four things: 1. a client who is willing to bring a team to the table and will turn up in their best pair of participation pants. 2. An ability and desire to whiteboard like a crazy person. 3. A purposeful agenda. And 4. Bags of energy. Most good clients can tell their agency what they need to know in a few hours. And they will be even more effective if they bring a verbal, passionate colleague or two along for the ride. Plus, if the agency arrives with some experience of the market or the target audience, all the better. It’s easier for consumer-facing assignments too. Deeply technical stuff can require significant study before the team is ready to boil facts into the insights we need for a good Big.

It’s not a good idea until it’s a good idea in the morning. Most ideas change a little after a good night of sleep. The Big is no different. Attempts to wrestle complex marketing problems into one all-defining simple phrase benefit from swimming around the subconscious and being thrown into the ring with the lions a few times before they are ready for serious exploitation. So give the Big some room to spread out and grow.

The Big is rarely THE idea that will make it to market. Bigs are very rarely headlines. Few make it into print. Bigs are directional. Sure, a product might be 12x faster, 3x cheaper and 2x easier to use, but what will people do with it? What need does it meet? How will prospects feel about it? What will they tell their friends? All of these questions need to be answered in the brief. They all need to roll up to a Big. In the ideal world, the Big is the sweet center of a delicious cake of analytic goodness. Settling on the right Big marks the beginning of the rest of the process. No one should be surprised when the work ends up focusing on another part of the brief—and coming back with a previously unconsidered approach to the Big. Some of the best concepts are born from phrases dwelling somewhere else in the brief. 

Briefing can be faster. We used to take several weeks or even months to get to a solid brief: and in some cases we still do. But clients willing to sit and wait for the agency to complete the investigative steps so essential to developing a clear, objective viewpoint… well, they were harder to find this year. The 2015 crew generally greeted a lengthy development cycle with dread. So we changed it up, stripped down what we needed to the bare essentials, and figured out how to get to get the heavy lifting done inside a couple of days..

Let’s not kid ourselves, abbreviating the input stage has an awkward tendency to actually lengthen development. Smart teams of people fueled by coffee and donuts will find the gap you plastered over, in no time. Like it or not those gaps have the potential to send you back to research. And that’s ok. Often, an abbreviated process is driven by a need to be in market fast. That doesn’t mean we might not find an equally compelling, more on-point way further down the line. As our relationships get deeper, so do our Bigs.

Briefier briefs are not always weaker. The key to developing a good brief quickly is the quality and “in it together” energy of client input. Look, no one needs to teach an agency to be hyper critical and dismissive of new ideas. We do that as a matter of course. But all that negative energy can be put to good use if it is aimed at a particularly galling issue by an enthusiastic advocate who knows their customer. To make progress quickly clients need to be willing and able to roll up their sleeves and describe what customers actually care about and how they can be expected to greet the solution. Here’s a tip: focus on the target audience in as much depth as possible. Speed and enthusiasm do little for an assignment if they are not tethered to deep insight into the customer. If you don’t have it, be wary of attempts to fake it.

How can I tell if a briefier brief is right for me? Briefs can be shorter. Briefings can be quicker. You can cut weeks out of development with briefier briefs. But only do so if you can meet these three conditions:

  1. Time is truly the enemy. We are accelerating. Speed, velocity, momentum, call it what you will, solutions and products race down the track barely steps ahead of a pack of howling competitors. It doesn’t help when marketing decisions occur at the tail end of a major decision. Or that they arrive at the agency with outsized expectations. But then few things would happen if we didn’t all have a deadline to hit. If time truly is against you, then good enough has to be enough. Get over it and move on. There’s always time to go back in the future. But do learn the difference between need and want. And let that guide you.
  2. You know the audience… It bears repeating. There is no replacement for understanding who your customer is and why they will care. None. If you don’t have it, your Big will be wrong. If you do, you can move forward. Now any effective discussion will quickly reveal gaps in what you think you know about your customer. In fact, gap discovery is probably assurance you have the right team on the job. Eliminating information gaps at the beginning of the process will enable you to move forward more quickly and with greater confidence. Thankfully, research too can be abbreviated if you have the will and the right team. (We favor engagement sessions for exactly this reason — when members of the client team sit in the same room as respondents and actively participate in the discussion, next morning’s water cooler conversation changes for good). My point here is pay attention to the gaps. Knowing the difference between something you can think your way through and something that requires more data is a critical judgement issue.
  3. You have a good idea of what internal stakeholders feel is important, exciting, and wise. Ah, this old chestnut. We sometimes tell ourselves that our main job at Mortar is to save clients from themselves. There is no shortage of genius ideas and breakthrough strategies. Even a mediocre agency can provide awesome ideas given the time and energy. So why does so much of what makes it to market suck? Our happy emphasis on momentum and decisiveness creates unanticipated anxiety and doubt. The faster we push our colleagues ahead the more we spark concern and doubt. Knowing what clients and their key stakeholders consider important to communicate, exciting to highlight and most of all, wise to say, is the part only you can judge. There’s a fair amount of gumption and gut-trusting needed here. You have to know when to dive deeper. And when to let go. But either way, make sure you believe it before you agree to your agency’s Big and proudly pack them off on its maiden voyage. You need to own it, love it and be one with it.

Just as much as your agency.

That’s how we see it. Let us know your thoughts. Join the conversation #whatifmortar.

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