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Brief in haste, repent at leisure

21 Mar 2019  |  Jan Gooding 
Brief in haste, repent at leisure

Spending time and money questioning the brief means better defined objectives - and subsequently stronger execution and fewer marketplace regrets, writes Jan Gooding

All around we hear the demand to accelerate our work and be fast to market. If we don't, someone else will 'eat our lunch'. It is in step with the reality of our business environment, and the opportunities afforded to us in a digital economy.

The problem is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to insist on more time to think. No-one wants to be the person who slows things down by asking questions and insisting on further information gathering.

And yet that is often exactly what is required to ensure effectiveness; additional research commissioned, alternative options explored, and more time to sharpen the brief.

Decision-making procedures slow us down

I found that one of the most tiresome aspects of working in a big corporation is the emphasis placed on ‘proper process’ and risk assessments. It was perhaps the biggest culture shock I experienced when I moved from agency- to client-side at BT.

I was horrified by the apparently endless bureaucracy and risk avoidance mentality. The triviality of many of the processes seemed deliberately designed not just to slow things down, but rather to stop them happening at all.

Getting marketing plans agreed could sometimes feel like trying to drive a car with the brakes on.

And yet jumping all these hoops brought rigour

Over time, I learnt to respect and value many of the pedantic processes big corporations are steeped with.

I learnt that evaluating risk was a way to make execution more successful. I discovered that questioning investment, and testing thinking with the rigour of a commercial business case, stopped some potentially very expensive mistakes.

And perhaps more importantly, peer scrutiny and transparency in the competitive game of capital allocation meant facing up to the potential pitfalls in your own argument.

‘Brief’ shouldn’t necessarily mean ‘quick’

When I worked in a ‘full service’ advertising agency, the brief was always the essential part of the adverting agency process, and often credited with being the bit that most often led to outstanding work. It didn’t presuppose what the media plan was, it contained marketing objectives rather than communication objectives, and indicated a total marketing budget which had yet to be allocated above and below the line.

As a client it was worth spending a lot of time on. It required some clear thinking about the proposition and the delivery and commercial implications. The process of translating a client brief into the agency's creative and media briefs offered the opportunity to test assumptions and get a range of advice on the prospects for success.

Frustratingly at times, it could also lead to projects being abandoned. But that was rare.

The awkward squad often say what everyone else is thinking

If everyone agrees with one another, work just sails through. Dissent can come across as unhelpful, and what’s more it can be extremely disruptive when schedules are tight.

Moreover, conventional thinking can make it hard to challenge the way things are done and suggest something different. Especially if it means asking uncomfortable questions which might affect company revenue in the short term.

It takes courage to speak up

When I was responsible for planning at BT, there was a moment with a very uncomfortable challenge which now particularly sticks out in my mind.

Kevin Chesters was one of the brilliant young planners in my team. Rather than reviewing and signing off the annual brief for BT Phonebooks, he asked: "why are we spending a penny on directories when people are all using Google. ‘The Phonebook’ will be completely redundant in five years."

He was right. But that wasn’t a subject the director of that part of the business, or anyone else in his department, was prepared to engage with. So, a campaign for the BT Phonebook was duly produced.

I worry that intellectual rigour, and the time needed to think, has become unfashionable"

It’s not something I am proud to admit. It was a failure on my part to have avoided that particular battle. Looking back, I wish I had championed Kevin’s acute observation more. I don’t recall anyone in the agency questioning the brief either.

This is what I mean by questioning the brief. Being prepared to ask ‘why are we doing this’, and even ‘should we proceed in this way?’ As we all know, the annual rhythm of our organisations, roles and responsibilities, and working practices can make it hard to challenge received wisdom at the best of times. If we are always in a rush, it is even less likely.

Good thinking matters and requires space

I worry that intellectual rigour, and the time needed to think, has become unfashionable. It’s easier to conform than be the one who sticks their neck out to say, ‘this doesn’t make sense’ or, even better, ‘I don’t know, I am going to have to think about it and get back to you.’

Even worse, I gather strategic thinking is increasingly regarded as not valuable enough to pay for, perhaps explaining why agencies have sought other income streams.

I have a hypothesis that this may explain some of the increasing disaffection with advertising and its messages. We have forgotten how to think about the impact of what we are doing in the rush to action.

Would we be annoying people by bombarding them with repetitive messages if we were more concerned about the cumulative effect of that, rather than how much money could be made doing it?

Mindless activity is undermining effectiveness

The way advertising is currently being delivered is clearly not a sustainable model according to the recent research revealed by Karen Fraser, director of Credos.

I can’t help wondering if Unilever and P&G would have been encouraged to invest so much of their advertising budget on largely ineffective digital advertising if the brief’s evaluation criteria had been properly challenged?

Indeed, perhaps we can go further, and speculate on what would have happened if the agencies involved had made as much money on their strategic advice as they did on making and placing those ads?

The power of slowing down

Spending time and money on questioning the brief means better defined and understood objectives, and subsequently should lead to stronger execution and fewer regrets in the marketplace.

As group brand director at Aviva I reviewed a huge amount of work from across the world. And there were certainly occasions when I stopped campaigns completely. That is not an easy thing to do. The momentum behind marketing plans, however badly thought through, can make it hard to pull the plug.

But without exception I know people were glad when I did. It was usually the case that, when you spoke to people individually, they had huge concerns about the course they were pursuing. They just couldn’t seem to find a way to speak up and generate an alternative plan. It can be easier just to keep going.

A good brief is a bit like a pre-nuptial agreement

It’s a lot cheaper to thrash things out on paper in advance and have a row about what will or won’t work before any serious financial commitment has been made. The time should come in any career when you can finally say ‘save your money, this activity would be a waste of time’.

I hope people still feel, as I did, that it is a part of the job to do just that. I learnt that lesson from Kevin.

Jan Gooding is one of the UK's best-known brand marketers, having worked with the likes of BT, British Gas, Diageo, Unilever and Aviva. She is also the chair of both PAMCo and LGBT equality charity Stonewall, the president of the Market Research Society and a partner of Jericho Chambers. She writes for Mediatel each month.


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MikeFollett, Managing Director, Lumen on 22 Mar 2019
“What an excellent article. Jan Gooding is a great addition to the Mediatel team.”


22 May 2020 

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