The All Important Brief
Aroop Bose

Dilip Gupta, product manager for a popular brand of fruit drinks, his senior colleague Prakash Advani, and the team from the ad agency had just finished viewing the rough edit of the new TV commercial (TVC) that was recently produced. Gupta was quiet and pensive for some time, he finally said, “It seems alright.” Advani remarked, “Seems okay to me also.” The tone of their voices did not carry any conviction; however the TVC was approved and was scheduled to go on air shortly. It was quite apparent the Gupta and Advani were did not seem to be entirely happy with what they saw; they approved the TVC out of no choice.

Later Gupta spoke to the account director of the ad agency privately. “There has been a goof up, it is not the agency’s fault though, you guys merely worked on the brief that was given by us,” said a worried Gupta.

What did go wrong? Obviously the brief given to the agency had some faults. The story goes like this:

Dilip Gupta was working for a company that manufactured and marketed a brand of fruit drink which came in six different fruit variants. Target audience (TA) was children in the 4–8 age group. The product was available in composite packs (Tetrapaks); the printing on the pack had a limitation, that is, only four flat colours could be used; shades or half-tones were not possible. The client had informed the ad agency that it would now be possible to have improved printing similar to offset-printing. The packs could now carry pictures of actual fruits on the pack instead of mere graphical depictions.

The brief was quite simple, that is, the TA had to be informed about the launch of the new packs; the primary medium for advertising was television. The agency swung into action. A story board was prepared and presented to the client, the same was approved by them; finally a TV commercial was produced. Gupta was not entirely satisfied with the TVC. He felt that two elements, which ideally ought to have been there, were missing from the TVC. One, the product packs were shown but not the contents; two, children drinking and enjoying the product also should have been shown. In other words there was nothing in the TVC that would excite the TA and urge them to buy the product.

The realization came much too late that by merely announcing the arrival of the new packs through the TVC would not result in extra sales. The client was very excited with the changed look of the pack. But does that concern the TA? The TVC said what the manufacturer of the product wanted to say. But the consumer had no special reason to buy; that is, no product benefits were talked about. The product did not see any increase in sales as a result of the change the pack.

If only the client had considered the matter from the consumers’ point of view before briefing the agency.
This was one example of how things can go wrong when the brief given to the agency is faulty. Success of any communication project executed by any agency working for a client organization is heavily dependent on the brief. Communication could be advertising, public relations, new pack design, corporate films, training films, or anything where an organization wishes to send across a message to the public or to a select group of people. By agency I mean here any person or body of people involved in executing a communication project for their client organization; this could mean advertising agencies, PR agencies, freelance commercial artists, website designers, filmmakers and so on. The entire thought process of the people working on the project leading to the final execution hinges on the brief.

The brief is the starting point and a critical factor in any communication project. Large amounts of monies which are committed to communication projects are at times not utilized properly or simply wasted when the communication fails to do what it is expected to do; very often the root cause can be traced to the incorrect brief given by the client. Managers working in the client organization may be qualified and proficient in their own fields, but when it comes to developing a brief, for some thoughts sometimes do not seem to flow in the logical order.

A wrong or an ambiguous brief may lead to wastage of efforts, time and scarce recourses, without achieving the desired objective. This is because the client may inadvertently end up conveying the wrong message or the correct message may be conveyed but to the wrong TA or the client may desire to say too many things which may cause confusion.

The above story of the fruit drink TVC was one example, let me cite three more cases.  All these are real life situations I have personally experienced. For obvious reasons I have not disclosed the names of the client organizations, agencies and individuals.

About a decade and a half ago a company (client) had recently introduced light cooking oil; since the distribution of the product was already in place the client wished to begin the ad campaign on television at the earliest. The client’s brief to the agency for the TVC consisted of a number of points which the agency was required to follow, in fact the brief resembled a checklist. From the very outset the agency found it impossible to pack so much information in a TVC of 30 seconds duration. Certain points of the brief had to be sacrificed; the client understood the problem and agreed to this suggestion. Despite this the TVC ended up saying too much in too short a time, both the client and the agency later realized that although every point of the brief was covered the TVC lacked focus.

If the brief of the client was faulty, the agency was also equally at fault by not interpreting the brief in a proper manner.

There is another interesting case which I would like to share. I once worked on a product launch AV for a pharmaceutical company which was poised to launch a range of pain management products.

These products were to be ethically promoted; one of the six products in the range was the main product that was expected to be the major sales contributor. The brief, prepared by the product managers who were handling the products, read like a very badly written script of the proposed AV.

But shockingly the brief said nothing about how the medicines (new products to be launched) helped the patients. The most important point which is, the unique manner in which the main product worked (the product USP) to bring relief to patients, was not mentioned at all. Instead copious and largely irrelevant material lifted straight away from websites and medical texts were provided as brief. The products’ competitive benefits were not only missing from the brief but were not mentioned verbally at the meeting specially called to brief the agency. It was obviously impossible to write a complete script based on the incomplete and confusing brief that was provided. It was later that the head of marketing who came to the rescue by giving the agency the proper details.

It is quite strange why the product managers were unable to give the agency a proper brief when all the information was available to them.      

My last example is that of a fairly large company engaged in the manufacture of a non-ferrous alloy. The client required a 12 minute film to be made on their manufacturing facilities which were world class. The project was kept on hold for a few months for some reason, later they informed the agency that the brief had undergone a change; they now mainly wanted to target leading ammunition manufacturers worldwide. Instead of a written or an oral brief what the agency received were a hard copy of an internal presentation which comprised the text of a speech, lots of tables, graphs and a list of potential customers and agents. Along with these were brochures of two European ammunition manufacturing companies. None of these were of any help in writing the script. 

In this case the information that the agency needed were: (i) Needs/requirements of the potential customers in terms of standards, specifications, packaging, delivery, etc. and how the client could fulfill these needs;  (ii) was the company (client) offering anything that was different or superior to those offered by competitors? (iii) Company’s overall strengths and expertise.

The client must have decided to target ammunition manufacturers for a good strategic reason but why the Corporate Communications Department could not come up with a brief one does not know.

Having given these examples the question as to what is a good brief?

According to me the following points must be observed when working on a brief:
1.    The client’s business objectives and the TA must be very clearly defined. One must try to see things from the TA’s point of view.
2.    Role of communications in achieving the business objectives must be discussed and agreed upon by both client and agency.
3.    Client must be clear about what it wishes to communicate. How to communicate is the agency’s responsibility. ‘What’ or the facts to be conveyed must be first decided by the client before ‘How’ or the execution.
4.    No briefing should be done in haste. Thorough preparation is an absolute must.
5.    The thought process of the client must be clear and logical. The person who is supposed to brief client must also acquire the skill to express himself/herself both verbally and in writing.
6.    Client must never attempt to brief when the ideas are not very clear in his mind. 
7.    One should never get tempted to pack in too much information than what is necessary or more than what the TA can absorb. More often than not remember that it is one important message that needs to be communicated, the various other information should in fact support the main message.
8.    Client must be clear as to what response to expect from the TA as a result of the communication.

Many agencies have their own briefing forms; the general structure of such forms for a commercial organization is given below:
1.    Background information – What is the company’s business? What is it known for?
2.    Strengths and weaknesses of the organization.
3.    Target Audience definition.
4.    Market information including competitors’ activities.
5.    Marketing objectives
6.    Marketing problem or any other problem which the communication project can solve.
7.    Product benefit /offer/claim made by the organization to its TA and a support statement or the reason why. For example: XYZ cooking oil is good for your heart because of ABC reasons. The reasons mentioned are the support for the claim.
8.    Communication objective or the role of communication.
9.    Expected response to the communication. What do you expect the TA to do in response to the communication?
10.    Mandatory or legal requirements to be conformed to.
The above may change a little from agency to agency or depending on the nature of the communication project. 

The agency also has an important role to play. They on their part must always examine the brief very carefully, discuss and clear doubts with the client before committing his money. The agency must be very sure that the brief will help in achieving the communication objectives.

Briefing is simply about communicating effectively and understanding each other, if done well it goes a long way in properly utilizing resources and achieving objectives.

Note: This article was published in Winning Edge Magazine, Feb.'08 issue.