We began April's focus on creative relationships by opening up a conversation around the best practice in creative briefing, and how to get projects successfully underway.

A smart brief has the potential to be so much more than a list of requirements. Done well, it can inspire, provoke and lay solid foundations on which to build dynamic relationships and effective work. It seems that the wider opportunities that the briefing process can open up are often overlooked, and we are left with dry documents and conversations that create confusion and impede creativity.

On Tuesday 17th April we brought together a panel with plenty of practical experience to share, to explore these challenges and opportunities in more detail, and asked members to bring along their own pain points and positive experiences to further fuel the conversation.

Joining our panel were:

Martina Luger — Martina is Chief Marketing Officer at Ennismore, the London-based owners of hospitality brands like The Hoxton and Gleneagles. Prior to joining Ennismore, Martina was Brand Director for Nike in EMEA, so has lots of experience briefing all kinds of partners for all kinds of projects in all kinds of media.

Victoria Talbot — Before taking up her new role in the design team at Poke, Victoria was Creative Director at Human After All, leading teams to deliver work across print, digital, events and many other contexts. Victoria worked closely with client teams, helping them to bring the best out in her team — and will share the lessons learned from those relationships.

Monika Zalaite — Business Director at Creativebrief, a specialist consultancy that sets out to engineer fitting and effective client/agency relationships, Monika is interested in modern methods of bringing together partners and frameworks that ensure successful two-way relationships. She'll bring the perspective from the middle, having worked with both sides of a project brief when making connections for brands like Starbucks, Virgin Atlantic and Comic Relief.

We also heard from members in our audience about their own perspectives, challenges they face, and opportunities and techniques they employ for better creative briefing. 

Here’s what we learned. 

Where to begin?

YCN Director Nick Defty, keen to deconstruct the process and “start at the very beginning”, was first in with a question for each of the panelists: what is the point of a brief – and what makes a good one? Victoria from Poke, whose background is working in agency teams, spoke to us about the importance of “wriggle room”.

“The brief is a central place around which minds and intentions can be focussed at the beginning of a project,” although it is not a “single source of truth”, since “briefs evolve and change based on who is inputting”. A good brief, according to Victoria, is “one that leaves enough room for the person taking on that challenge to influence, contribute to and shape it, using their expertise.” While she warns against a “perfect, parcelled up, almost finished” brief as being “too closed to allow for full potential to be reached”, Victoria operates on the policy of “the more info the better”, as sometimes clients withhold potentially valuable information. The best briefs are those that “ask you to tackle a challenge”.

Fun is underrated

Martina, from Ennismore – the people behind celebrated resorts and hotels like Gleneagles and the Hoxton hotels – was in agreement about the importance of clients being upfront with information: “you have to have a sense of scope - the worst thing is wasting time. That sucks creativity. If you have to be prescriptive about budget and time frame then that has to be clear.” Most important for Martina, is the “moment of inspiration and the interaction in that moment” that occurs in a briefing session. “You shouldn’t have one way of doing things - I think there should be less thinking about the word document and more thinking about the conversation and the moment.” Martina makes a case for fun: “you should walk away feeling inspired. Fun. Excitement. Enthusiasm. That’s what gets the creative juices going – fun is underrated.” This approach is all about aligning people and opening a dialogue that will get people on board with a common goal, especially where internal and external teams must become familiar with each other’s working cultures and styles.

Establishing parametres

Monika, whose experience at Creativebrief has equipped her with a wealth of insight into effective client/agency relationships, says that clarity and “singularity of purpose” is an absolute essential. What is the challenge? What do you want to achieve? “Then establish clear parametres.” Monika reiterated the point about sharing information, saying, “there are two types of clients. Those that don’t share enough information,” in a hands-off approach that leaves the agency to their own devices (“not always the best approach”), or, “clients who just throw all the data at the agency” and it becomes overwhelming. Although in agreement with Martina about not confining the brief to a word document, she maintains that having something written does serve as a helpful “reference point”, particularly for those who engage with written rather than verbal content: “Everyone learns and processes differently.”

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” - Albert Einstein

Nick moved on the discussion with an Einstein quote about problem definition, echoing Victoria’s opinion that “a good brief should unlock a lot of questions”: how do we do that well? For Victoria, it’s about building relationships based on mutual trust. “Face-to-face interaction and communication is important for understanding a brief,” since so much is gauged from personal contact with somebody – “body language says so much about your attitude towards a brief.” She also cited “mindfulness”, that is, awareness and respect of all team members’ questions and of the audience to which questions are directed, as a key ingredient in a productive client/agency relationship.

Monika built on this point, describing the brief as “the chance for an agency to understand client culture” – something that is best done in person: “how do they greet you? Do they talk to you in formal language? Do they serve you coffee?” This is all indicative of what it will be like to work with a client. 

Members’ experiences

Nick called on members in the audience to share their own experiences; the most common questions were revolved around what and how much to include in a brief. How do you strike the balance between constructive, prescriptive and prohibitive? David Merson, a Senior Project Manager at data visualisation studio Beyond Words, described how they tend to absorb the original, client brief, often a “long, dense document” and reproduce it as an internal, “creative” brief. David wondered whether this approach was “convoluted”, but Victoria was of the opinion that “two briefs can make sense”: “transferring the key threads into an internal template” can be an exercise of simplification. 

David added that typically “the first line of the brief gets pulled out as a summary and referred back to,” – perhaps an exercise of over-simplification in which “nuances are lost.” Monika’s solution was to be disciplined about format: “sometimes clients forget [what they want to achieve] and go straight into comms”. You have to ask a client “what they want”, “what it all means” and “who they want to target”. The process is just as important as the content – who approves it in the end? 

Martina put an emphasis on mutual investment, something that comes with frequent communication throughout a project (“talking is essential”) which ensures that both parties “feel and know the information”: “if you have to keep referring back to the written brief, then the briefing session hasn’t worked.” 

Internal vs External

The conversation turned to the possible differences in approaches when briefing internal teams (most likely familiar with much of the story) and external agencies who may be coming at things afresh. Martina added that, from her experience of working with internal teams, she thinks agencies should be brought as a natural complement, to deliver key specialisms in “when the internal team has done what they can”, and it is then their “responsibility to take the agency on their creative journey”. Hostility, “embedded systems” and poor communications are just nails in the coffin of bad relationships. From the audience, Nathan Joyce, Creative at Propercorn, spoke about his experience of both sides; Propercorn’s recent re-brand included seven new packaging designs, which were commissioned both internally and externally. As an internal creative, Nathan “had the internal knowledge. [...] Feedback is instantaneous.” With external illustrators, it was hard to avoid being “over-prescriptive.”

On this note, Nick spoke about OLIVER, the agency that builds dedicated creative teams within organisations. One of their clients is The Guardian, where OLIVER have established an internal team that Kate, Ellie and Victoria (from The Guardian) said “feels like an internal team.” The on-site arrangement works well in an office where deadlines are tight and the work is changeable and fast-paced; OLIVER’s team have absorbed company culture "by osmosis", in a way that an external agency would struggle to reproduce. We heard how OLIVER has also designed very clear process to capture briefs in a format they need.

Magic briefing

To round off the session, panelists and members shared their experiences of “magic” briefing. Ginny Dale, Marketing Manager at Dishoom, told us how she gets their Co-founder and Creative Director, Shamil Thakrar, “in a room with the agency”, to “verbally download to them”; she described how, in the past, her attempts to convey and relay his vision (“for, say, a new bar menu”) have fallen a bit flat, and that eliminating the middleman is important for “making sure the agency capture and are inspired by his passion.” 

Another story from the audience came from YCN's Katy Kent, about her experience working on the Ford account at advertising agency Ogilvy. She described the “magic” of “half a day of briefing” in which an external agency were invited to try out the cars, to “really get a sense and a feel of the brand.” Martina was enthusiastic about this approach: this kind of “immersive” experience is “so much more important that the written document” for inspiring and immersing the agency in the brand culture and values. Victoria underlined the importance of stepping back and “seeking mindspace to absorb the brief”, while Monika described a briefing with Bacardi that took place, fittingly, in a bar filled with mixologists (“that’s their world”) and Starbucks’ tactic of having their agency team members work as baristas for a day. “Brand immersion galvanises creativity.”

Final say

So, Nick asked, “Who gives the final go-ahead?” No one, according to Monika. The process should be a “collective” one of “evolution”, with no party singled out to take the blame for bad work. Rebecca Lalonde, Marketing Director at brand consultants, The Oystercatchers, asked how the panelists approach “onboarding” – bringing teams together. Onboarding sessions are useful for “establishing a dialogue” and beginning a partnership in which everyone is “on the same page.” 

Lessons learned

By the end of the morning, the running themes of the session were clear. Clarity and honesty of communication. Collaboration and synergy. Vision and evolution. The overarching message was that striking a balance between the different approaches is key, and that there is no-size-fits-all approach, but nothing goes further than some old-fashioned, face-to-face conversation. 

All photography David Townhill