Imagine if Briefs Mattered

April 26, 2023

Don’t worry, this isn't an opinion on how to fill out those annoying little boxes on a thing called a brief.

It’s about how briefings these days rarely demand anything that truly matters. Filled with many metrics to hit, impotent words and soft objectives, they’ve become transactional rather than transformative.

It would be incorrect to say we couldn’t hit a cow’s backside with a banjo. More accurately, everything is engineered to increase the probability of hitting a large, rather ugly backside from just half a yard.

Now, be honest. When was the last time you wrote or received a brief that excited you or put the fear of god into you? We don’t tend to brief as if the future of our business depended on it or with a hunger to take on a category and do something that moves real people in the real world.

The pressure to lump everything into a long document, adhere to marketing dogma and gather requirements from a committee has forced our collective brain into a habit of doing what we should do rather than what we could do. (It’s worth noting agencies are also culpable here, requiring an endless stream of information when some well crafted problems and objectives will do).

Admittedly, looking after strategy and creative at Hopeful Monsters, I obsess over briefs more than most. But briefings do change the world for good and evil. They’re an integral part of many industries. Industries that arguably take them a little bit more seriously than us.

In 1956, NSW Premier Joseph Cahill ‘wrote a brief’ to design a new opera house in Sydney. Given the diverse entries (some good, some awful), this feels very much like a ‘what we could do brief’, not a ‘what we should do brief’.

In the 1980s, medical researchers and activists lobbied and briefed policymakers to combat the HIV and AIDs epidemic, leading to significant advancements in understanding, treating and preventing the disease.

Then there are the not so good briefings. Remember Stormin Norman Schwartzkoff taking the world on a not so merry dance to Iraq, searching for mythical weapons of mass destruction?

I know what you’re thinking. We’re not in the military, architecture or policymaking. Chill the hell out. However, briefing in a way that matters, matters.

Take Apple’s Think Different campaign. The story of its origin certainly feels unorthodox compared to today’s ‘ways of working’. And as much as I’d love to, I can’t really imagine getting a brief directly from a CEO saying the business is haemorrhaging and in bad shape, go and work it out.

This is a brief that gives creativity some latitude around what could be done, not what should be done. It led not just to great work but an unbelievable turnaround of the business.

It isn’t a surprise that the best briefs lead to the most transformative work. Six years ago, one of our global Converse clients visited Australia. Without having to obsess over the brand tracker or give us a long brief, they could see young people weren’t really wearing Converse. The brief was as simple as it was powerful. How do we get Converse on the feet of the right people and win back the streets? Fast forward to now. Converse All Stars is making a significant dent in that problem.  

Recently, we worked with Massel and Australian Owned to draw attention to the fact that the number of Aussie owned brands on our supermarket shelves is diminishing every year. What we should have done is simply make people aware of the issue. What we could have done, is get people to petition the government and force the issue. So that’s what we did. At the time of writing, it’s in the hands of the Ministry of Industry and Science. Fingers crossed.

In my formative years, a wise person once told me the best briefing template is a blank piece of paper. Stupidly, I pretty much ignored them. However, I can’t help but think if we briefed with more gut and ambition, we might just have a better chance of creating brands and campaigns that mattered.

Unfortunately, I can’t leave you with the top ten tips on how to write briefs that matter, so here’s the next best thing.

The next time you give a briefing, digest all the data and opinions, then go for a walk, a run or maybe get a good night’s sleep. Then sit down with a blank sheet of paper and write it like you mean it and how you’d usually say it.

If it still feels transactional rather than transformative, do it again.

If it still feels like you’re describing what we should do rather than challenging people to consider what we could do, repeat the process.

I never said it was easy to write a brief that matters, but it’s worth it in the end.

Words by Carl Moggridge.