agency veterans offer candid insights on writing a better brief
Jeff Blankenship and Ginger Durbin
Maybe this sounds familiar…
After two years of product development, it’s time
to go to market, and it needs to happen soon.
There’s a revenue and volume shortfall with the
service offering that needs to be turned around.
It’s time to plan for the annual promotion.

Well, you’re in good company. So what’s your first move? If you’re like many busy marketing professionals, you likely schedule a call and/or send an e-mail with an overview and attachments to your marketing agency partner to get the ball rolling. And that typically works for the small-scale, quick-turn projects. But is that the best move when the stakes are higher?

To answer that and shed some light on the art of the agency brief, we thought it would be interesting to get some insight from two of our senior leaders who are often called on to meet client challenges through strategic marketing and design solutions—Ginger Durbin, Senior Account Advisor and Jeff Blankenship, Vice President, Associate Creative Director.
“The quality of the solution depends entirely upon how well you state the problem”
It sounds basic, but how would you define the agency brief?
Ginger: In my mind, the agency brief is all about the client making a front-end investment in the project and in the relationship with their marketing agency. Clients I work with that regularly go through the exercise of preparing a brief put themselves and the marketing agency in a better position for success. Having that discipline allows them to really assess the current problem, need, or opportunity and pinpoint tangible objectives, beyond just the generality of growing revenue and volume. And it’s a great exercise to help them secure internal alignment on the objectives, timeline, and budget, and ultimately to agree on the need for the project before engaging with the marketing agency. So it’s not a quick conversation, a substitute for a marketing plan, a static prescription for the project, a collection of data and documents for the marketing agency to sift through, a one-way dialog, or a means to develop an agreed-upon marketing strategy after receiving proposals. Bottom line, I view the agency brief as an ideal beginning to an ongoing conversation.

Jeff: From my point of view, I see the agency brief as a means to inform the creative brief. I think there’s also a common perception that we want the agency brief and creative brief to be as broad and general as possible so there are many possible directions to explore with copy and layout. Just the opposite. We want a sharp blueprint to state the “who” (target audience), the “what” (features/benefits/message), and the “why” (the appeal) as objectively as possible. And by sharp, I mean the narrower the better, particularly when it comes to the target audience. From this, we can define the “how.” How best to tell the story, that is. So don’t think of the agency brief (and ultimately the creative brief) as a bucket to fill up with every possible feature, benefit, and message for every audience segment. Instead, think of it as a shot glass into which you pour only the finest ingredients.
of agency briefs omit clear success metrics
of agency brief content is unhelpful, irrelevant, and/or conflicting
of agency briefs require more than 8 rounds of client revisions, leading to resetting and restarting by the agency
Source: July 2009 Survey of Client Brief/Input Quality fielded by Greenberg, Inc., n=260
What makes for a solid agency brief?
Ginger and Jeff’s checklist:
Essentials such as current situation, challenges, opportunities, project overview, and timing.
Key objectives with specific success metrics (more specifically, is the ROI goal the foundation of the budget?).
Target audience(s) with customer insights.
Budget parameters so we prioritize recommendations to make the most of your investment.
Description of the brand/product/service involved with a targeted list of resources/Web sites to learn more.
Key message, supporting messages, and reasons to believe in the brand/product/service.
Relevant competitive landscape and market conditions.
Relevant history of brand/product/service successes and failures.
Executive summary of relevant research results.
What do you mean specifically by “target audience with customer insights”?
Jeff: Howard Gossage was one of the advertising “mad men” of the 1950s and 60s. He was famously quoted as saying, “The real fact of the matter is that nobody reads ads. People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.” So how do you make people interested in your brand story? Well, we all know to talk about benefits and not just features. But beyond that, the real key to engagement is to stir an emotion. That’s where the power is. And that’s where the customer insights come in. A brief that includes a thoroughly developed audience/user persona is an effective means to help the creative team relate to how they think, what’s important in their decision-making. Attaching the brand to something the audience already cares about is powerful and creates that sense of “they get me.”
If you’ve covered all of the basics in the brief, what else is there to consider?
Ginger: Ideally, we collaborate further to understand in detail how you currently go to market. Identifying all the communication channels helps ensure that all internal and external audiences are in the loop. If there are required deliverables for these channels, we want to know that too. Our goal is to work within your go-to-market approach as needed, not to bypass or reinvent it.

While navigating the requirements, we want to identify effective ways to reach audiences that complement how they prefer to interact with your brand, product, or service. Having the client prescribe solutions is missing an opportunity to tap into the ideas and expertise of the marketing agency.

Next on my wish list would be considering any specific requirements, experience, expertise, capabilities, or staffing that may be essential in a client’s mind to support the project or ongoing program. Discussing this early and factoring it into the proposal helps us ensure that we are a fit; it also gets us to the final plan and budget more efficiently.

Finally, having realistic goals for delivery of the proposal and timing to execute the project sets the stage for well-crafted solutions and a healthy, mutually enjoyable journey to the end result.
What is the most effective way to move through the process with the agency partner?
Ginger and Jeff’s tips:
Meet with the agency in person and walk through the brief—have a conversation and involve relevant stakeholders.
Offer insight on past initiatives/results and show examples.
Offer opportunities to involve the agency in key internal stakeholder meetings, Q&A sessions, location tours, focus groups, and customer visits. Share relevant resources for additional insights.
Keep an open door for ongoing conversation during the proposal preparation process.
Meet face-to-face to discuss the proposal, whether in person or via webinar.
Provide constructive feedback on recommendations, either to redirect or prioritize.
Agree on next steps and discuss plans for ongoing touch points such as status reports and meetings.
Discuss the approval process, particularly who is the ultimate decision-maker and at what stage(s) will they be involved.
Weigh in on the creative brief to ensure that you and your marketing agency are on the same page with the sharpened who + what + why.
What should clients and their marketing agencies expect from this effort?
Ginger: I’ll start with excitement. We thrive on full, open access to get immersed with your company, brands, products, services, stakeholders, and customers. Having the benefit of an agency brief and a seat at your table provides the foundation for on-target proposals that drive to the objectives, maximize the budget, and are achievable in the agreed-upon timeframe. I’ll end with the most important result—a better relationship. Particularly for large-scale projects, a collaborative briefing process sets the stage for how client/marketing agency relationships evolve long-term.

Jeff: For me, the real beauty of a great brief is that it gives me confidence that what I’m creating is not just cool, but smart. There’s a great deal of satisfaction in delivering creative that’s smart—that conveys the right messages through the right channels to the right audiences. And when we can hit that mark quicker, we can get to market quicker. It’s a win for all of us.
About Our Experts
Ginger Durbin, Senior Account Advisor
As Senior Account Advisor, Ginger is responsible for developing client relationships, establishing strategic direction, developing proposals, and overseeing projects for several of our key accounts. Using her brand, product, and multichannel marketing experience, Ginger leads efforts to help our clients connect people with brands. Prior to joining Oden in 1999, Ginger held brand and product management positions with The Thompson Company (a division of Sherwin-Williams) and Cleo Giftwrap.

Jeff Blankenship, Vice President/Associate Creative Director
An 18-year Oden veteran, Jeff has the ability to crystallize the most complex creative and communication challenges, making him a valuable asset to clients and internal teams. He has the ability to move from global issue to ground-level tactic while galvanizing stakeholders. And he offers significant expertise in brand development and brand stewardship.

For comments or questions about this article, contact Ginger Durbin at or Jeff Blankenship at For information on Oden contact Tina Lazarini Niclosi

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