Beyond Conventional Briefs: Maximizing Agency Potential Through Challenge-Focused Briefing

By Wander Bruijel, Head of Provocation, Born Ugly

If it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it, right? Well, maybe it’s time we thought about briefing in a different way, harnessing an agency’s ability to solve problems creatively with a healthy dose of independent objectivity and helping clients get better value.

More often than not, agencies will be presented with a solution focused brief.  This is a brief that has predetermined solutions and defines the redlines without sharing the true challenge that needs to be solved. That’s the way it has always been. If I had a penny for each time I read a brief that stated mandatories that were in fact part of the underling challenge… But ask yourself this, does briefing a predetermined solution stifle creative potential?

Such an approach usually involves strategising around a solution handed to you. And that’s a fundamental flaw. With this approach, the only thing guaranteed is that the response to the brief will be wrong most of the time. That’s because the process doesn’t enable a close client-agency collaboration that truly gets to the heart of the business challenge. Instead, it favours a solution that ‘looks’ right, but not one that is right. Not to mention briefs full of internal assumptions or political concessions.  This all results in a solution that is expected, rather than a solution that makes an impact.

This may undervalue the expertise the agency brings to the client – particularly in a free pitch scenario, but that’s a whole different article. Isn’t the purpose of bringing in an agency to get a fresh view and new thinking? More importantly, the process that has led to the ‘solutions brief’ undermines the underlying challenge that needs to be solved and predetermines an expected outcome that will pass through the internal gates. Not an unexpected outcome that is going to change the game. This way, agencies are being held in a box, limiting creative problem solving, with clients losing out. Taken to extremes, that can be catastrophic for the client’s business outcomes. Brand and Marketing chiefs may have passed the internal gates with consensus driven processes leading to shared responsibility when things fail.

The top benefits of challenge-based briefs

Whilst brands may have a solution in mind, to maximise full potential stimulating creativity is vital to success. Providing a clear definition of the challenge or opportunity, for the agency to understand the challenge, encourages your agency partners to do what you expect from them – challenge you and define solutions that you may never have considered. This enables agencies to develop an innovative solution and really get under the skin of the challenge at hand, to help align with the brand’s objectives and become a real partner rather than a supplier.

By challenging an agency with well… a challenge… encourages exploration of a world of unexpected ideas and strategies. This creative problem-solving process allows clients to better understand their own challenge and opens opportunity for unthought solutions.

Clients should be getting more bang for their buck, so why aren’t they leveraging agency expertise? By allowing agencies to work with you to define a challenge, clients can tap into their wealth of experience and priceless objectivity, giving clients the best value for money. More importantly, it gives them an invaluable solution. Using this approach can ensure agencies get it right the first time, tailoring holistic strategies to specific client needs.

Let’s be real, fresh perspectives and unique approaches ultimately lead to creative solutions that could shift a paradigm or define a category. The challenge-focused approach is effectively a win-win for both parties.

Collaboration is key

Taking a collaborative approach is what enables true success. This means bringing together the agency and all stakeholders into one room to get to the crux of the challenge and using our collective brain power to look beyond the immediate challenge. It allows for questions to be asked that the client may have ignored and for received wisdoms to be challenged.

Having an open conversation from the start means everybody, both internally and externally, is on the same page. It leaves scope to ask questions and get down to the nitty gritty, whilst ensuring a partnership from the get-go that provides a solid base for success.

Context sessions are a fantastic place to start. They can consist of 7 parameters to drive conversations; the business context; project purpose and goals; understanding of the critical behaviours needed to solve the problem; platform and approach; key risks; open issues and doneness – which should indicate at one point everybody involved, both internally and externally, are happy.

What’s really required if all involved are to get the best out of the process is not a diktat but a dialogue.

Using an open dialogue to bridge the ignorance gap is an absolute must. To be candid, briefs are most of the time rife with internal assumptions and internal politics. The solution to this? Making sure the agency and client are both engaged and able to have a conversation around the reality of the issue. This ensures a sense of transparency, shared thinking and makes sure that everybody is singing from the same hymn sheet.

A challenge brief is like an equation. It should be formula based and methodical at every step of the way. Internal and external perspectives must be considered to work through the challenge to find the solution. Methods may change and develop, but there ultimately must be a process that leads you to the solution or answer…. not an assumption.

What I’m talking about is a conversation, where client and agency work hand-in-glove to identify the challenge in tandem, then continue their collaboration to solve it. Yes, this means taking the long view from the outset – but imagine how much time and effort we could all save. And imagine what amazing work might emerge if you briefed on a challenge, not a solution.