10 key principles for effective briefing

The art of effective briefing remains elusive but there’s a positive impact on client–agency relationships for those who get it right.

10 building blocks for effective briefing.
Issues that won’t go away

Ever since Aprais started evaluating the health of client­–agency relationships in 1999, one recurring challenge has consistently stood out: briefing. It’s fascinating to see how, despite the ever-changing landscape of marketing and advertising, the art of effective briefing remains elusive for some.

When we examine the six client disciplines most common across our global client base, including areas like Feedback & approval or Timing & process, briefing has consistently ranked among the lowest scoring disciplines since 2010. Even in Europe, where the scores tend to be higher on average, briefing often tracks at the bottom or next to it. See chart below.

What stands out is that briefing in the UK scores even lower than both the European and global averages. It has held the unenviable title of the lowest scoring discipline for the past three years in this market.  These statistics highlight the persistent challenges that clients and agencies face when it comes to briefing effectively.

How briefing compares with other client disciplines.
Common issues with client briefs

Through our evaluations and the valuable commentary we’ve collected, we’ve identified several common issues that impair the quality of client briefs:

  • Format – While informal briefs may have been acceptable during the Covid crisis when businesses had to adapt rapidly, some briefs are still not written and shared with all stakeholders. This lack of consistency hampers the assessment of proposals. Additionally, templates are often used but not always correctly.
  • Alignment – With multiple internal parties involved in preparing the brief, it’s not uncommon for briefs to lack consolidation, becoming overly complex or appearing in multiple iterations. This “silo briefing” approach can lead to a lack of alignment between different agencies’ work on the same project or multiple re-works required.
  • Content – The completeness of briefs varies widely. Some are too brief, lacking critical information, while others provide an overwhelming amount of data. Incomplete, missing, or inappropriate KPIs are also common, as are prescriptive briefs that offer solutions rather than guidance.
Why is briefing such a challenge?

Despite the availability of briefing formats, the marketing environment’s seismic changes, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, have further complicated the briefing process. These challenges aren’t limited to specific types of clients or agencies; they affect both large and small clients, local and international, across various industries.

Here are some of the overarching challenges:

Team Churn – Frequent changes on both the agency and client sides have eroded brand and customer knowledge.

Limited Onboarding – New teams take time to get up to speed, further straining existing teams. It often feels like new agency staff are learning on the job.

Challenging Environment – The current inflationary business climate has put budgets under intense scrutiny, leading to abrupt reductions, postponements, or cancellations. The agencies have to navigate these changes, which aren’t always factored into the Briefing process.

Workload – The 24/7 “always on” culture that emerged during the COVID era hasn’t truly subsided. This has resulted in team burnout, weekend work, and scope creep, making it tempting to stick to existing processes or templates.

Having worked in multiple roles in the marketing sphere (agency, marketer and procurement), I’ve seen first-hand how important good briefs are to enable teams to work to their full potential.

Effective briefing isn’t just about following a template; it’s about inspiring, motivating, and empowering agencies to deliver their best work.

In my experience, clients who excel in briefing are often strong strategic leaders. They foster an inclusive process where agencies actively participate in briefing, regardless of their scope. This approach encourages constructive discussions and leads to more integrated, effective solutions.

The two crucial elements of effective briefing

When it comes to effective briefing, two elements consistently stand out from the feedback we’ve gathered, namely communication and time.

Let’s address each one separately and consider what can be done so that your briefing can have a positive impact on the overall client–agency relationship.

Marketing is fundamentally a communication business, and regular discussions are vital. Briefing should be a two-way process, with agencies involved early enough to challenge or seek clarification on the brief. Consolidating input and discussing the final brief internally before sharing it with the agency is critical. It’s also important to be clear on the expected outcomes, include SMART KPIs, and define expectations for innovation.

Now let’s talk about time. Preparing a good brief takes time. Agency lead times can be compromised due to late briefs or amendments. Busy clients may default to amending the previous brief or sharing a completed template without discussing the contents with the agency. Agencies need time to digest information and propose optimal solutions. Late briefs or unclear briefs can add unnecessary time to the process or compromise the quality of the agency response.

Given the pivotal role of the briefing process in marketing and business performance, it’s imperative that marketers and agencies prioritise communication and allocate the necessary time to do a good job.

So with all this in mind, I’ve distilled these 10 key principles for effective briefing.

  1. Always write briefs. Even if you’re briefing in person, documenting the key points is essential for clarity and reference.
  2. Clearly define the brief’s purpose. Identify whether it’s for a brand positioning, strategic planning, or a short-term tactical campaign.
  3. Extract key insights from the data. Instead of overwhelming agencies with data, provide insights that matter.
  4. Keep it concise. While details are important, avoid lengthy briefs. If needed, include an executive summary with detailed information in an appendix.
  5. Ensure internal alignment. Especially when multiple stakeholders are involved, align the brief internally before sharing it with the agency.
  6. Consider joint agency briefings. For major projects, consider joint briefings to ensure an aligned response.  The written briefs can be scope specific.
  7. Include SMART KPIs. Clearly define key performance indicators and metrics for success.
  8. Transparency on budgets and milestones. Be upfront about potential constraints and key milestone dates that may change the available budget.
  9. Set expectations for innovation. If innovation is a goal, communicate your expectations and any restrictions clearly.
  10. Allocate time for discussion. Allow time for discussions and questions, fostering a collaborative briefing process.

Effective briefing is a cornerstone of successful client–agency relationships. By embracing these principles and addressing common challenges, you can enhance the quality of briefs and, ultimately, inspire exceptional work that cuts through the clutter and delivers outstanding results.

To find out more, contact Beth here.

Beth Lewis is Head of Client Service at Aprais. She has over 30 years of experience working in marketing, advertising and procurement. She has held senior roles at OMD, MEC, J Walter Thompson, Chris Ingram Associates, PepsiCo International and Bourne Leisure.  She is a past winner and judge of the Media Week Awards and received a Chairman’s Award at PepsiCo.