The benefit of tight briefs

Every freelancer – every writer, illustrator or photographer – is familiar with that old ad agency saw, “give me the freedom of a tight brief”. It was apparently coined by David Ogilvy and remains a touchstone for us creatives to this day.

We’ve all worked for clients who weren’t exactly sure what they wanted from a piece of writing. Some acknowledge this weakness, and will accept whatever you’ve written within those loose definitions.

More often, however, their reactions are more negative: “this isn’t what I imagined it would be”. That’s frustrating, and it reinforces the need for writers to probe their clients at the outset, forcing them to articulate what they envisage.

The worst situation is when the client doesn’t know why they’re asking you to write, let alone what you should write about. (A slack brief can be managed, and ideally at the outset; but even after filing it’s not a disaster.) Often this can be a reflection of a client lacking a clear strategy. If that’s the case, you’ve got real problems, especially if your client contact is then struggling to justify your work to their superiors.

Researching the provenance of the “tight brief” quote, I stumbled on another Ogilvy alum’s variation: “give me the freedom of a tightly defined strategy”. That one was coined by agency legend Norman Berry. According to his memorial page at Ogilvy’s web site, he was a pretty strong personality: “Norman was totally fearless. He wouldn’t be bullied by clients as to how he should staff their accounts; he wouldn’t baulk at presenting a brave idea if it was on strategy. And at the same time he wouldn’t let his creatives be bullied by account management.”

We need to be able to work in environments where the relationship between commissioner and creative is clear; where the brief is detailed, the requirements explicit, the deadline and fees nailed down. (Cue plug for The Content Cloud – a system that gets commissioners to write exactly what they’re after and ensures all the paperwork is handled automatically really helps in this context.)

But it’s also increasingly important to have a clear idea of the client’s strategy – the context in which the brief is issued.

Really good brands find this easy. They’re designed and built so the creative context is obvious. You’d know if something was tonally right for, say, PaddyPower. But quizzing commissioners on how your work fits into a specific strategy around a brand, a campaign or even a publication if it’s not immediately obvious is a great idea for any creative.

Richard Young is consulting strategic editor at PCP

Visit Content Cloud to sign up as a creator, or commission the content your business needs

Editor's pick

Most popular