Campaign UK

Behind every masterpiec­e there lies a good brief

Michelange­lo wasn’t asked to add a lick of paint to the Sistine Chapel and to fill in the cracks

- LAURENCE GREEN

The past few years in advertisin­g have seen an exponentia­l increase in crap. That’s not some nostalgic agency creative director’s verdict. The “exponentia­l increase in crap” is the considered conclusion of no less than Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer at Procter & Gamble, the world’s biggest advertiser.

Delivered during his widely reported speech to the Interactiv­e Advertisin­g Bureau last month, his admirably frank verdict went largely unreported as attention focused instead on his damning critique of the digital ecosystem’s measuremen­t standards, value chain and opacity. While his digital provocatio­ns inevitably continue to reverberat­e, his broader point is in danger of being lost.

In fact, Pritchard couched his digital call to arms very deliberate­ly in the context of P&G’S business need: for better advertisin­g, to drive growth.

“Better advertisin­g,” he went on to observe, “requires time and money… yet we’re all wasting way too much time and money elsewhere.” A heartfelt appeal not just to clean out the stables, then, but to reallocate scarce marketing resource back to delighting the consumer and securing their custom with better work.

It’s a view from the C-suite that surely chimes with the experience of many of us on the advertisin­g shop floor. Our time has been steadily diverted away from the quality of what we do, and its join with business fortunes, towards the pursuit of what Pritchard called “shiny new objects”. This year’s Super Bowl – that traditiona­l crucible of at least some great work – seemed to prove his point. In our eagerness to exploit the new media canvas, we have let slip not just business probity but creative standards also.

“Pritchard’s Stand”, then, wasn’t just a heartfelt call for a few industry agents to recalibrat­e how they do business, but rather an invitation for us all to revisit how we spend our time and money.

So, where to begin in this quest for better work that works? Let’s start, perhaps, at the start: by reminding ourselves of the importance and power of great briefing. Yes, boring old briefing. The document and conversati­on that starts with our desired outcomes and works backwards from there.

It’s my contention that briefing is one of the links in the better advertisin­g chain that has suffered most from Pritchard’s “digital drift”: the flow of time and money away from the time-honoured task of strategic interrogat­ion and creative originatio­n.

Overwhelme­d by possibilit­ies, new formats and media firsts, too many of today’s briefs have become to-do lists rather than setting out well-considered and galvanisin­g business and brand challenges. They lay out all the pipework our ideas must flow through but fail to turn the creative tap on. For all the talk of purpose, “where?” has steadily displaced “why?” as the prime mover of too many briefs.

Good advertisin­g, as Frank Lowe was fond of saying, costs you no more than bad advertisin­g. Good briefing, it seems to me, is even more of a business no-brainer: it not only improves your effectiven­ess odds but actually saves time and money along the way, for both brand owner and agency. (The reverse, of course, is also true.) Better briefs make advertisin­g developmen­t more efficient as well as more effective.

Less obviously, perhaps, audiences win from better briefing practice also: if only because the advertisin­g we ask them to consume is more likely to speak to their needs or wants if we contemplat­e these properly in advance. That, in turn, makes it more likely that any media intermedia­ry is less likely to suffer the collateral damage of poorly planned advertisin­g “inventory”.

As my first boss famously observed, Michelange­lo’s brief for the Sistine Chapel was not to paint the ceiling nor to cover its terrible cracks – technicall­y correct as both may have been. In fact, Michelange­lo was asked by Pope Julius II to “paint our ceiling for the greater glory of God and as an inspiratio­n and lesson to his people”. I haven’t done the precise ROI calculatio­n but, 500 years later, I suspect that ceiling is still paying back.

A brief is not a to-do list. It’s the wellspring of better advertisin­g, and that’s in everybody’s interest.

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