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


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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