Creative Briefs

Recently I was catching up with a former agency partner and we got into a conversation revolving around two specific points:  1) The ability of midsize agencies to survive in these tough times; and 2) How to grow the business at a particular client who has never retained an agency or spent consistently.  In my friend’s case, it was the area of PR.  This conversation made me realize that often agencies do not understand how their clients think.  The answers to both of his concerns lay in better understanding client motivations and spending. 

I have spent many days sitting in an RFP pitch or as part of an agency bid process, and I am often amazed at how an agency doesn’t follow the brief, hasn’t done their homework about the brand or is just clueless about how the client is going to evaluate them. Furthermore, there are many on the agency side who have never been on the other side of the table and don’t really understand how the client thinks.   So, I am going to provide a little insider information, starting with the answers to my friend’s two points.

The size of the agency doesn’t matter 

The prevailing thought to my friend’s statement is that the client will either want a big agency with big resources or a small boutique with a niche in specific talents or industry knowledge, thus leaving the ones in the middle lost.  In some cases, that may be true, but often it is about three key elements:  chemistry between client and agency team; creative that delivers; and the knowledge base of the agency team.  An agency of any size can deliver these things and will survive if they are a good agency.  So size is not the issue – it comes down to how you connect with the client and what you deliver.   

Additionally, the actual size of an agency can be hidden.  More than once I have used sister agencies and subcontractors as part of our potential client team.  I have been open that these folks extend beyond the actual employees of the agency, but the client was satisfied in that these were dedicated resources to their project.

You can’t get water from a dry well

There are very specific reasons that a client will spend only so much on a given marketing tactic.  In the case of the client my friend was trying to grow, there were a couple of reasons: 1) The company did not have a need for ongoing PR support, just bursts for new project launches;  2) Social media, which is often managed by PR, was being handled by the media buying and promotion agencies.  Upon evaluation, my friend’s agency would probably have found it a waste of time and effort to try and push for more immediate business because their client would never be interested in ongoing PR initiatives and their business didn’t demand it.  Understanding how a client manages your agency’s area of expertise will provide you with direction on how to not only manage your client’s day-to-day business, but provide more appropriate new opportunities for you to pursue with them.  Generally, these kinds of clients use you as a service provider and not as a partner, so maintain an ongoing relationship to ensure you get the next bit of business that comes up.  Don’t push too hard for something that isn’t there; it will just frustrate you and annoy the client, since you can assume they already know that you are looking to grow the business. 

Chemistry is everything

Following the thoughts from above, when it all comes down to the final decision on who your agency is going to be, there is one key evaluation – are you a good fit with this client, and do THEY feel the chemistry?  Pricing, creative, location all do play a part, but the team choosing to work with the agency has to feel they “like” them, that the agency “gets” them.  It is sort of like dating – do you feel chemistry or not? I have been a part of agency RFP’s where an agency was chosen not because they had the best creative, but because the V.P. felt a connection with the team.  The agency didn’t work out, but that gut feeling often is a driving force.

I knew of a client that was unhappy with their agency.  Staffing had changed, and the agency was dropping the ball when it came to delivering what the client needed.  The client was about to pull their very large business from the agency.  A new leader joined the agency, and his personality, dedication and overall chemistry with the client was evident when they presented to this client.  The client believed in this new leader and the plans he presented because this agency leader knew how to connect and what needed to be said to save the business.  Through the chemistry and the connection, the leader saved the client from exiting the relationship.

Chemistry is everything, unless there are politics involved

Here is my caveat to “chemistry is everything” – politics trumps chemistry.  You’ve walked out of the pitch, you feel great because you know you really connected with the senior team evaluating you.  The team complemented you on the creative, and you feel like this one is in the bag – that is, until the phone call comes that says it went to another agency.  What happened?  Probably politics.  We all know that corporate politics can be brutal, and in the realm of agency selection, it can change the tide of the decision.  For example, on a recent agency search I was involved in, it came down to two agencies.  Agency A was the AOR of another business unit and well respected.  Their creative was dead on, and they connected well with the team.  Agency B gave a great presentation and connected well with the team.  However, the team was split on which agency to choose.  It was apparent that the V.P. felt more chemistry with Agency B and liked the creative better.  The final decision was hers to make, and the team was sure it would be Agency B.  Much to everyone’s surprise, Agency A won. The reason? Politics.  The V.P. had no issues going against key members in the decision-making team, but what she couldn’t fight against was the pressure from above to consolidate agencies and go for the well-respected agency already working with the other business unit.  While frustrating for her, politics won out once again.

Agencies prefer retainers, but companies often don’t

This has forever been the dilemma I have faced on both sides of this equation.  As the service provider, the best way to ensure a steady monthly revenue stream is to have your client on retainer.  You can better manage your staffing and overhead.  Moreover, it is the best way to be seen as a marketing partner and not just a service provider.  For many clients, especially large ones, they support the idea of a retainered agency and even embrace it.  However, many companies much prefer to work with agencies on a project basis.  Their budgets are tight, and they want the agencies to come up with great ideas and execute them, but they don’t feel the need for ongoing support.   Whether you get hired back depends on how well you execute that one promotion vs. being judged on the overall promotional strategy you helped them develop.  While some clients do have agencies of record that aren’t retainered, those agencies are always in sell mode because they don’t have commitment.

 A couple of additional points on ways this isn’t always the case.  As companies have moved away from internal marketing services teams, there is a greater push for agencies of record and retainers.  This is mostly because the company doesn’t have the in-house personnel to manage the programs.  Social media and product ingredient issues are also putting a greater emphasis on things such as PR and consumer outreach programs.  Many companies that utilized PR only for new product launches and general outreach are seeing more of a need for ongoing support.  I saw this first hand while working on sun-care and infant products.  Because product ingredients and packaging such as plastics where consistently being called into question, there was a need for constant media monitoring.  Additionally, enough of a case was made internally for management to approach things differently.  Therefore, PR became an ongoing need requiring a retainered relationship. 

Following the creative brief is important

Your creative may be awesome, your insights into the target demo dead on and your chemistry with the team palpable, but if you don’t provide the answers to the questions the creative brief asked, you are basically dead in the water.  You are being evaluated against other agencies on how well you responded to the brief.  You miss the target, you are evaluated poorly.  You can claim misinterpretation of the brief, but it is your responsibility to ask questions upon receiving it.  There are times in the early rounds where you may be given a second chance, especially if the client liked your creative and your team.  Don’t count on this because sometimes there aren’t multiple rounds.  Your agency may be known for stepping outside of the box and taking briefs in another direction.  That is fine as long as you don’t completely challenge the client’s intended strategy and ignore the direction in the brief.

Clients want to know that you can work with other agencies

In these days of integrated marketing, clients need to know that you can play nice in the sandbox.  You need to always provide examples of agency alliances and instances where you worked as part of an integrated agency team.  The clients don’t want to play referee, and they don’t have time to manage all of the intricacies of how the different elements of the program are going to come together within the different agencies. 

Some of you may think what I have presented is common sense and obvious.  In many ways it is, and those that are aware of these lessons are ahead of the game.  However, you will be surprised how many agencies I have encountered that don’t understand what the client really needs or is looking for.  They get so wrapped up in their amazing creative or wealth of experience that they fail to understand what is motivating the client.  Hopefully, this will help provide some of that basic insight so those agencies that are less aware will be more successful in their pitches.


This is a follow-up to my recent post on the same topic, but I am tackling it from the agency perspective this time.   If you’ve read my post on the client perspective some of the same themes are valid here as well. (see below) 

Open and honest communication is the backbone of the relationship, but there are some other key tips to offer when building that all-important client relationship.

Decision Makers Are Rarely Key Contacts

This has to be one of the most frustrating situations an agency has to deal with.  Two scenarios emerge: 

  1. Your contact is the Marketing Services Manager – The role here is to filter information between the brand teams and the agencies, provide internal consulting to the brand teams and manage the overall agency activities.  This client role can be highly beneficial to an agency if the manager has strong brand relationships and is a good communicator.  They are the ones who speak the agency’s language and can provide further insights into brand comments or direction.  However, this person is almost never the final decision maker – that would be the brand team. 
  2. You primary contact is a junior brand manager – OK, now you have direct access to the brand team, but these people are often too junior to make any final decisions and usually don’t have the strength of strategic knowledge.  You often have to spend a lot of time training them as you try to execute a program or creative.

So, what are the solutions to both scenarios?  First of all, allow time in the timeline for longer decision-making.  Trust me, brand managers don’t want to be rushed into decisions, but they don’t want their programs delayed because of their own corporate indecision either.  Secondly, clearly communicate needs both verbally and in writing.  Always follow up with a meeting recap and key next steps in writing.    Additionally, initiate broad team meetings once a month or at key decision points that include the key decision makers to ensure that they can ask direct questions and you get unfiltered feedback. 

One warning:  Be careful of too much process and need for senior-level approval.  For example, I knew of a Marketing V.P. who felt he needed to approve all creative.   A process was started that had large creative approval meetings with all key approvers in the room.  In theory this makes sense and follows my suggestion above, but because of scheduling conflicts, these meetings did not happen as often as they needed, and the V.P. was approving creative that they just should have let the brand director approve.  It frustrated all parties involved and hurt the strength of the relationships between the agency and the brand teams.  In these cases, you can’t change the process of the V.P., but you can work harder to establish strong ties with those under the executive to ensure you are moving along the right path.

Build Relationships across All Levels and Disciplines

Following the above tip, build relationships with all levels of management, even outside of your primary contacts.  Your biggest ally may be the Marketing Services Manager, so do all you can to strengthen and build this relationship.   They provide direction and feedback on your performance as an agency and can smooth the way for issues relating to billable hours or project issues.  I realize that agencies understandably want visibility with decision makers and that sometimes these marketing services individuals can be seen as roadblocks.  Unless they have control issues, what seem like roadblocks are more often reactions to how much access the brand teams want to the day-to-day process.

Your primary contact may be a junior brand manager or brand manager, but make sure you also get to know the Brand Director.  They often have unique insights into senior management that you might not get otherwise.

Always Put It in Writing

I wish I could tell you that you can always trust the client to do the right thing or admit to having said or approved something, but unfortunately that isn’t always the case.  What’s more, it always comes down to the ultimate decision maker, and they can change the direction of a project whenever they want.  The easiest solution is to always – and I mean always – put things in writing.  Meeting recaps, effects of changes on the budget or billable hours, feedback on creative, etc. – if you have a conversation that impacts what you are doing or the number of hours you are working on a project, then make sure you know the client is on the same page.  While I believe that a certain amount of informality is important, there are times when process is crucial to achieving open and effective communication between the client and agency.

For example, I once had a client who provided direction to me verbally and followed it up in writing.  That’s great, right?  Not exactly.  In this case, I made the mistake of not making sure that I clarified my interpretation of this direction and providing an example of what I thought he wanted.  While I went beyond the initial scope and gave a more strategic presentation, the client still wanted all the basic information details in a particular format that hadn’t been clearly outlined to me in his direction.  The end result was that I had to go back and create a spreadsheet of all the backup data, spending more time than I had budgeted for.

Push for Creative Briefs and Clear Direction

Not every company can deliver a good creative brief, but they are so important if you want to ensure that you are delivering what they want.  Insist on having the client walk you through the brief so that you can ask questions and fill in any missing information.  Feel free to push back on anything that doesn’t make sense or is undeliverable.  Most clients want you to ask questions and dig deeper.  Express any concerns, because being realistic will be your key to success.  Unfortunately, sometimes the client just doesn’t understand what a realistic deliverable is.

If a client doesn’t want to write a brief themselves, then do it for them.  Have the same conversation you would have if they were presenting you with a written brief and then translate that conversation into a brief that you can then get their approval on.  Again, it is all about making sure you are both on the same page. 

One additional note, I have found many cases where the client doesn’t have a true creative brief format.  In these cases, I have provided to them a format that has worked for me and let them adapt it how they need to. 

Set Boundaries and Realistic Expectations

This may go against traditional agency thinking, but you can set boundaries for when you are available – unless you need to deal with possible crisis situations (as in PR).  Just because a client calls you at 7 p.m., doesn’t mean you need to respond to them at that moment.  I have often left an email or message for my agency in the evening hours with the expectation that they would respond the next day.  When they respond at that same late hour, I often wished I had waited.  I didn’t want them to assume that I expected them to be working at that late hour as well.  I was probably more sensitive, having worked on the agency side at one point in my career.  However, this attitude helped to strengthen my ties with the agency because they knew I understood what it was like from their side. 

We have all been there when the client has asked for something with a ridiculous turnaround time.  You want to hang up the phone and yell – I know I have.  Be honest with how quickly you can actually get it done without killing yourself or your team.  If you need additional time to collect information, be realistic, otherwise the client will have the tendency to get angry or frustrated when you don’t deliver.  As the client asking for the quick turnaround because my boss has asked for it, the last thing I wanted to hear was it couldn’t be delivered.  I didn’t want to tell my boss it couldn’t be done.  However, everyone wants to fulfill expectations, and it is easier to tell my boss that it can’t be delivered if there is a solid explanation for the delay.

In conclusion, if you look at both of my posts on the topic of building strong client-agency relationships you will see two key themes:

  • Communication
  • An understanding of how the other entity views things

The client is the ultimate factor in this relationship building, since it all revolves around them.  The agency wants the client’s business, needs to work with them to keep the business and gauges their success from the success of the campaigns they deliver.  So, while the client plays a role in making the most of the client/agency relationship and contributes to its success, how well an agency understands the client, their needs and the players within the client will greatly impact the agency’s chances of success.

Both parties need to make sure they are communicating well, are committed to working together and take the effort to understand the other’s point of view.  If you succeed in doing this, the results will be productive and effective marketing campaigns – and a long, fruitful partnership.


Dealing With The Client Who Is Never Satisfied

March 23, 2011

It is inevitable that at some point in your career you will encounter a client, whether internal or external, that just never seems happy with the end product.  You have presented them with what you consider good work, the best you and your team can deliver and then they make a funny face, sigh or […]

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Building a Strong Client-Agency Relationship (from the Client’s perspective)

March 15, 2011

Recently, I have been listening to a lot of my corporate colleagues lament about the frustrations they are having with their various agencies.  These brand managers and directors as well as the marketing services teams complain how an agency didn’t deliver on the creative or the execution was poor.  They express the need for their […]

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