It’s Time to Kill the Traditional Brief and Foster a Deeper Partnership Between Client and Agency

An open letter to CMOs

It's time that the marketing brief follows in the footsteps of the typewriter and rotary phone. Getty Images

Dear marketers,

Consider this your open invitation to engage with agencies that don’t work to the brief. We’ve changed. Now it’s your turn.

The briefing process is as old as the advertising industry itself— and the typical brief is a holdover from a bygone era where you, CMO, were the expert in what you needed.

Today you, like many of your peers, are finding that the real answers to the challenges you now face lie outside of your control and sometimes outside of your comfort zone. That’s OK. You’re responsible for revenue and solving for consumer challenges in a way that you weren’t before. Often, the solutions to your problems lie outside of your purview. And the myriad agency structures we’ve seen develop over the past couple of years are an attempt to answer this phenomenon. Yet the integrity of the brief has remained completely intact.

At its finest, the brief, written on a physical piece of paper, is a contract of sorts, drawn up to ensure clarity and agreement for a set of deliverables. And yet, that narrow definition doesn’t—or can’t—take into consideration today’s challenges that run the gamut from mar tech to user experience to design and beyond.

We can all take a small, but important, step by killing the traditional brief as we know it.

The brief is a holdover from the days when marketing was a much more straightforward and transactional process, during a time when CMOs knew what they needed and how they needed it. The brief operated as a way to ensure agreement for a set of deliverables. And that’s exactly why the brief deserves to find its way into the same drawer as rotary phones, carbon paper and the manual typewriter. It’s an antiquated construct unable to give an agency the room to take into consideration today’s challenges that require brands to engage with users in a way that adds mutual value and in a way that allows them to understand, predict and respond to user needs before users even know what they’re looking for.

We’re seeing more and more instances where the answer to the client’s critical business issue isn’t—despite the directive of the brief—a new app or an attention-grabbing Super Bowl spot. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes part of the answer can be a well-executed Super Bowl spot. But more often than not, as soon as we apply data, technology, creative and user experience design, the real solution to the client’s problem is now something totally different and unexpected. The solution becomes something outside the lines of the brief.

So, CMO, why are you still using the brief?

Change is hard. The brief is comfortable. It’s what our industry is used to. It’s what’s easily socialized within your company and complicated organizational structure. And that’s OK. Because agencies, the ones that get it, can collaborate with you and your teams to discover where real answers to your business challenges may lie. But the way things are today, we’re not always empowered to take it there. This means that the radical change needed to stay relevant in this vertigo-inducing era will need to be more psychological than structural. We can all take a small, but important, step by killing the traditional brief as we know it.

The formal handoff of a brief must give way to a blurring of the lines between client and agency, leading to a true partnership where real solutions are found to those often unasked questions that are critical to a brand’s longevity. Ultimately, this will require marketers to choose the solution they weren’t expecting and to choose agency partners that are able to provide these solutions no matter what form they may take.

Clinging to this antiquated relic of the past is fleeting. So, CMO, if you want to solve today’s brand problems, keep this in mind when you’re starting your next agency review: kill your brief and look instead for a partner to help solve problems outside of what you think is wrong. I guarantee that your bottom line, CEO and customers will thank you for it.

Jason Musante is chief creative officer at Huge.