What role does a brief play?

An IPA Advanced Certificate in Communications Planning essay

BBH's Will Roscoe examines the role of the brief and the extent to which the brief could be viewed as the most influential factor in developing the communications strategy as part of the IPA Advanced Certificate in Communications Planning.

This paper will contend two ideas: firstly, that the role of the brief is to increase the quality of agency outputs, to reduce wasted time and expenditure on ineffective briefing processes, and to increase the speed of remuneration between the brand and agency. Secondly, although the brief is the genesis of the communications strategy formation process, to frame it as the most influential factor is to disregard the importance of three other primary elements in forming comms, all of which are crucial to the overall success of a campaign.

The contemporary world of marketing briefs is slipping into a malaise of increasing severity. In a 2021 study by BetterBriefs, there was a 9% increase in agency workers between 2003 and 2021 who believe that good work is hard to produce without solid briefs; to compound this issue exponentially, 73% of agency respondents believe modern briefs are of insufficient quality – and brand-side respondents estimate that 26% of marketing budgets are wasted, resulting from poor briefs (BetterBriefs, 2022). This paper will argue that amid this state of affairs, the role of the brief has never been more important – but that winning communications strategies come from three other primary pillars, occurring sequentially and of equal integrity to the overall process.

Reaping what you Sow

Chris Whitson noted in a 2011 IPA best practice guide, "We want people to tell us exactly what the challenge is, what constraints they are operating under, and what KPIs they are putting against it." (IPA, 2011). Considering also David Ogilvy’s sentiment around the favourability of being given ‘the freedom of a tight brief’ (WARC, 2020), and we arrive succinctly at a brief’s central role – to drastically optimise the entire process.

That same guide posited three fundamental roles of effective briefing: to maximise the quality of agency outputs; to save time and money; and to accelerate and ease remuneration. Better work, as objectives are clarified from the outset, there are known success criteria, and therefore effectiveness becomes demonstrable – and work will not be produced against the wrong objectives (IPA, 2011). Time and money saved, by the client investing a moderate amount of time initially putting thought to a written brief, enabling effective work to be produced more quickly and thus entered into the marketplace to reap commercial reward earlier (BetterBriefs noted that 76% of agency respondents believe that rebriefs happen too often) (IPA, 2011) (BetterBriefs, 2022). Faster remuneration and consequentially, a better working relationship – clear KPIs enable performance-based contracts to be fulfilled far more easily (IPA, 2011).

As shown in the IPA Heinz case study, a final and more implicit role of the brief is to set the tone for the nature of the desired campaign. Heinz in 2016 was, as it has been for a while, a market leader in the UK condiments sector, but lagged behind Hellman’s in mayonnaise market share. In spite of being a behemoth in the sector, Heinz briefed BBH in a boxing ring, clearly underlining their desired ‘underdog’ approach, and the need to act like a challenger. Combined with a comprehensive brief -
with clear KPIs, this enabled BBH to structure a clear, 6-pillared comms plan, beginning with closing mental awareness and ending on increasing sales, which ultimately achieved all its aims and resulted in an overwhelmingly successful campaign (IPA, 2020).

Part of a Whole

While the brief signals the inception of a communication strategy’s development, to regard it as the most influential part of the process is to disregard 3 other fundamental pillars: setting objectives; insight-gathering; and writing the strategy itself.

The importance of each of those three remaining pillars has been remarked on time and again by prominent thinkers in our industry. Regarding objectives, Binet & Field noted that ‘marketing is unlikely to be effective, and certainly success will be difficult to measure, if objectives are not clearly spelled out... objectives also make marketing more effective, by focusing minds and resources on the tasks that matter’ (Binet & Field, 2007). On insight-gathering, Jon Kershaw observed their ‘vital importance to the development of good marketing communication’, with Bill Bernbach adding that a true insight into an aspect of human nature can ‘can touch him at the core of his being’ (Kershaw, 2015) (Forbes, 2013). On composing the strategy itself, the final pillar, Martin Weigel stated that ‘at the end of the day, strategy is the art of getting people to do something’ – drawing the first three pillars together to actually manifest a commercial business change (Weigel, 2019).

The conclusion we can draw from all of these statements is that the process of developing a communications strategy is comprised of several stages, which operate sequentially, with each stage being reliant on the solid foundations of the last. While the briefing process sets this chain in motion, it is no more or less fundamental to the eventual performance of the work than any other stage.

A notable campaign which owed its success to one of these other three pillars can be found in Guinness’ ‘Clear’ campaign, which encouraged moderated drinking at rugby games, while also increasing sales. The insight which drove this campaign was that beer drinkers at games were embarrassed to order non-alcoholic drinks in front of their friends – research found that 78% of rugby fans found spectating more enjoyable when they moderated their drinking. The resulting strategy both encouraged reduced alcohol consumption, but by supercharging brand-awareness and salience at the point of purchase, with a 7% increase in UK&I over the target period. On this occasion, in spite of what was presumably a thorough brief from Guinness to AMV BBDO, it was the third pillar, insight-gathering, which really unlocked the piece (WARC, 2021).


In summary, the role of the brief is to enable agencies to create quality work, reduce financial and time wastage, keep remuneration practices healthy, and to set the tone of what the strategy should look like in its final form. In terms of its relative importance within the wider process, this piece has established that while the brief is highly influential, to regard it as the most important piece of the puzzle inaccurately frames the role of other crucial elements of the process. A solid communications strategy can be viewed as a four-rung ladder – no single rung is of any less importance than another in terms of the functioning of the whole object.

Will Roscoe is a Data Strategist at BBH. This essay was submitted as part of the IPA Advanced Certificate in Communications Planning.

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The opinions expressed here are those of the author and were submitted in accordance with the IPA terms and conditions regarding the uploading and contribution of content to the IPA newsletters, IPA website, or other IPA media, and should not be interpreted as representing the opinion of the IPA.

Last updated 01 May 2024