What do you do when your agency can’t produce the goods?


When a brand’s advertising has consistently underperformed for years, the marketing team’s instinct is usually to blame its agency. But the culprit is often closer to home.

A new client came to me last year with a problem. Their iconic brand has a history of great advertising. However, in recent years, their advertising has been consistently disappointing. The client was looking for outside perspectives on where the problem might lie.

My first response was to ask for a copy of the creative brief to which the agency was working, since this is a key reference point against which all creative ideas must be assessed. I received 4 different documents, each a single PowerPoint slide… this was the first warning sign.

One of these slides was indeed the client’s ‘Creative Brief’ (the client’s, you’ll note, not the agency’s, but that’s another matter). The other 3 slides were:

  • the Brand Positioning, which was intended to underpin all of the brand’s activities around the globe, not just advertising
  • a document that set out how the brand positioning should be ‘brought to life’ in communications (which, for the avoidance of attribution, I will call the ‘Communications Strategy’)
  • a template against which the advertising could be evaluated in research

The first question I asked myself was, “Why four documents?”. Yes, every brand should have a universal Brand Positioning that underpins all its activity. And, yes, this needs to be interpreted in a communications context via a creative brief. But if the Brand Positioning is clear and the creative brief well-written, why would you need a bridging document like the Communications Strategy? And the template against which advertising ideas are assessed should be… the creative brief.  You don’t need an additional document.

The more different documents you have, the greater the opportunity for digression and ambiguity. But, this was merely the hors d’oeuvre in what was to be a veritable feast of strategic confusion.

It is difficult to know where to begin with the litany of offences against communications strategy committed across and within these documents. But I’ll try, starting with the ‘Creative Brief’.

The role of the creative brief is to inspire original and relevant creative solutions, not to tell the agency what to do. Indeed, the best creative briefs are themselves creative: someone has taken facts and observations about the brand, the user and market and thought about them in a lateral or particularly insightful way, making leaps and connections that unlock an inspiring thought to fire the imagination of the creative team.

But apart from being inspiring, a good creative brief has a few, rather more mundane, boxes that it also needs to check:

  1. Clarity: It needs to be written in plain English, with no marketing jargon. As I have discussed in previous posts, the meaning of every word and phrase must be obvious, with no tricksiness and no ambiguity. And, critically, it should be single-minded, with all elements leading irrevocably to a single brand idea.
  2. Coherence: the content of all its components must be consistent and logically related.
  3. Relevance: every element must contribute to the whole; there must be no fat or padding. If it doesn’t help, it doesn’t belong.

Sadly, this creative brief didn’t just fail to tick the boxes; it stamped all over them and kicked the shattered fragments into the long grass.

What we had here is sadly all-too familiar: a creative brief laden with different ideas. No-one had the discipline to be single-minded or filter out the inconsistency and irrelevance. It was probably also a case of too many chefs, each wanting to wedge in their tuppenny-worth. Plus, of course, the dead hand of International Marketing was probably partly to blame for its inarticulacy and lack of focus.

For example, a core idea (amongst several) was cited as ‘The Hero’. Fair enough, provided you define ‘The Hero’, which the section then did… as ‘self-esteem’. I’m sorry, many ‘heroes’ might have self-esteem, but this is not a concept readily linked to heroes, while a hero could easily be driven by low self-esteem. How did those two concepts ever get linked?

However, as if that’s not enough, the document then elaborated on ‘self esteem’: ‘wanting to play your role in your life as well as you can’. What on earth does this mean?! And since when was this related to‘self-esteem’? My dictionary says that ‘self-esteem’ means: ‘confidence in one’s own worth or abilities’. And none of this has anything to do with ‘The Hero’.

So, what is the idea? ‘The Hero’, ‘self esteem’, or ‘wanting to play your role in your life as well as we can’? These are three different ideas.

And this was just the first section of the creative brief. It only got worse. In total, I counted no fewer than 9 different ideas in this single creative brief.

Of course, apart from clear, coherent and relevant, the creative brief needs most of all to be inspiring. However,  there was nothing fresh or original in any part of the brief; nothing surprising or provocative, and nothing to own.

In short, this brief was totally unfit for purpose. If anything good emerged from the agency in response, it would be by complete chance. One reached the end of the brief with simply no sense of the single idea the brand was trying to convey. No wonder the agency had been struggling to produce any half decent work.

However, when I looked at the other 3 documents, it became clear that this duff ‘Creative Brief’ was merely the tip of the iceberg: 9/10 of this shambles lay hidden beneath the surface, waiting to sink RMS Strategy with no survivors.

  • Not satisfied with having 9 different ideas in the creative brief, further new ideas appeared at random in each of the other documents.
  • No consistent terminology was used across the documents.
  • The brand proposition was a moveable feast – across the 4 documents it was expressed in 6 quite different ways.
  • And not one of the documents delivered against the key needs for Clarity, Coherence, Relevance, and to be Inspiring.

The most astonishing thing here is that these 4 documents came from the marketing team working on an internationally famous brand from a major business with an enviable advertising heritage. What had happened? How could it no longer possess the skills, imagination and intellectual discipline required to write a half decent brief for its agency? How is it that no-one, apparently not even the marketing director, is calling this out. Does this absence of basic ability in marketing strategy run all the way to the top?

So, if your ad agency is repeatedly failing to create good work for your brand, before you start beating them up or thinking of going out to pitch, stand back for a moment and ask some searching questions of your creative brief.

As Luke, the former Head of Insight at Visit Nazareth, once put it: ‘Physician, heal thyself’.

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