How to brief a digital agency (and actually get what you want)

Whether you’re briefing your existing agency or inviting new agencies to respond to a request for proposal, there are certain ‘rules of the game’ that will help you drive the best possible result.

Liam Thomas By Liam Thomas. 24/02/2017. In Strategy.

Successfully briefing an agency requires a fine balance between being clear about your objectives, and leaving the brief open enough to allow the agency’s creativity and expertise to shine. Sometimes that balance is not easy to find.

The first question you need to consider is ‘Do I actually need a brief for this?’ If you’re looking at working with a new agency, the answer is almost always going to be ‘yes’. But what if you just want your existing agency to make a minor amendment, like a change in background colour on your website? In that case, a brief is likely to be overkill. So, it really comes down to a question of whether the project is one where you require consultancy from your agency – as distinct from a situation where you are simply seeking a quote for specifically defined requirements. The critical distinction is that in the latter scenario, you are not actually inviting a strategic review or addition of value from your agency.

Once you’ve ascertained that a brief is in order, there are certain best practices that should be followed to make the most of the opportunity. The benefits of a well thought-out briefing process include:

  • more widespread contributions from internal stakeholders at an early stage in the process
  • improved alignment of outcome to business strategy
  • time saved communicating requirements to the agency
  • better project harmony as both sides are working to the same set of messaging and objectives
  • the flexibility to explore broader solutions that weren’t necessarily envisaged from the beginning, and
  • reduced overall costs and a more favourable return on investment.

We frequently receive positive client feedback for our briefing and planning process, so we thought we’d share some of that collective wisdom. The following ‘Immutable Laws of Engagement’ apply equally to existing or prospective agencies and will hopefully assist both sides in avoiding time-consuming and costly mis-meetings of the minds.

1. Never rush a brief

This point is absolutely fundamental to producing a good brief. Time saved in producing a rushed brief is invariably time squandered later (multiplied by a factor of five). The toing and froing that inevitably takes place between client and agency as a result of an incomplete or ill-conceived brief is almost certainly going to be more time-consuming than taking the time at the outset to clearly outline the objectives and scope of work.

2. Involve relevant stakeholders early

This is really an extension of the point above. If you can set aside the time to gain early internal contributions and approvals, you will have better project buy-in and the whole process will run a lot more smoothly. Nothing is more guaranteed to put a handbrake on your project than presenting key stakeholders with last-minute ‘surprises’.

3. Be clear about your objectives

Prior to writing the brief, make sure you have consulted internally with your team and considered the following points.

  • Is the requirement orientated around solving a problem, or servicing an opportunity?
  • What are the key drivers for the requirement?
  • Do you have a preference for agile (multiple iterations) or waterfall (all at once) project delivery? (A great resource for understanding the difference can be found on the site Agile in a Nutshell.)
  • Is the requirement of high strategic value to the business?
  • Considering the strategic value, what is an appropriate investment?
  • How much time can be afforded to identify and implement the best result?

Significant value can be gained by ensuring that everyone on the project is working to provide a solution to the same set of challenges.  

4. Don’t pre-empt the answers

Ensure the brief focuses on the problem, the challenge, the consumer benefit and goals – without jumping straight to a proposed solution (that’s what your agency is for!). Developing a robust yet flexible brief for your agency is likely to produce much greater dividends than if you were to provide only an instruction for change, or feature request (refer to point above about whether you actually need a brief). Take advantage of the agency’s skills and experience and put them to the test to see what they can deliver.

5. Don’t underestimate the scope

If you’ve decided that a requirement is worthy of a brief, then it’s worth scoping out properly. An underdeveloped scope of work will ultimately result in unforeseen project delays and budgetary pressure. If your requirement is of strategic importance or in any way impacts your user experience, it’s worth putting in the time and effort to create a detailed scope.

6. Before work proceeds, make sure both sides are on the same page

Before we begin to envision what a deliverable may look like, we work closely with our clients to ensure that both parties are working to a clear set of challenges, a firm understanding of priorities and an agreed path forward. Our standard practice involves consultation with the client, involving our best and most appropriate resources at the outset. To get the most out of this meeting, we recommend that all attendees read the brief ahead of time and exchange questions in advance. During this meeting, the client should take the opportunity to ask the agency what ideas they have beyond the brief. 

If you've recommended tactical approaches in addition to strategic requirements, ask your agency to consider alternative approaches that may deliver a greater result for equal or less investment. If the agency challenges your strategy, step them through your thinking in more detail.

At this stage you should also establish a series of milestones for estimation and ask the agency for feedback on the proposed budget and timeline. Try to maintain a budget contingency, and be prepared to invest it if unexpected effort is required

In considering all of this...

  • Ensure that your team understands your digital agency's role in identifying and providing the best possible solutions based on a solid briefing process.
  • If your agency is only putting financial numbers next to your ideas and not providing any insights or added value, you might want to reconsider your approach to the agency, or consider moving agencies entirely.

The stronger your brief, the more likely that the project will be delivered in line with everyone's expectations, on time and on budget – making you the digital hero.

What to include in your brief

  • Background – Express the business and marketing need for the requirement. This will ensure your agency gets the full picture.
  • Audience – List and rank audiences and/or personas that will interact with the digital asset. Share any research, findings or intellectual property that might help the agency further understand the audience and their needs or wants.
  • Previous learnings – If your organisation has succeeded or failed with similar projects in the past, provide as much detail as possible around this.
  • User experience – Why would the user want to engage with the asset? How will they benefit from the experience?
  • Action – Define the primary action you want your users to take when interacting with the asset.
  • Timeline – In almost all cases, the timeline will impact quality and the investment requirement. Afford as much time as practical to ensure you receive the greatest cost benefit and quality outcome.
  • User stories – If you’re wanting to describe a series of users and desired outcomes without being too explicit about the solution, user stories may be the answer. (A great resource for learning how to write user stories can be found in ‘The Easy Way to Writing Good User Stories’.)
  • KPIs – Define your measures of success or KPIs.

Download a Digital Project Brief Template 

 

This article is the first in a series on the digital agency/client relationship
Part Two: Selecting a digital agency? Read this first...
Part Three: 10 steps to Nirvana in the digital agency-client relationship

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Liam Thomas

Liam is an Account Director.
Liam Thomas

Liam Thomas

Liam Thomas

Liam is an Account Director.