Marketers think they write good briefs. Agencies disagree

Mark Ritson explains how a lack of strategy and too many objectives can make briefs confusing.


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By Will Novosedlik

In an alarming statistic for the industry, 80% of marketers think they write great briefs, but only 10% of agencies agree, according to a global study by BetterBriefs, a brief advisory and training business, and Mark Ritson, marketing consultant and teacher – both based in Australia. The study was conducted in partnership with the IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising) in the U.K.

“I look at the delta between how many marketers think they’re briefing well and how many agencies think they’re briefing badly and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Ritson tells strategy.

Marketers present briefs to agencies to outline a problem in need of a communications solution.

BetterBriefs, was founded by two former agency strategists, Matt Davies and Pieter-Paul von Weiler, in response to the industry’s frustration, issues and confusion around briefs. Along with Ritson, they recently conducted the first global study on the topic representing the opinions of over 1,700 marketers and agency staff from over 70 countries.

Research respondents estimated that 25% of marketing spend is wasted on poorly written and understood briefs. If, as calculated by a recent Forrester study, the total global spend in 2021 was US $3.6 trillion, that’s US $900 million out the window.

So why the discrepancy between the views of marketers and agencies? According to Ritson, this is a longstanding complaint in the agency world. “You could be the king or the queen of briefing, but if you haven’t got the core strategy in place, then briefing isn’t your biggest concern,” he says. “My sense is that the strategies aren’t there in the first place.”

Ritson chalks it up to lack of training in business schools. “There’s been an emphasis on training MBAs to be creative. What they should have been taught is how to build a strategy and then how to brief professionally creative people who will do great work for them.”

It also doesn’t help, according to Ritson, that most marketers don’t have an MBA, and a significant number of them – about half – don’t have any training in marketing at all. This leads to what Ritson calls “tactification,” when marketers jump straight into deploying tactics rather than developing strategy.

Then there’s the kitchen sink problem, where a brief is used to solve too many problems at once. “Strategy is fundamentally about choice and you’ve got to make a call on where you want to focus your efforts,” he says. “We know from research that you only want a handful of objectives for the whole marketing plan.”

When strategic thinking is absent, it’s tough to determine the right tactic. Sometimes advertising is not the solution; the solution sits with a different department – one that marketers should have a hand in. Ritson has a word for this too: “‘Communification’ reflects a lack of deeper inquiry into the problem at hand,” he says. “Communication is only a quarter of the tactical solution. It’s because many marketers don’t get involved with pricing, or product development, or customer experience. They’re literally a comms department in many cases. Most good marketers are involved in price setting and price communication.”

Although the IPA published a guide by BetterBriefs and Ritson, will marketers take it seriously? Says Ritson: “It’s just a plea for everyone to be better and to try and fix the problem.”