2nd March 2022

What I learned from a bad brief

Andrew Simmonds
Head of EMEA Content

Uh oh. It’s happened again. You’ve got a bad brief.

“I was thinking 600 words around the concept of ‘systems’.

“Can we just do something about the cloud?”

“I really like the idea of synergy?

As a Head of Content, I can tell you: sometimes it’s just not going to work. And when that happens, you need to turn around and – in the words of Nancy Reagan – just say no.

But what if sometimes, just sometimes, a lacklustre brief is the key to something great?

Take a walk on the… creative side

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been on the other side of things too, insisting on three-page briefing documents that require absolutely everything in one place before I’ll even think of writing this piece of content, thank-you-very-much.

And there’s a need for that. The Account Managers on my team will kill me if I speak ill of systems, content strategy docs, trackers – and all that jazz. We have to try and make money, after all, even if my own approach to timesheets is something like a one-man act of sabotage.

What’s more, hand on my heart, sometimes it makes sense for the specific deliverable you’re creating. Not every blog needs to be some avant-garde content extravaganza. People don’t always want an out-of-body experience when they’re looking for the ‘Top Ten Tips to Make Your Business Not Suck’ – they just want information and a bit of help. It’s a bit like when you’re trying to find a good recipe, but everything you find online starts with someone’s entire life story upfront. I’m really glad you found yourself in Naples, and your kids look charming – if a little sticky – but I really just want to make the puttanesca?

But equally, these processes can sometimes take what is actually a really fun, engaging job and turn it into something which feels almost like content by numbers. 

Insert title. Insert pithy stat. Insert transition. Bloop.

That’s why when something really matters to you – or you just want to shake off the guidelines, having a pretty slimline brief can be fun. It means you can fire up the kettle, start doing some desk research, get some interviews in, do a bit of learning about new things… and just do all those things that made many of us want to write more in the first place. 

Process for the sake of process is bad process

Ultimately, and I’m going into conjecture here, few of us started writing out of a passionate love of clouds systems or – god forbid – synergy. I’m sure some people did – and that’s fine. But for me, it’s the process that’s great: turning something unusual or complex or important into something that grabs people’s attention and makes them react. It’s the brainstorming, the sifting, the playing around with words – and the insight that something you thought was pretty uninspiring is actually pretty cool. 

To sum up, I’m not saying we should throw our briefs out the window (so to speak), or that we shouldn’t question briefs. If you have literally not a single scooby about what the person writing a brief is on about, then I’d recommend you do ask the questions, unless you’re a glutton for punishment. But do at least give a second thought to where you can exercise your own creativity in the process. 

Content strategy: What makes a good brief?

I appreciate we’re getting very into “my own opinion” territory here, but you’ve read this far and we’re nearly at the end, so indulge me for a moment. 

In my view, a good brief…

  • Explains everything a marketer, writer, videographer (or whoever) needs to know – no more, no less.
  • Follows a process – but a process that’s simple and doesn’t add days or weeks to the timescale.
  • Respects a brand’s style and content strategy, but also accepts that the person acting on the brief will add their own flair.
  • A good brief is the start of a collaborative process. It needs both client and creative to reflect, discuss, reconsider and amend. Creative tasks are not a “get-it-right-first-time” endeavour. There will be revisions, and maybe even redrafts. All of that is part of the process – it’s what it takes to get the best results.

Even on a good day, a bad brief is a bit of an occupational hazard for most of us. We can never avoid them completely. But we can still turn them into something great.

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