Whether you are running a well-resourced campaign for cancer research, bringing together a dozen stake-holders for a community enterprise, or asking an undergraduate to help you out with a website, the success of your project depends as much on how you communicate it to the people who are doing the work as it does on its fundamental strengths and weaknesses.
If you’re briefing a professional, and you write an incomplete brief, they should be professional enough to educate you as the customer by asking the right questions. If you’re working with volunteers, though, the chances are that they will work on the project they think you want, rather than the one that you think you want. Occasionally this results in greater creativity. Usually, it results in confusion and loss of enthusiasm.
Writing a brief is not the same as giving someone a set of instructions. Most of us have experience instructing someone else in how to do a task, and all of us (through school education if nothing else) have experience of being instructed. When instruction is taking place, everyone involved begins by understanding that the instructor knows more about the matter at hand than the person being instructed. That’s a safe, comfortable relationship.
Briefing a creative person, though, is only worth the time to do it if the other person is better at the task than you are. That’s a much more open relationship, but it’s not so open that there is no need for direction. If you simply try to inspire the person to producing something which will work with your campaign, it’s unlikely to be very productive. Of course, if you are working with just one other person, and you are the sole, final decision maker, this might work. However, if you will need to persuade other people of the value of the work produced — for example, getting it approved by a committee — or if you are working with more than one creative person, you need a solid, inspiring brief.
Here’s how to do it.
Include these at the top, and on every page header.
Always include a short, unique, descriptive title for the project, and include the words ‘Brief for’ at the beginning. You’ll be referring to this title throughout the project, so make sure it isn’t too similar to one you’re using for something else. Avoid being creative with the title: if there is a particular brand name include that, but don’t put in what looks like a brand name but is just a creative flourish.
Two line description
Describe your campaign in a couple of sentences, covering who, what, when, where, how, why. All this information will come later in the brief, so you might be better off leaving the writing of this sentence until last.
In two or three bullet points, set out what the constraints are. These will typically be timescales, budget and brand. If you are working with a number of partners, there may be policy constraints which they insist on. You don’t need to spell any of these out, as you‘ll cover them later on. However, it’s important that these are clear from the outset.
What are you expecting the creative person to produce? For example, a press release, or a logo, or an advertisement, or ‘all aspects of the campaign’. You can also ask them to make recommendations about the brief itself, for example, alternatives to your proposed messages and delivery.
It is very important to be clear whether you are expecting the work to be done pro-bono or for a fee, and to make it clear whether this is part of the overall budget or a separate amount. As a general rule, if you are getting quotes, leave this as ‘Please specify the likely fee or scale of charges when responding to this brief’. If you set an actual amount, then you take the risk that you’ve set an unrealistically high fee, or, worse, an unrealistically low one which excludes everyone who could actually achieve your campaign goals.
This is the part of the brief which is most often missing. In my experience, I would say that virtually no-one tells me what they want the result of their campaign to be, unless I’ve previously worked with them. In case you are unfamiliar with the terminology, an outcome is a goal expressed in such a way that its evaluation is built into it. If your goal is ‘reduce accidents’, your outcome might be ‘By 2017, road accidents in area x will have reduced by 12%’.
In my experience, getting people to pin down their outcomes takes about half of all the time required to construct a campaign together. As often as not, someone asking for a campaign hasn’t actually come to any kind of agreement with their partners as to what it is they actually want to have achieved.
To get to this point, the best solution I’ve ever seen is, when the group agrees a goal, to say ‘how will we know when it’s done?’ Occasionally people balk at this — after all, it’s not that unusual for ideas people to dislike being pinned down to something specific. If so, I might say ‘in a year from now, we’re going to say that this was the most brilliant campaign we ever did — what are the results going to be that will make us say that?’
The process to pin down your outcomes can be a long one, but they need to be expressed as succinctly as possible. Don’t be afraid to have several. Any actual result which is important to you or one of your partners should be in there.
nb: don’t confuse outcomes and outputs. ‘Raise awareness’ is one I often see. I’ve never been involved in a campaign where heightened awareness was actually the goal. You might want to raise awareness of domestic violence, but this would be the output of the campaign, not its outcome. The output is what your campaign directly achieves. The outcome you are hoping though, surely, would be a reduction in domestic violence, for which you believe raising awareness is an intermediate step. Actually, raising awareness might be an unnecessary by-product. Probably not for domestic violence, but, if you were trying to recruit voluntary workers for a war zone, raising awareness might be the last thing you want.
Who is it that you need to persuade in order for your outcomes to be achieved? These are the audiences (or recipients, or publics, if you prefer) for your campaign. It’s tempting to write down every single group of people that might vaguely be affected. I’ve seen this very often in public sector briefs. Actually, this just waters down your campaign. If you aim to communicate with the people who are specifically able to influence your outcomes, then there will be enough other people who get to hear about it for the ‘halo effect’ that is often talked about.
It’s not always possible to reach your key audience directly, and you may also need to consider their Influencers. It’s fine to include these as well. You may also want to specify Gatekeepers — people who can’t make your outcome happen, but can stop it happening. These are often authorities or community groups. As a rule, if I am including influencers and gatekeepers, I will specify who the Decision makers are, who the Influencers and who the Gatekeepers.
So, for example, if you were running a Stop Smoking campaign, your decision makers would be the individual smokers, their influencers might be friends and family, and gatekeepers might include lawyers for cigarette companies, if your messages were very aggressive, or, more likely, the owners of the space where you want to put your posters. A very aggressive campaign might appeal to your stakeholders, who are vehemently anti-smoking, but might also put off your decision makers, who, by definition, are all smokers, and might also result in people being unwilling to put your posters up.
The more information you can give about your audiences, the better. For example, ‘women aged 25-29 in urban areas of the West Midlands’ is a much more useful description than ‘women’. If you have survey or focus group research on the attitudes of your target audiences, include that as well.
What will persuade your audiences to achieve your outcomes? You don’t need to get these down to fine-sounding slogans, especially not if that is the particular skill of the person you are briefing, but you do need to set out what it is that — if they believed it — you think would persuade your audiences to do whatever it is you want. Research suggests that people can cope with up to seven messages, but there is no point multiplying them unnecessarily: three messages is sufficient for the vast majority of campaigns. These might follow the format of: ‘what the problem is’, ‘what to do about it’, ‘how to act now’, which is typical for aid campaigns, or equally ‘is this you?’ ‘that means this’, ‘how to act now’, which is a common pattern in health campaigns. Advertisers generally work to the pattern AIDA: Attention, Information, Decision, Action, but this is a specifically advertising pattern. Normally, in constructing an ad, your creative people will use your messages to construct that format.
Make sure that your messages are Clear, Relevant, and Credible from the point of view of your audiences. People commissioning campaigns are, of necessity, interested in them and often passionate about them. Your audiences quite likely don’t know, don’t care, and/or don’t believe — this is why you’re running a campaign.
How are these messages to be delivered to the audiences? Particularly, what part of this are you asking your creative person to develop. For example, you might plan to deliver a letter to every household, get coverage on local radio and in newspapers, and pay for a van to drive around with billboard-sized advertisements either on a trailer or the van itself.
Delivery is the section that ties most into the Requirement stated above. Be as specific as you can be, both about the media used and the quantities, and also about timescales if not everything will be appearing at once, or if there are different production lead times. A graphic designer constructing artwork will produce a very different result if they have to cope with a black and white photocopied letter and a billboard, as opposed to, say, an online campaign via social media. Equally, if your quantity is 100,000 for a piece of print, this gives different constraints and opportunities from a quantity of 500.
If part of the delivery will be through channels that are particularly cheap or accessible for you because of your partners, specify this.
What all this gives you
If it seems onerous to write out all this information, there are some further benefits to be considered, beyond the direct benefit of having directly communicated what you want.
First, in terms of getting a committee or confederation of stakeholders on board, it is much easier to do if you can involve them at a number of points. My experience is that, often, an ad hoc group will delegate one of their number to ‘go and get the campaign sorted’. The person meets with writers, designers, and so on, and returns to the group with a relatively finalised set of drafts, or, at least, three alternatives. At that point, people in the group often decide they don’t like the work which has been done. The group might discuss it for five minutes before delegating the individual to go back to the designer, writer, and so on. However, if the work is being paid for, then a considerable amount of investment has been thrown out by a group that probably didn’t take the time to discuss it properly. If the work isn’t being paid for, a volunteer’s time has been wasted and the group may find that offers of free help start to dry up. By involving the committee in setting and improving the brief, there is much better buy-in on what will happen next — as well as a much greater commitment.
Second, once work has been delivered, any discussion of it will be guided by the brief. If a paid designer has ignored the brief and produced something else entirely, the commissioner can legitimately ask them to repeat the work according to the brief, and can legitimately refuse to pay for work which doesn’t match the specification. If a volunteer has ignored the brief, the person delegated to talk to them can go through it and point out the areas where the need differs from the result. If the volunteer insists on not working to the brief, then the group has learned, sooner rather than later, that this volunteer is not going to contribute anything constructive design-wise, and can either involve them in other areas of the project or leave them out of things.
Third, in terms of final approval, it’s not uncommon for a campaign to make its way through a number of teams, groups, ad hoc committees until it reaches the people who will make the final decision on it — either a formal board or, just as likely, the people that the ultimate decision maker listens to. If the work goes with the brief, then it is relatively easy for the final decision makers to evaluate it in terms of the brief. They can still reject the work, and they can still reject the brief, but the chances of them simply not understanding it (which is by far the most common underlying reason, in my experience) are much less. Equally, if there is then a question of payment and budget, the designer can legitimately point to the brief and insist on payment for the work done to specification, which is a factor that an embattled commissioner can bring to the conversation if needed.