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News Plus 7 Jul 2022 - 6 min read

Ritson: ‘Most scary and remarkable bit of data I’ve ever seen’ – brands, marketers wasting 25% of budgets on loose and lazy briefs, remain delusional on how good they are

By Paul McIntyre - Executive Editor
BetterBriefs Project

Better Briefs' Matt Davies (left) and Pieter-Paul von Weiler (centre), and Mark Ritson (right)

Last year, after a night in a pub yelling at the moon over the precarious state of agency briefs from marketers, two Australian strategists unveiled an eye-popping global study of 1,700 agencies and brands on the state of briefing. It showed marketers were all but delusional on how good and effective they thought they were in the critical briefing process while agencies have been quietly aghast - for more than a decade. More concerning is the problem has zip to do with junior talent – it’s the industry’s most senior that are entrenching mediocrity. It's bad enough that the virtual Marketing Professor Mark Ritson has co-authored a best practice guide with BetterBriefs founders, Matt Davies and Pieter-Paul von Weiler, in a bid to help fix the global marketing affliction. While the Australian market to date has all but ignored its home grown solution – Better Briefs’ founders say there’s a cultural laziness around meaningful professional development here which results in a preference for lightweight self-promotion - the UK and US are piling in for the fix.

A brief is not about writing, it’s about thinking.

Dave Trott


What you need to know:

  • Mark Ritson has co-authored a best practice guide for marketers to lift their game on agency briefing, launched overnight by the UK’s IPA – at least 25% of marketing investment is at risk because of poorly-produced briefs from marketing teams.
  • Two Australian strategists, Matt Davies and Pieter-Paul von Weiler, ignited global debate last year when they released findings of a 1700-strong international study which showed upwards of 80% of marketers thought their briefs were sharp, strategic and helpful while just 10-15% of agencies were in agreement.
  • Marketing strategy remains poorly articulated and almost entirely missing in agency briefs.

  • The problem lies squarely with senior marketers, not the less experienced


Don’t get Mark Ritson started. Actually, let’s: “I have to say, without hyperbole, it’s one of the most scary and remarkable bits of data I’ve ever seen. That disparity where it’s not just that marketers are shithouse at briefing and developing strategy, but that they think they’re really good at it, that’s the one-two combo.”

Agency pile-ons are popular, easy fodder and sometimes justified, but this one’s for the marketers – the global data shows they’re really crap at strategy and briefing while simultaneously delusional about how good they reckon they are. 

The Australian strategists who last year cracked-open a simmering underbelly of global tension around the waste in marketing – at least 25 per cent - because of poor thinking, strategy and brief writing are back and this time with a solution, thanks to the UK industry body, the IPA. 

Overnight the IPA at its Business Growth Conference in London unveiled a Best Practice Guide for marketers, The best way for a client to brief an agency, co-authored by Ritson, Davies and von Weiler, in an effort to force marketers attention on the scourge. And this is precisely the issue – marketers don’t think they have a problem, while agencies are bewildered. 

When we do get to talk about strategy, it's such over complicated wank that I sort of think it's probably better not to talk about it at all.

Mark Ritson

Here’s the latest headline figures globally from the IPA-backed UK study from Better Briefs, which shows US marketers are the most deluded on their strategic and briefing prowess but the Brits and Australians are but a furlong behind. In the US, 90 per cent of marketers consider themselves good at writing briefs while just 6 per cent of US agencies say that’s their experience. The respective figures for the UK are 79 per cent (marketers) versus 12 per cent (agencies) and in Australia it's 84 per cent (marketers) versus 15 per cent (agencies). 

Strategy v tactics

So why? At the highest level, it circles back to Ritson’s long-held prosecution of the marketing, advertising and media sectors: robust marketing strategy has been usurped by an obsession with tickling tactics and chic channel experimentation. 

“We come back to the horrible point that approximately 50 per cent of marketers have no training,” Ritson told Mi3. “If you're a consumer, your dad or your auntie knows that marketing is tactics because tactics are aimed at them. Strategy is the invisible part you're not meant to see and I think a lot of these people that don't really have any kind of training in marketing or brand management are therefore so focused on tactics because they've never really been taught how to do strategy first and properly. That's one of the bigger issues.

"And then on the other side, when we do get to talk about strategy, it's such over complicated wank that I sort of think it's probably better not to talk about it at all. I'm not sure that the sudden arrival of so-called strategists on almost every street corner in marketing is necessarily going to fix the problem because it just seems to talk wank. Strategy is like bricklaying. It's not existential phenomenology. It's just where do you lay your pipe before you lay it. It’s just practical advice. So I think on one side you've got marketers who aren't trained properly and on the other side you've got strategists who make it too complicated.”

Jamming the brief

For the founders of Better Briefs, the practical, knock-on impact from a brief lacking strategy-rich context is profound and troubling.

“That’s really the start of the challenge,” says Matt Davies. “What am I trying to do with this brief, which actually is a moment in time of a broader plan, because your marketing plan through one activity through the year might be to upsell a certain part of your customer base. That's fine but that's a separate brief to acquiring new customers through mass media. Whatever it is, what happens is those strategies are not made clear. They're getting all kind of jammed into one brief. So a brief might want to acquire new customers and at the same time upsell your existing customers to the same product that you are trying to acquire new customers for. That's going to be a really different message because the acquisition target is going to need to be convinced in a different way to the people who have already bought into your brand.

“If you don't have that clear, if you're going for both acquisition and upsell in the same brief, then the problem or opportunity that you've identified to acquire those customers - what problem do you have to overcome for them to choose your brand - is really different to that problem or opportunity that you've identified for those existing customers who you're trying to upsell. So we start to get really blurred on what that problem or opportunity statement is. Then we start to get really blurred on what the objectives are; it gets really blurred on that target audience definition because we're trying to reach not just a primary and secondary audience that have the same behavioural goal, we're actually trying to reach two fundamentally different audiences. So again, there is too much being jammed into a brief and those decisions are not being made upfront.

"And beyond all of that, sometimes advertising is not the solution. Sometimes you actually need to get your product right, you need to get the user experience right, you need to do a whole bunch of other shit before you even start communicating.”

Once those decisions have been made, says Davies, work out what the focus of the brief is. “Is it acquiring your customers? Is it getting people to visit your store more frequently? Is it getting them to upsell to a more expensive product? So again, once you've made that choice, then the cascade of choices that you can make are much clearer. Trying to do too much with a brief is common problematic behaviour in every market.”

And as obvious as it may sound, this sort of blending and blurring of strategy, tactics and objectives is at the heart of the global dilemma around waste and effectiveness in marketing budgets and programs. The brief either delivers clarity or clouds - and in today’s market it’s most cloudy.

Key takeouts

Aside from the practical tips and recommendations outlined in the IPA’s best practice guidelines for agency briefing – download it here – Davies outlines some of the key challenges which carry across all markets – Europe, North America and Australia:

# Bad briefs are coming from senior marketers, not the less experienced

74 per cent of brief writers are aged over 35, 72 per cent have more than ten years in marketing roles and 64 per cent carry the title of director. 

# Briefs are being used to align brand-side stakeholders, not tight guidance for agency partners developing marketing programs and campaigns

“They’re being used often as an internal alignment tool,” says Davies. “The brief is becoming a replacement almost for the strategy. How do align my category managers, my sales team, my segment managers, my insights team, my senior stakeholders and the board around a brief. Actually, what they should be aligned around is the strategy for the year and the key moments that you've decided to use communications to help you solve for that. So the brief shouldn’t be the alignment tool, the strategy is the alignment tool and the brief is the execution tool for when you need creativity or media thinking to solve for a problem or an opportunity to find.

# A lack of cultural priority and capability for strong briefs is widespread

“It's such a complex issue but culture and capability, those two things are really at the top of the agenda,” says Davies. “Something like 66 per cent of marketers are not trained in in brief writing. The other crucial part is that culture means briefs don't get prioritised within organisations. That's what we're finding in a lot of our engagements is that once people are aware of the importance of prioritising briefs, then the culture starts to shift around. How do you build these moments into our process where we do take the time to breathe, we do make sure that we've got the right information in place, that we're asking the right questions about research companies, if we have the ability to do that, or asking the right questions about customers and getting the right insights. 

The briefing process should be a ceremony, not an email

“You can’t just leave the briefing document to do all the heavy lifting,” says Davies.  “What’s the transfer of information, what does the ceremony look like because it should be a ceremony. We think that that has been lost too often - Covid might have a part to play in that but often a brief is sent by email saying ‘okay, great, we'll hear from you in a couple of weeks’ versus actually sitting down with the person or the partner that you're briefing, inspiring them, talking through why this brief has come about, why it's important and getting people inspired by the brief.”

# There’s a template and ticking boxes problem.

"Too often marketers pick up a brief template, work from top to bottom, fill in all the boxes and that's it," says Davies. "That's in the brief done. Whereas a brief shouldn't be filled out in a linear fashion. You fill out what you know, you work out what you don't know, and you go away and you try and figure out what you need to compliment or supplement the brief with information that you don't have at your fingertips. Too often, marketers just throw the brief across and say, ‘I'm not sure about this, I don't know what's happening here, but we'll figure it out’."

So where to from here? Davies says he and his Better Briefs partner Pieter-Paul von Weiler are now on a global mandate to get the word out, and train, with the help of Mr Ritson. "There's some huge benefits to industry and marketing if we can get better briefs," he says. "That's the mission."   

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