Ep. 11 Working with Agencies: the Creative Brief

DEC 19, 2019

00:18 If you don’t want your agency or marketing director to develop a communication strategy that’s totally disconnected from your actual competitive business strategy, you need this document, folks. I don’t see it as a luxury at all. It has the same bloody value for a small startup, as it does for big companies who invented the practice to better manage their damn Don Drapers. I work with founders who are literally winging their conversations with agencies or, even worse, just letting them make up the entire strategy off in a corner. And believe me, agencies love to do that because it’s the fun part of the job, folks. But will their mellifluously composed communication strategy written off in a corner under a dark lights and under perhaps the influence of gentle puffs of reefer actually accomplish what you need competitively for your business. Who the hell is your agency to claim they know your competition better than you? If they actually do, perhaps from experience, then you should be embarrassed. It makes no sense. There’s no way they know your competition and your business strategic needs better than you do. So don’t let them go off and develop your communication strategy in a fricking corner by themselves because they will. Please, please don’t do this.

01:43 This episode, as you can tell, is a desperate plea to get you, the founder, to manage your marketing communications really closely. You are not the CEO of General Mills. You need to take 100% responsibility for the communication strategy that gets set and executed, and you got to believe in it and you need to drive it through the organization. I tell folks with companies selling less than $50 million in trailing revenue, which is 98% of you, do not hire in a CMO or any marketing executive from a large public firm. I would actually go farther and say that title doesn’t even belong in your company until you’re at least 50 to 75 million, depending to some extent on the value of highly nuanced marketing in your particular competitive situation. Anyone seeking that kind of title in your startup folks, even if you’re a seven figure company, they will be more or less impossible to manage. And more importantly, they will be prone to battling you, the inexperienced founder, with vastly, vastly less industry experience, battling you over the definition of what the competitive struggle is out in the marketplace.

02:58 In other words, they’re more than willing to go to bat and try to convince you that your business strategy is something else that suits the communication strategy they feel will work for your business. I’ve seen this chaos so many times and you don’t need it in an early stage company. But man, have I seen it public companies and I can tell you, I’ve also seen it in early stage companies that didn’t know any better. Who didn’t know any better? The founder didn’t know any better. The asshole CMO guy totally knew what the hell he was doing. These folks demand huge salaries and don’t have the capacity to do shit work. And marketing, my friends, is 95% shit work. It’s no different than field sales. You have to have a fanatical belief in the mission of the business and the product to do that much tedious work in marketing. But that’s who you need in house. Not a CMO dude. People who come in and want that kind of title, they don’t want to work that hard to begin with. Trust me. That’s why they’re coming to your startup. Let the underutilized boomer marketing executives find another corporate job and keep them out of your company. Please.

04:09 By the end of this podcast, you will understand why. All right, back to the creative brief, what is a creative brief? I boil it down… Look, you could get 10 different definitions of creative brief from 10 different creative professionals. But I’m going to boil it down to four elements. I wanted to make it three for rhetorical elegance, couldn’t do it. Number one, your year over year revenue target. This is not because your marketing director or your external agencies are somehow on the hook for producing a bump in growth. That’s not why you do marketing, folks. And if it is, come see me, I will smack you across the face. The year over year revenant target is simply a way of communicating internally to your marketing staff or externally to an agency how aggressively you are trying to go. In other words, what is the kind of growth machine that the communications work is feeding into? Is it linear, modest, or is it exponential or is it unicorn-esque psycho crazy?

05:08 Number two, your creative brief has to explain your competitive strategy very clearly. This has two components; how you plan to source volume from other businesses to your P&L and the key outcomes you want your innovation to be known for. The latter is going to really drive the communications work. The former is your theory, essentially, of how you’re competitively going to get other people’s money that’s currently going to other businesses. Part three of your creative brief describes the behavioral profile of your ideal customer. This is the person who you hope or know through research will buy you repeatedly for specific outcomes, and the subpopulations who fit that profile really well. The goal is not to create a persona. The goal is to create a social profile of the kinds of people who could become your ideal repeat purchaser.

06:03 Finally, part four of a creative brief, the final part, should explain the communications objective that you’ve settled on as an organization. In other words, what role is marketing and communications going to play to pursue that competitive strategy amongst the four Ps and all the different levers that you can pull? So examples that make sense to set for a small company with respect to a communications objective include things like convincing buyers of category X to try your thing in category Z, pound away on your key outcomes and associating them with your trademark through high impression advertising, or saturating local geography with trademark impressions prior to an in-person event store promo, et cetera. I could go on, but I just thought I’d share those three. They want to be that specific. Maybe even more specific than that. And you don’t want to have too many objectives. You want, hopefully, one.

06:59 The more specific you are in the objective and the more focused you are, the more you or your agency or internal staff can focus on managing the many details of execution. Like I said before, marketing communications is 95% execution. It’s shit work. It’s not that fun. It’s tedious. And in communications, it is highly repetitive. And it’s the repetition that works on the human brain. When you’re doing marketing, you should be paying, whether it’s an internal team or an agency, you should be paying for world-class execution, disciplined execution, relentless execution. Did I say execution? Did I say it? Did I just say it? “Wax on wax off, young grasshopper.” “Your heart is strong, but your mind is weak.” I think you get the drift. The point of a creative brief, therefore, is discipline. It’s not creativity. It’s a written reminder that we’re all trying to get business objectives accomplished, not stroke our brand egos or quest for random attention. I see so much of that today in the founder-driven media verse.

08:07 A creative brief is a document that just keeps everybody on the same page. It keeps everybody accountable and that’s critical if you’re deploying a mix of in-house talent and external agencies, which is common as you grow. With the creative brief in hand, your marketing staff and/or agencies working with you should be able to handle the creation of a good professional communication strategy. The hell is a communication strategy? Well, all strategy is theory. Business strategy is theory about how competitively money is going to come from other businesses to you. A communication strategy is another theory, is a theory of how you’ll be able to meet your communications objective and source attention toward your brand per that objective. It’s essentially a theory of nuanced tactics related to communication. It contains critical assumptions about consumer behavior, namely the behavioral dispositions of those you want out there in the consumer universe to take action, i.e. buy your thing.

09:07 I just worked with a client on an annual review of his business, including some critical early consumer research on his early consumers in the first year. What did we find? Well, something that changed our assumptions related to what we were trying to accomplish in communications. We started the experiment thinking we might be able to convert traditional consumers from one category and build a flavor array to accomplish this, until we realized that, in reality, those were not the ideal consumers. The ideal consumers would eat our product in the mornings where it would compete better, but with a different category, a category whose flavor was actually different from that which we launched in year one. In other words, we ended up going after an occasion and a category set with a certain flavor mix that was not going to lead to ideal customers i.e. sustained repeat. And so now the challenge becomes, now that we know that we have a better consumer profile, one that competitively that we want to position the brand in and take money from a different category, essentially, we now have different communications objective. More importantly, a different content for the communications overall.

10:22 If you have a need for multiple agencies in that short period of time, then make sure the most experienced one you’re working with helps you with your communication strategy and simply add it to the creative brief that you then hand out to everybody else. Experienced agencies in consumer packaged goods, preferably in your vertical food, beverage, supplements, whatever it is, they have the professional expertise to set that communication strategy, because it’s essentially a theory of how that communications objective’s going to get met. And they’re the ones who are most up-to-date on tactical nuances to figure that out. And also to think about language that’s going to actually work. But please, whatever you do, however you decide to in-source or outsource your communications work, don’t just have off-the-cuff conversations about your marketing goals or let marketing directors or agencies go off in a bloody corner and develop some bizarre strategy that makes no ultimate competitive sense but sounds cute.

11:20 This podcast has been a desperate plea for founders to understand that communications are yet another core responsibility of founders until you’re big. Even if you have a marketing staff, you still need to lead them and provide that direction. You, the boss, you and your co-founders. One reason it’s nice to have two co-founders is to split these kinds of things up because you need to have tight leadership around communication strategy. And a creative brief forces you to play that leadership role and it forces you to have a disciplined approach to communications. By the way, I’ve referenced, essentially, paid advertising. But that isn’t necessarily the most impactful thing that you are going to use as part of your tactical toolkit for communications. You may, in fact, be spending a lot more time doing field marketing out of store. Preferably. I will be talking about that in 2020 in another podcast episode in this series on working with agencies.

12:21 So to sum up, you need to do your homework before you start letting loose the marketing team to do communications work. Write that creative brief, write one that provides the guard rails for good, consistent campaigning. And for God sakes, don’t hire creative to write it. Be safe out there.