When is a prescribed solution not the right answer?

17 Sep 2018 by Jason Linnell

The client briefing at their office had not felt right from the start. We had enjoyed working with this client for some time and had always thought we were in a partnership. However, today was different. 

There were none of the preambles chat about how the weekend was, and the client team looked like they needed to be elsewhere. The brief that was handed out was a tome. It felt as dense as the atmosphere in the room and was filled with pages of technical jargon. 

After being given a cursory review of the opportunity and why the brief had been written, I asked for more details. It was clear at a glance the proposition was vague, and the brief hadn’t defined what success looked like at the end. It was also prescriptive and telling us what the solution had to be. 

“This needs to be done. Just get on with it please.”

So with that, the client looked at her watch, stood up and said she had to go. 

As I suspected, the client had other significant issues on her plate and that day’s briefing was an anomaly. However, knowing that later didn’t help me in the ride back to the agency that day.  

The tricky part was being told to deliver a prescribed solution.

Reading the brief in the back of the Uber, I surmised we could live without clear goals. They could be drawn out in the reverse brief stage. I also knew we could tighten the proposition. 

The tricky part though was being told to deliver a prescribed solution. Agencies and clients work best when they start at the beginning of an opportunity or problem with an agnostic approach to the solution. It invariably never works when a client says we must have ‘one of these, one of those and two of them’. It also restricts us producing what we’re paid to deliver – the best insight-led solutions that make people sit up, take notice and act.

Besides, if the parameters are too tight, the breadth of thinking becomes restricted and real creativity risks being suffocated. 

However, it’s not just clients who can prescribe solutions. Every client service person has been guilty of rushing a brief, ‘banging out a solution’ and handing it over to the creative team without really thinking about what needs to be solved.  

Before writing a brief, I always recall one of my favourite lines ‘I apologise for the length of this letter, but I did not have time to write a shorter one’. By making a brief sharper, tighter and more focused, invariably the creative work that comes out is sharper, tighter and more focused. Instead of confining the work, tighter briefs will have the opposite effect. They instead have a liberating impact on creatives who can more easily explore in and around the direction the brief provides. 

Which also means not being prescriptive with a solution. 

But how to address this with the client?

Agencies produce their best work through collaboration. Not just within their own walls, but with their clients. No matter how well we think we know our client’s business, they bring a unique point of view to the process. At the beginning of each relationship, agencies should always stress that they want their clients actively involved in the work. This particular client was usually a more than willing participant, and I knew that by asking her more questions – in a day or so – that her experience working with us would come to the fore. 

Which it eventually did. Based on the original brief it was clear our client hadn’t taken the time to ‘write a shorter letter’. Instead of pushing on we went back and asked three clarification questions; 1) what exactly was the business problem and why was solving it was so important 2) what did we want our target audience to feel, think and do as a result of our work and finally, 3) what did success look like and how were we going to measure it.

By being open, not rushing the reverse brief process and helping our busy client ‘write that shorter letter’, we got her to realise her first brief wasn’t going to deliver the results she wanted. 

The eventual result exceeded the expectations of everyone involved.

Tags: Clients
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