Why Has Adland Stopped Talking About The Brief?

Why Has Adland Stopped Talking About The Brief?

In his latest guest post, industry veteran Robert Strohfeldt ponders why adland no longer talks about the all-important brief and the damage that can have on younger people entering the industry…

Talking to a media colleague the other day, I off-handedly asked him “what the hell do you think a digital marketer is?”

He did not have to take time to think about it – “people who denote themselves as specialists in digital marketers, don’t “get” the business – anything outside of digital communications is irrelevant to them”.

Yes, spot on. They are one dimensional. Yes, it is a generalisation, but not by much.

This term, digital marketer, has been spun for many years now – think it was 2005 having a chat with an old Saatchi colleague (from the days of just Saatchi & Saatchi, prior to some idiot firing Charles). Tom told me all the young employees wanted to go into digital, as that was where the future was. Companies were still coming to grips with their websites. At least 50 per cent of the online advertising was still for porn and although social media had been “invented”, (Six Degrees in 1996 I believe was the first true social media) Facebook had not been born.

Hindsight, so often said, is a wonderful thing. Of course, people new to advertising would be wanting to work in “digital”. That it would grow exponentially was clear, even prior to any awareness of social and its eventual massive reach and influence.

Everything was going to be “different”, though no one could accurately predict what that difference would be.

The acceptance of this “Everything will be different”, lead to the belief that much of what had been learned about communications in the pre-digital era, no longer applied.

The dumbing down had begun.

Digital Becomes Mobile

As well as the evolution of social media, the shift to mobile has had enormous impact in many ways. Little phone screens are just not the same as a desk- top/laptop or big TV screen. That is stating the obvious, but few have taken the next steps in logic – “Ok, so now we have this tiny screen on which we wish to talk to people, what are the implications?”

The “type” of advertising and communications must be affected. Only common sense, no in-depth research, is required for that deduction. Sport is a good example – the grand final is on. Be it AFL, NRL. Rugby Union or Soccer. You have organized a “party” around this once a year, big event. The food is laid out, drinks, some people have streamers and balloons and half an hour before kickoff, you adhere you phone to the wall. “Game starts soon” you announce.

“What the bloody hell is this?”, or similar such expletives would be bouncing around the room. “Turn on the bloody TV!” would follow soon after.

So, the gravitation to mobile has had a massive influence. There are only so many articles and opinion pieces you can read to try and stay abreast of what is happening. I can count on one hand the negative commentary on the market’s almost saturation with “Smart Phones”. Most of it is all positive.

And people such as Ritson lament the loss of longer-term brand and building communications, mostly to short term “buy now” tactical activities.

Even if produced today, Victor Fleming would not be ensuring “Gone with the Wind” was mobile “friendly”.

Media/Creative Split. The Start of the Decline

Many times, I have lamented the loss of creative as the sharp point of advertising. But creative, the message, is only half of advertising


And as so often the case, the sum of the parts is far greater.

Then some genius thought, “many large agencies are under the same holding company. If we have say Toyota, that precludes the agency from taking on another automotive account. BUT if we have a second “brand”, we can also have Ford, or Nissan or any other automotive brand. Fuck, I am so glad I did that MBA”.

But then, an even bigger idea hit home. Though far more complex today, the media market was always one of “deals”. Another MBA NN 1 (Numb Nuts 1) thought, why not combined all the media in all the agencies we own and really get good deals. (the bigger the spend, the bigger the deals).

All the while media and creative, the two interwoven ingredients of advertising kept getting dragged apart.

Though supposedly the source of brilliant business strategists, MBAs were originally created to teach technocrats such as Engineers, the basics of business administration – try and find “balance sheets” in any Engineering subject (be it Electrical, Chemical, Mechanical, Mining or Civil).

Loss of Brief. Loss of Relevance

It was whilst reading two articles this week I had the Eureka moment.

First was an article by Mark Ritson in The Australian last Monday. I have often mentioned Mark as I think he is by far one of the best of the modern- day marketing academics. He has an earthy reality. He praised the “Budget Direct” campaign (and I use campaign loosely, as the only readily connecting features are the two characters.)

Every time I saw one of their TV ads, I would think “what a waste of a huge production budget”.

The “campaign” is all over the place like a mad person’s fecal matter. Initially they are detectives in what seems like a set out of Harry Potter. Then they “discover” a guy caught hanging is a beam from a UFO and now they suddenly jump to a scene from Braveheart. In each an attempt at humor is made – “shouldn’t have mentioned probe” was the screamer from the UFO scene. And a woman breaks ranks and runs screaming towards, not sure what, to which the “hero” in a pith helmet says “she loves saving people money” or similar. (Funny. Have not laughed so much since we lost $10,000 in Airbnb bookings due to Corona)

The praise was for these TV ads was twofold:

  • Did not say, in a sickly sweet and oh so credible manner, we are all in this together. (I have lost count of the companies/brands who are in “it” with me and whatever “it” is. Must be very bloody crowded.)
  • This Budget Direct campaign is it for long term brand building.

This “campaign” is put up as a 2020 shining light example by such a highly credentialled marketing figure. I keep a file on all articles, presentations etc. of interest and going back over many items Mark has written about, there is one HUGE glaring omission – the brief!

Whether it is 1960 or 2020, the single most important/influential factor in advertising is the brief. And it is not just Mark, but every well credentialed marketing and advertising seems to ignore it.

He does rightly point out marketers today are more advertising managers than true marketers. Years ago, (pre-digital), a “product manager” was the general manager of their brand. When they first joined a marketing department, the marketing analysts, marketing executives, marketing graduates, whatever the hell their title was (as they were called prior to being promoted to brand manager), they were chained to a desk with a Nielsen report analyzing and reporting on key metrics such as percentage of distribution in the various chains (supermarket, route, convenience). For example, in many product categories, share of market equates to share of market. So, tracking share of distribution was critical. Still is – Marketing 101. A brand lives or dies on its distribution. (even with much online, direct sales)

The 4 Ps were all their responsibility i.e.



Place (Distribution)


And 90 per cent of their time was spent on the first 3 Ps. Get to know the business before you start advertising it.

Mark has claimed Budget Direct has been “successful” – proof of the importance of the first 3Ps.

Today, 90% plus of the focus is on promotion and they are not aware of the most important tool of advertising – the creative brief. Plus, other tools such as the Rossiter/Percy Grid. Once well known, no bugger under 35 I speak to has heard of it. Developed long before online and social, it is arguably the most effective “tool” in determining which products are suited to social and how.

The second article that slammed me was in Marketing Week about BT’s (British Telecom) new “campaign”. Long spots, I think two or even three minutes. The agency was Saatchi & Saatchi, but a far cry from the Saatchi, prior to M&C packing their bags and pissing off.

The logic/strategy was sound. Not everyone is an IT freak. (Writer included). The only way people can communicate with loved ones and friends during the Corona lockdown is by some digital device.

So, BT ran a series of what you could call “informercials” – how to use WhatsApp etc. The comment by the creative director helped me zero in on the gaping hole in advertising of the “digital era”.

“Switching from making ads to sell something, to communicating how to do something was a huge challenge.” WTF?

With a decent brief, this would be bloody simple. But in today’s digital era, a proper creative brief is as rare as rocking horse shit.

Without boring the crap out of you, it would be as simple as firstly recognising the campaign is tactical, but with significant brand implications. Then a stand-alone, simple brief could be created, covering:

Objective, Target Markets, Proposition, Support, Tonality, Mandatories, Timing and Budget. If a creative team could not produce an effective campaign, aided by a professionally written brief defining each of these, they are in the wrong business.

As an aside, Distinctiveness is one of the “hot topics” in marketing today (again, the emphasis on Promotion). It is under Mandatories; the core brand assets are listed as “musts” in all campaigns. (One more example of how & why the creative brief is such an all -encompassing and important “tool”).

The development of the creative brief involves all strategic elements of the business marketing, sales & communications operations – and can apply to a Facebook page equally as well as it can to a press ad. Creative briefs are not mutually exclusive, combined they form the communications strategy for not just the coming 12 months, but an overview of the next 2,3 or possible 5 years, (But Corona has shown has dicey long term planning can be).

Saatchi & Saatchi, pre the M & C split, and the Campaign Palace were so closely aligned in the 80s and early to mid-90s, they could have had a revolving door between the two.

What is indisputable is some of the best Australian creative work, from large agencies (throw Clemenger in here) around this time, was done by Saatchi and the Creative Palace. The creative work drew the attention and accolades, but what people on the outside did not see was the attention paid to the brief – great advertising can only come from great briefs.

Saatchi even produced a booklet on it “The Brief” – going through each element in detail. God help any suit who walked into a creative office without a thoroughly thought out brief.

Muslims preach the Koran, Christians the bible, Saatchi (pre- M&C) the Brief

The Versatility of The Creative Brief

Whilst it has only been this week the lack of importance and prevalence has hit home; it was way back in 1993 I discovered the versatility of the creative brief.

My co-founding partner of Bond Strohfeldt, Grahame Bond (aka the legendary “Aunt Jack”) called a cab, grabbed me and told the driver to take us to 2JJJ in William Street. 2JJJ was described as the “National Youth Broadcaster”. Being an ABC station, I knew a bit about it, but relative to commercial stations on which clients advertised, bugger all.

On the way over I asked Graham “why are we going there?”. “Oh, to do a presentation to their producers” he replied. “We are to talk about advertising”.

Bondy was not at all concerned, where I was on edge – talk about advertising to heavyweight producers who neither have nor did not even believe, in advertising?

Standing front of a fucking huge crowd, (being an ABC legend, every staff member had squeezed into a big room) with nothing but the clothes we had on.

I think there is a God because the first question someone asked was, “how do you make ads, is there a process?”.

It hit both Grahame and me simultaneously – take them through the advertising brief. (Thankfully, we were supplied with a white board and a couple of pens)

Want to produce a half hour programme?

Ok, what is the Objective. And it cannot be something piss weak, they got that – inform people about whatever. Had to get down into the specific detail. At the end of the programme, did you achieve what you set out to do?

Target Market. Again, detailed breakdown – not just equally males and females who do not like the liberal government. If they do not really understand who their audience is, how the hell are they going to produce something relevant/interesting/entertaining?

Primary Proposition. If you have a half hour programme, your audience will be lost if you ramble on. What is the key point you are making? Do not get this confused for the Support for the Proposition. If you cannot state in one clear, concise sentence what is the message you want to convey, then you do not have a “show”.

Support: So, you make a point, what supports this position.? Remarkably simple and straight forward. It seems today, people do their best to make the simple complex, where you should be making the complex seem simple.

Tone. The message could be carried in a humorous manner, or it could be light and conversational. If your programme is about an affront, then a more confrontational and confident tone would be appropriate.

Mandatories. What points, facts from a specific source, quotes etc. are to be included? It is easy to forget or leave out things you had originally determined must be included. The mandatories also are the backbone of, what many now term “distinctiveness” – strong, consistent branding is mandatory. These brand assets are to be listed in the Mandatories.

And there is Timing and Budget, both important and self- explanatory.

A creative brief (a “proper” one), applies to any piece of communication.

That was 27 years ago.

Advertising (and Marketing) Didn’t Start in 2000

Marketers and advertisers are guilty of looking for the next “new thing”. We are like a bunch of school kids, with the attention span of a cocker spaniel, seeking out the next new bright and shiny “thing”.

Marketers are losing out to the “advisory firms”. It is not just the Big 4 i.e. PwC, KPMG. E&Y, Deloitte, but second tier firms are sprouting up and out eating the lunch of what was once the cuisine of Marketers.

This Big 4, was once The Big 8 Chartered Accounting firms. Audit, tax and MIS (management information systems – computers for collection and analysis of data) was not going to feed their voracious appetites. In the 90s, Arthur Andersen, once one of the most prestigious of the Big 8, developed Andersen Consulting – not heard of them? Today they are called Accenture. Have a look at the services provided by each of the Big 4. They sure have diversified from accounting.

Irrespective of how many years you have worked in advertising, it does not take long to understand that fact is what people believe, not what is true. The Big 4 could not put together a decent “advertising campaign” if the partners’ lives depended upon it. But that does not mean shit. Ask the big clients and they will tell you they can. Why? Because the Big 4 all claim they can. If you build a business to the point where an IPO is the next logical step, then to gain the interest of institutional investors you had better have one of the Big 4 advising you, plus one of the equally prestigious investment banks such as Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Macquarie and UBS.

The Past has the Keys to the Future

Not just to be relevant in the future, but to survive into the future, lessons from the past about advertising and marketing must be learned. (Can you write a genuinely good brief? How about the Rossiter/Percy Grid – how can it help you with online and social?). Plus find courses (not an easy task) and articles, papers, etc. on areas in which there is honest deficiency.

I have been extremely critical in this article, but we (Ad Agencies) have a far stronger foundation on which to build than any interloper.

The worst thing you can do is be stuck in the past.

Close behind is forgetting all the lessons the past has taught.







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Robert Strohfeldt

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