Behind every masterpiece there lies a good brief
A view from Laurence Green

Behind every masterpiece there lies a good brief

Michelangelo wasn't asked to add a lick of paint to the Sistine Chapel and to fill in the cracks, writes Laurence Green.

The past few years in advertising have seen an exponential increase in crap. That’s not some nostalgic agency creative director’s verdict.

The "exponential increase in crap" is the considered conclusion of no less than Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer at Procter & Gamble, the world’s biggest advertiser.

Delivered during his widely reported speech to the Interactive Advertising Bureau last month, his admirably frank verdict went largely unreported as attention focused instead on his damning critique of the digital ecosystem’s measurement standards, value chain and opacity.

While his digital provocations inevitably continue to reverberate, his broader point is in danger of being lost. In fact, Pritchard couched his digital call to arms very deliberately in the context of P&G’s business need: for better advertising, to drive growth.

"Better advertising," he went on to observe, "requires time and money... yet we’re all wasting way too much time and money elsewhere."A heartfelt appeal not just to clean out the stables, then, but to reallocate scarce marketing resource back to delighting the consumer and securing their custom with better work.

It’s a view from the C-suite that surely chimes with the experience of many of us on the advertising shop floor. Our time has been steadily diverted away from the quality of what we do, and its join with business fortunes, towards the pursuit of what Pritchard called "shiny new objects".

This year’s Super Bowl – that traditional crucible of at least some great work – seemed to prove his point. In our eagerness to exploit the new media canvas, we have let slip not just business probity but creative standards also.

"Pritchard’s Stand", then, wasn’t just a heartfelt call for a few industry agents to recalibrate how they do business, but rather an invitation for us all to revisit how we spend our time and money.

So, where to begin in this quest for better work that works? Let’s start, perhaps, at the start, by reminding ourselves of the importance and power of great briefing. Yes, boring old briefing. The document and conversation that starts with our desired outcomes and works backwards from there.

It’s my contention that briefing is one of the links in the better advertising chain that has suffered most from Pritchard’s "digital drift" – the flow of time and money away from the time-honoured task of strategic interrogation and creative origination.

Overwhelmed by possibilities, new formats and media firsts, too many of today’s briefs have become to-do lists rather than setting out well-considered and galvanising business and brand challenges. They lay out all the pipework our ideas must flow through but fail to turn the creative tap on. For all the talk of purpose, "where?" has steadily displaced "why?" as the prime mover of too many briefs.

Good advertising, as Frank Lowe was fond of saying, costs you no more than bad advertising. Good briefing, it seems to me, is even more of a business no-brainer. It not only improves your effectiveness odds but actually saves time and money along the way, for both brand owner and agency. (The reverse, of course, is also true.)

Better briefs make advertising development more efficient as well as more effective. Less obviously, perhaps, audiences also win from better briefing practice, if only because the advertising we ask them to consume is more likely to speak to their needs or wants if we contemplate these properly in advance.

That, in turn, makes it more likely that any media intermediary is less likely to suffer the collateral damage of poorly planned advertising "inventory".

As my first boss famously observed, Michelangelo’s brief for the Sistine Chapel was not to paint the ceiling nor to cover its terrible cracks – technically correct as both may have been. In fact, Michelangelo was asked by Pope Julius II to "paint our ceiling for the greater glory of God and as an inspiration and lesson to his people".

I haven’t done the precise ROI calculation but, 500 years later, I suspect that ceiling is still paying back. A brief is not a to-do list. It’s the wellspring of better advertising, and that’s in everybody’s interest.

Laurence Green is a founding partner at 101.

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