We held a virtual discussion with Björn Wigforss (Marcom Director and Events at Microsoft, and President of the Nordics and Baltics Region at UNICEO) and Stephen Gee (Creative Director at Touch Worldwide, London) on the topic of how to make creative briefs. Björn and Stephen shared their experiences preparing for Mobile World Congress 2016.
Live Magazine: What is the ideal creative brief?
Stephen: The clearer the objective, the better. What I want to get out of the brief, or what we want to bring to the brief as an agency, is to understand how we can bring the brand to life, and make the right messages to reach the right audiences. We need as much context as possible. I’ve got a lot of experience working with Microsoft, and with Björn as well, so we already have a lot of prior knowledge from working together. The boundaries set by the brief allow us as an agency, or me, as a Creative Director, to make room for imagination and creativity, and we can kind of push parameters a little bit. We still respect the parameters, obviously, but we’ve got an understanding from our prior experience together.
Björn: For me it’s like, “ask Stephen what the ideal creative brief is, and I’ll do that next time!” But OK, what I try to do when I write my creative briefs, with my team and all the stakeholders involved, is to formulate the brief in such a way that we can give hints about what we’re looking for. But the discovery of these hints will be placed on the agency. For the project we’re doing at the moment, planning the Mobile World Congress event, and Microsoft’s presence there, the base parameters are brought in to the brief, so you don’t have to guess about how many meeting rooms we have, or much show floor we need. We are as specific as we can be. We gave the brief in the beginning of September, and the event is at the end of February. Still, we try to be very particular about what different experiences we want to showcase, and what are the key messages or the key takeaways we’re trying to achieve. Not exactly how we would showcase them, necessarily, but at least what these experiences are. The more placeholders you can put into the brief, saying “these are the kind of things we’re trying to do,” then the more Stephen and the guys can figure out “OK, so this is the kind of approach these guys are taking,” which then stimulates thought about “OK, so what are the elements that we can bring in creatively to make that happen?” I don’t know if you agree, Stephen, but at least that gives you the framework, and then you can think, “OK, how do we bring this to life?”
Stephen: Absolutely. That’s what was helpful with this brief. You’ve got all the specifics that we don’t know, and you explain them to us. You make a very clear brief. So we know exactly what’s required of us, and then it’s up to us to bring that to life or make it interesting, and present that back to Björn and the team, to stimulate them and inspire them.
Live Magazine: What are the primary creative sections of a brief? What needs to be contained in the ideal brief?
Björn: We need to execute on brand, so an almost mandatory point is, what is the intent of this particular event within the context of the company’s strategy? Or, if it’s a tactical event, then what are the tactics that are being implemented to achieve the company strategy? Also, try to wordsmith something about what we stand for. For example, “to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” That’s our mission statement, and that’s fine to convey, and should be included. But then, how do you translate that into something one level deeper, in terms of “OK, so how do we manifest that in the way that we do things here?” Another thing, and this is something that has been quite challenging for us in the Mobile World Congress 2016 project, is “what kind of brand language do we want to speak?” I’m not talking about logotypes and stuff like that, because we need to have brand guidelines, and people can get those, and that’s a part of the brief as well. But more specifically, “how do we want people to feel when they come into this space?”
Then I also think it’s good to give some creative stimulus, even though these guys don’t need creative stimulus. Give them a few examples about “what if you would do something like this?” Then challenge the teams to come up with something better. Say, “We have this experience that we would like to pursue. What if it would be this?” We write out what that experience would be like. Then, of course, every agency that’s going to pitch is going to try to figure out an even smarter way of executing that. It’s sort of like giving all the candidates a direction, but then giving them the creative freedom to come up with something. So there’s sort of raising the bar from there. I think one of the reasons why Stephen and his company, Touch, won this pitch, is that they actually took it to another level.
Stephen: I would agree. I think that the thing that helped us with this pitch is that what needed to be in there was very clear, but we could feel that freedom. We felt free within that to be able to express ourselves and bring something new to the table. In the creative brief, we’re always looking for the core objective, the main message, the audience, and then what kind of framework we need to work within. We look for the sort of reality we need to be in as concerns timing, budget, and logistics.
Live Magazine: Are those specific sections you expect
to see in every brief?
Stephen: They would be particular sections in a brief quite often. Definitely the deadline is a section, but not necessarily the budget.
Björn: If you want to touch upon the budget immediately, I love to share the ballpark budget. It’s never exact. It’s usually something “between this and this number.” All the agencies try to come in right under the “and” number, for sure (laughs). But if you don’t give the budget for a specific project, it’s going to be very hard, if you have an RFP process in place, to compare the different proposals. For that reason, I’m a big fan of actually sharing those parts of the project which are assigned to the creative development of the concept and making it reality – the build. For our current project, we also included the audiovisual part in the brief.
I was first Global Events Director for Nokia, and then joined Microsoft as a part of the acquisition. Now I conduct four to six larger events per year, as well as smaller ones, and my team also supports multiple larger and smaller executions led by other Microsoft units.
Live Magazine: Should the creative brief be completed remotely by the client, or in cooperation with the agency?
Björn: Actually, it can be both ways. It depends. If I think of Mobile World Congress, there’s no way that we could co-create a creative brief for this project. For this one, we invited four different companies to make their pitch. Potentially, we could just hire a creative agency to find a solution for our event. But if we’re still following the RFP process, that gives everything away. So it doesn’t make sense. In those instances, we have to create the brief on our end first. But then, what happens after that, is we say to the agency we select, “OK, you’ve been selected based on the parameters that we put into this, and now you’re responsible, as the best proposal. Let’s sit down together, talk through this, and make a new creative brief in a way.”
Then the other option is obviously that you make a direct choice of an agency, and we have compliancy rules for how big a project can be in order to do that. If the project is within that threshold, we can make a direct choice. Then we’ll make the creative brief together. So there, you go right from day one into this co-creative mode, where you say “We think we should be doing it like this, what do you think?” And then we have the dialogue.
So there are two different formats. But in most cases, most projects are more expensive than the threshold for most companies that have compliancy rules for RFP, so usually the former is the format that’s being applied.
Stephen: I would agree that there are two stages. There’s no way we could have been involved in the first stage of the brief. If you’re just given a project, then it’s helpful to work together on the project right from the start. But in the case that there’s a pitch process, then you have to start from a blank slate, and kind of build yourself up. There are good reasons for both ways of doing things, but I think that ultimately the client knows their business far better than anyone else. The client can set out what they need, what their requirements are, and how they need to execute on brand. They know the concepts of the company strategy way better than we do as an agency. But as we touched on before, the earlier that we can be involved, it evolves into creating a brief together, and that involves sitting down, and meeting up fairly regularly, and doing workshops together, and making Skype calls and conference calls. That’s how we co-create to build something, where we’re all headed in the same direction.
Live Magazine: You both make it sound like a really smooth process, but there must be difficulties encountered on the way. What are the most difficult stages of completing the brief and understanding each other?
Stephen: For me, as the Creative Director here, and as a member of a creative team, our desire is always to do the best work we can for the client. Because we’re aware that the client wants to produce the best experience they can for their audience via us, the agency. The challenge for us is that sometimes we can get carried away with the creative process. We need to communicate all our ideas as early as possible, because sometimes we can get carried away. The best creative idea is worthless if it can’t be executed on budget. That’s the kind of thing that we’re always balancing. My desire is also to have the best finished product, pay the most attention to detail, and give the audience the best experience, and for the client to be ultimately as happy as possible. But we have to be wise about where to spend the money. For me, it can be difficult not to get carried away.
Björn: But actually I think that’s really good, Stephen. If you get carried away, then there are some really good ideas that you are passionate about. Of course, there will be some instances where I will ask “Can we actually afford that?” But the idea here is that getting carried away is actually a good thing, because if you don’t get carried away, then you’re not going to crack the greatest ideas, and the best implementations, and the best creative. You need to get carried away. Then there is somebody to look after us. These are project leads and the budget leads, and obviously you have some people within your company, Stephen, looking after you guys, and there are some people on our side looking after us, like our wonderful project managers who allow us to step outside the budgetary limits. But I think the most important thing is that there is a level of empathy between both parties. You can hear that Stephen is very empathetic towards the limitations that we have. I can admit that when I remember the first projects that I did as an event director five or six years ago, I was not a very good client because I didn’t have empathy towards the agencies. But once you get some mileage under the hood, I hope that today the feeling is that if I ask Stephen to do something, then I have to take something else away. If we are on a strict budget, I can’t just ask and ask and ask. I have to give him something as well. You can’t have it all, so you have to be smart about what you get. And we’re in the same boat here. I think that’s what you were pointing out, Stephen, that we have one thing in our mind that we’re looking at together: the people who are actually going to be participating in the event. Whether it’s a remote participant, over the web, or other media, or if it’s an in-person attendee, that’s who we think about when we do all of this. That’s who’s paramount. Within that framework of the best possible participant experience, we then deploy a solution that makes them get the most out of it, and we make them think, “This is something I wouldn’t have wanted to miss.” We’ve come to that mode of operation now in this project, more than ever before, where we’re not thinking about ourselves and our positions, but about how to make the right choices based on participant needs, given that you can’t have it all.
I have been creating brand experiences across the world, for more than 12 years. My work includes projects for clients including Nike, Paul Smith, Lacoste and Beats by Dre. I have worked previously for Nokia for 10 years and Microsoft for the last 5.
Live Magazine: You make it sound so easy.
Björn: It’s definitely not easy. It’s a struggle every day.
Live Magazine: What are the most common mistakes made when completing a brief? What are some errors to avoid?
Björn: We actually had a very important week in this project last week. What I noticed was that the sooner we actually talk everything through, and communicate verbally, and discuss the different cases, rather than writing e-mails, and doing slides, and so on, then the earlier we get on the right path, where we say “OK, so this is the direction we should be taking.” Everyone becomes more at ease about the end result. Communication is always the biggest issue.
When you write a brief, or you give a brief, or you share something, you have to listen as well, and you have to connect, you have to lift the phone when there are a couple of E-mails that are going in a direction that you both feel are probably OK, but it’s probably not the right solution yet. We had one of those things last Friday, actually, with Stephen’s colleague Piers, when I got second thoughts, and asked myself “Are we talking about the same thing here?” So I picked up the phone and I talked with him, and he came up with an even better idea than the one that he originally set up, that actually worked for the location.
Stephen: There’s not really much more I can say. When communication breaks down, that’s when the mistakes get made. I don’t think there are necessarily rules to follow. I can’t think of common mistakes that are made. I think the main mistake is miscommunication . If everyone is on board, and you have regular workshops, you avoid mistakes. And I completely agree that hearing the person’s voice, even if you don’t have the luxury of being in the same city, or even in the same country, just speaking to each other regularly is still the key to avoid making mistakes.
I completely agree that hearing the person’s voice, even if you don’t have the luxury of being in the same city, or even in the same country, just speaking to each other regularly is still the key to avoid making mistakes.
Live Magazine: You both said constant communication is needed. So what do agencies and clients need to do to understand each other better? That seems to be the key issue in your work.
Björn: Every time we start a project, we always get together as one team. I sometimes say, “Let’s collect all the business cards and scrap them, because we’re now working for this project.” That way, everybody in the project team feels that there is a joint team effort. If Stephen calls me, I don’t think, “That’s Stephen from Touch.” I think, “That’s Stephen working for the Mobile World Congress project.” That’s a mindset thing, because we’re all working towards the same thing. Once we get into that mode of operation, then I think that helps everything. I know it might be raising a couple of eyebrows to think of it this way. I have seen a clear distinction between agency and client in past event projects. But I’m always working to raise that, and really do our work as one team. That’s what I’m attempting to do to avoid unnecessary misunderstanding , etc. Like I said earlier, there can be miscommunication going on, but nobody should feel afraid to lift up the phone and ring the other person and say, “Did you mean it this way?” There’s no hierarchical distance in any direction. We’re all equals. That provides the foundation to avoid making a lot of mistakes.
I think the second thing is to try to anticipate things that are going to be problematic before they appear. That’s super important. That only comes with experience. An experienced agency, with an experienced creative director, and showcase lead, and then an experienced event director on the client side, when they all have that bank of experiences, they know that two weeks from now we’re going to have a problem if we don’t act now. If we don’t meet the work schedule, we’re going to have to be focusing a lot on making adjustments in the construction stage, onsite. You’re going to be spending all your time fixing things, instead of spending your time making truly great experiences. When you get to the execution point, when you’re actually onsite, and really meet up with everybody who’s going to be working on implementing the event, I’d like us to already be done with everything we can be done with ahead of time before we get on site. That way, once we’re there, we can get people up to speed on what we’re really trying to achieve.
Stephen: I would echo that for sure. I think the way we’ve been working together now with Björn is good modeling for future relationships or future clients. We have a trust between us. There’s not a fear element between us. There’s an openness, and we’re very honest. That creates the best environment for creativity to flourish. When people are afraid, or have that strong sense of hierarchy and inequality, it ruins things. One other thing I would like to mention is that we always have a good debriefing session at the end of the project. This provides really good lessons about what could be improved, what went well, and so on. It gives us a way to learn about our mistakes. I’ve been doing this for quite a few years, and each time I can guarantee that something will happen. Each time a challenge comes up, or there’s a problem to solve, you learn from it. I think that’s the key – to always be open to learn.
Let’s collect all the business cards and scrap them, because we’re now working for this project.