Recently, a number of clients have come to me with a message along these lines: “We don’t need agencies to write briefs anymore. We need agencies to help us use technology and branding to solve our most pressing business problems.”
In part, this new paradigm stems from the fact that more clients are deciding to produce advertising in-house. Whether or not this experiment works—and I do believe it’s an experiment—it has some people nervous: Will clients even need agencies in the next, say, three years? Five years?
If brand planning is capable of evolving, as I know it is, clients will most definitely need us. As I see it, the discipline of brand strategy can be the industry’s lifeline. Because clients need us to write a new kind of brief—on-brand, consumer-centric business solutions. That’s not so easy to take in-house.
Agencies sit at the nexus of consumer behavior, popular culture, business forces, and trends on the vanguard of creative and technology. Clients, in general, remain laser-focused on their industry, as they must. Our perspective puts us in a unique position to solve the kind of business problems clients need us for.
To deliver such solutions, I’ve begun folding design thinking and technology into strategy. I’m jettisoning the traditional creative brief in favor of the “solutions brief.” Historically, strategists crafted creative briefs to inspire art directors and copywriters to say something—often something very powerful—about a brand. Solutions briefs will continue to drive “say” campaigns, which remain vital. And creatives will always lead the work. But the new brief will also require collaboration with technologists and designers. Our survival, and our clients’, rests on it.
Increasingly, the market demands what I call “build” solutions—new products and services—and “do” solutions. Do solutions move people to rally around brand causes, like social and collective movements, or they empower consumers and brands to solve creative problems together. Without technologists and designers in the mix early in the process, none of this is possible.
Our own work for Bacardi-owned St. Germain—a sophisticated elderflower-flavored liqueur—typifies a build solution. Without resources to compete with the loudest brands in a category synonymous with nightlife strobes, we examined user needs to find St. Germain’s space. The insight: the art of savoring the quiet moments of life has all but disappeared. St. Germain would fill that void, becoming part of day life, not nightlife.
Were we to have applied creative-brief thinking, we’d have asked: What should we say? We might have used language and art direction on billboards, urging audiences to enjoy St. Germain with friends over brunch. And if pedestrians weren’t too busy staring at their iPhones, they’d still glance past the out-of-home campaign.
Instead, our solutions-brief approach engaged technologists early, using the strategic insight as a blueprint to build an experience people remember to this day. Over the course of two weekends, we enabled Seattle and Brooklyn brunchgoers to place orders via their Uber apps, and then “biketenders” pedaled to restaurants, serving carafes of St. Germain cocktails tableside. In this brief, strategy created the framework. Technology was simply our means to an end, and creative and design thinking helped us determine what people wanted us to build.
In this case and in the future, say campaigns alone are insufficient. It’s increasingly difficult to lay claim to any one competitive advantage. How many coconut waters can the market bear before it’s pointless to say “We’re the best”? Five? Ten? In fact, US consumers can choose from more than 40. Any edge a brand could gain in this context becomes a comparative advantage, according to Idris Mootee, author of Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation: What They Can’t Teach You at Business or Design School (Wiley, 2013).
Design thinking advocates not for incremental change, but for transformation. Given that most brands can now only limp their way to survival by way of favorable comparisons, they don’t need a better widget. The widget must so dramatically outperform others that it evades comparison altogether.
Strategists already gather rich consumer and category data. Like design thinkers, strategists who write solutions briefs will also present the story behind the data. They’ll observe consumers to unearth needs and desires—like the craving to savor slow Sunday brunches with elderflower-flavored aperitifs.
Suddenly, the amount and type of business problems that agencies can solve will expand. We can invent tools to centralize internal communications, recapture market share, recover from PR crises and direct resources toward social good. We can invent ways for consumers and brands to problem-solve together. So even if there is enough coconut water to fill the world’s bathtubs, we have an opportunity to propel clients beyond competition, beyond comparison—and into transformation. Strategy will evolve to show the way, inspiring teams to say, build and do the right solutions on behalf of clients. ca