Getting What You Want Is All About How You Ask For It.
If You Want a Brilliant Project, Write a Brilliant Brief.
Give A Digital Team What It Needs To Give You A Great Result.
Having spent two decades in agencies dealing with complex websites and software, we’ve seen all manner of brief, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Procurement often comes down to a pitch, and assessment of the pitch boils down to a collection of pretty pictures and a sequence of numbers to be accepted or rejected based on their perceived value.
Projects fall into two loose project management methodologies; the first is waterfall / iterative release where a set of tasks are addressed up front. A solution is then planned and budgeted as fully as possible in advance of delivery (it should be complete, but rarely is on large projects).
The second approach is more agile, where a minimum viable product is built and developed in a less rigid, but often more rigorous way. For large projects, this agility is often a benefit, but inherent in the approach is a lack of certainty to at least one of time, budget and eventual output. This lack of certainty can be troubling for a buyer and is often rejected.
The information that follows applies to both key methods but is more aligned with “waterfall” planning. It tends to follow that most pitches are more waterfall centric than agile.
If a brief is too open-ended, issues arise:
- Those assessing the pitch are being delivered the edited highlights that the agency wants to discuss. Most of us focus on what we hear, rather than on what we do not.
- Most people evaluating the proposal prior to a pitch don’t “deep read” a full response… (it’s OK, we’re all human). From a development perspective, these granular snippets of information are where the success or otherwise of the project is balanced and some of this critical, but often “boring” parts really don’t lend themselves to a presentation environment.
- People buy from whom they like. It’s natural, we all do it and as an agency person, it has often worked in my favour. I’ve no way of saying that I’ve always been the best person for the job I won. Similarly, in jobs I didn’t win, I’ve no certainty that I’d not have been a better option for the project.
- It might look like an assessment panel, but there’s always a leader or key influencer. More often than not, that person, or group within the selecting panel is exerting a great deal of influence on the conversation and at the same time expecting to rely on their team for validation. It takes a strong person to step up in these environments, especially with a contradictory view.
- We have a natural predisposition to take an interest in things we understand or are interested in. A savvy salesperson will focus on this and use confirmation bias, amongst other things to shape a discussion.
- An open brief means an open response and even the most diligent of agencies will be working on a set of assumptions that may be way off the mark.
Falling into these common selection traps don’t necessarily mean the panel make a poor decision. After all, they are selecting from a group of professionals. However, what is certain, is that in missing the mark with the brief, that it is possible and quite likely that the decision being made is not as informed as it might otherwise be. At best, this can lead to some awkward conversations with the incumbent, at worst, it is a missed opportunity.
What your agency cares about…
Honestly, we care about all of it. Background and context definitely matter. We generally get a lot more background and context than we need to create a response. Helpful as this information can be, we can take the key themes in a well-constructed paragraph or two, and drill down into the rest if we are instructed.
To make sure we’re the right fit (that is to say the right team, for the right project, at the right scale, at the right time), the time spent crafting the brief is best spent on hard facts. You certainly don’t need to tell us how to do something, but we do need to know why we’re doing in and what you expect the outcome to be.
16 things we'd really like to know;
- What is the key challenge? Or, put another way, what core problem are you trying to solve by engaging an agency's help.
- What else is really important? Are there multiple channels to consider, different stakeholder groups with different goals, and if there are, are there conflicting goals that need to be worked through?
- What features comprise the ‘must have’, ‘should have’ and ‘could have’ lists? If we’re working to a budget, or a list of assumptions, we’ll be able to tell you what we think we can get through on the list based on your time, budgetary and technical constraints. If you can only provide one thing, this feature list would be the best thing you could provide.
- What are the constraints we’re working to? Are there technologies we have to work with, brand guidelines? Business rules to follow?
- Is there a budget set? If there is, please don’t keep it to yourself. You’ll get better responses by setting this out and you’ll have the opportunity at the end of the process to compare like with like. An agency that wants the work will work hard to meet the budget, and, if they don’t need the full budget, they’ll likely come in under budget to gain a competitive advantage, or prepare a fantastic solution with the bells and whistles that sometimes have to get dropped.
- Who or what else do we have to work with? (technical or business partners, payment partners, content management systems, CRM, ERP and any other number of horrible acronyms)? The more information the better. If you can supply contacts that we can talk to while we are developing a response, or failing that, documentation, then better still.
- Whom do we need to be better than?
- Is there anything else out there in your field, or anywhere else that you think could apply well to the project, and are you open-minded as to alternatives? This is where we get to use our creativity and add a little value to your brief and excitement to the pitch process.
- Is there a proposed structure to work to? Are we to put that forward as part of the a) project proposal or b) pre-project work, post-proposal?
- Tell us about your current situation. What’s working and not working for you as an organisation is the most important thing. No need to critique your current design or agency approach to that website build, we already know it is going in the bin. The key takeaways are important though.
- How much scope is there (within the set budget) for the agency to be entrepreneurial in their approach, and which areas can we get our hands dirty with?
- What are your KPIs and how do you want to measure them? (if you know)
- What statistics do you have for us to look at, and from which tools? Here, we’re looking for things like Google / Adobe analytics reports, business intelligence, management information, search placement, conversion rate information. Any good agency will base their response on what your audience is doing now and they’ll also be hoping to extrapolate where they think they can take the project to. We’ll be sense checking this data and referencing your KPIs to work out where we, and our experience is best used to meet and exceed your performance requirements.
- Is this a plan, design, build and maintain project, or some other combination or mix?
- How would you like to manage your content? Do we need to consider multiple websites, access and security levels, currencies, languages etc?
- How much internal resource will be dedicated to the project? There’s little point in an agency proposing an all singing all dancing website that relies heavily on user-generated content, or beautiful photography if there is neither resource nor budget to maintain it over time. If we know how the headcount and purse strings look once we finish, we’ll know a lot more about how to put it together in a way that is going to work for you over time.
The list isn’t exhaustive. Each project will raise its own questions, but the guiding philosophy is to tell us the problems we need to solve, by when, with whom, for what budget and with what supporting information to measure your success.
The best pitches for both buyers and agencies are the ones that set the ground rules effectively, leaving little of the core detail open to interpretation. If the people presenting to you are working on the same budgets, the same constraints and have what they need to effectively evaluate the brief, then you as a buyer will be far closer to an Apples vs Apples comparison and your decision more likely to be the one that is the best, rather than feels the best for the project in hand.
The vast majority of people in the digital space are here because we love it. It may sound trite, but we care about what we do and if we’re allowed to help guide the relationship, there’s a good chance we’ll have experienced the same issues elsewhere and we’ll have the knowledge to share. Lean on us.
A good agency will recognise their strengths and be open about their weaknesses. This transparency is good for business if all parties adopt the same approach. We do, after all, want to work together for the long term, and that is as much about the learning journey as it is about our existing experience.
If producing a brief that answers these questions is too tall a task, then lean on a user experience professional or digital consultant to help. Consider the brief a project in its own right. The investment will pay dividends on the budget, timescale and ultimate success of the project. A building, after all, is only as strong as the foundations on which it stands.
Would you like to discuss a project with me?
I'm Karl, Managing Director at Stunn, a digital practitioner with over twenty years in the space.
If you'd like to arrange a meeting by phone or face to face, please contact me directly on 0121 616 0093 during UK office hours, or send me a message via LinkedIn.