To quote the great copywriter and creative director Steve Harrison: “Creative ideas feed on familiarity. And if you are to write something the reader will find so interesting they’ll want to keep it then you, too, will need to know a lot about your subject.”

With increasingly compressed deadlines, the vital preparation phase prior to writing the marketing communications brief is often omitted. However, this can prove to be a very risky approach as it will probably lead you down the wrong path – the expression ‘look before you leap’ springs to mind…

It is worth noting that this information-gathering phase is equally relevant to the creative agency prior to writing their agency creative brief (the next stage in the process). The creative agency are often able to bring a more objective view, since they are not as close to the product as the client. A good agency will therefore never just blindly accept the insight provided by the client at the briefing stage – rather they will use it as a basis for their own preparation prior to writing their creative brief.

So what are the kind of questions you should be asking prior to writing the marketing communications brief? The following six areas are a good starting point:

  1. Understanding your target audience

Go through your prospect’s typical day: when are they open to being contacted – are there any unexplored contact points? Which media do they tend to use? Immerse yourself in their world – TV programmes, radio programmes, websites, newspapers, public transport, cinemas, leisure activities such as bars and restaurants, sports and hobbies. Try to identify the prominent consumer, fashion and entertainment trends in the media they use. Visit the retail stores and view the way prospects compare your product to the competition, and what buying process they go through. Interview people you intend selling to – try to find out what is important to them, how they feel about the product category in general, and your product in particular (versus the competition).

You should also peruse customer ratings, online forums, social media and blogs to get a ‘warts and all’ understanding of what your target audience really feel about your product area in general and your brand in particular. See if you can find out what else your target audience are talking about.

  1. Understanding the views of customer-facing staff

Speak to the sales-force and call-centre/ Twitter feed staff (ideally shadowing them for a day). Try to identify trends in common customer problems (and also what is currently perceived to be going well). Can they provide you with copies of customer feedback correspondence/ transcripts of calls?

Similarly, ask front-line sales staff what they think about existing communication pieces and why? These comments often reveal their underlying beliefs towards the brand and can sometimes lead to the ‘creative leap’.

  1. Understanding the product, category and brand

Your goal here is to both broaden and deepen your understanding of the product or service that is being promoted. If it is a product, then arrange to go on a factory tour and interrogate the production line staff. Just remember to examine the product from the perspective of the prospect, not the company – what aspects do they care about? If it is a service, ask about any customer comments and reactions offered at the time the customer experienced the service.

Put the product/ service to the test (also make sure that the agency have full access to the product/ service). In what circumstances would the product be used? By whom? Does it work smoothly, as claimed, or are there any problem areas? What is it that will make customers want to buy this product/ service – particularly from an emotional perspective?

In terms of the brand itself, what are the brand values and how do these translate into the brand personality? Are they reflected in the product/ service? How do the current brand values relate to the founder’s values and personality? Does the brand even have a clear personality?

  1. Understanding the effect of previous campaigns

Review previous promotional campaigns to understand what has worked well previously, and anything that did not work so well. The Marketing Communications department should keep an on-going campaign file that can be reviewed at the outset of a new campaign. It is also advisable to record the results of the ‘post-campaign review’: highlighting the specific campaign learning points and best practice identified by the project team.

  1. Understanding the competition and market conditions

Similarly, you should also keep a portfolio of the promotional activity of your key competitors, so you can identify their campaign propositions, their style of advertising (any recurrent visual clichés?), and what types of media they favour. Can you find out how successful it was for them?

Also look at the market conditions for your product category: what are the current trends in terms of overall supply and demand? How is this reflected in pricing trends in general across the category? Are more competitors entering the market (if so, from where?) or are more leaving?

   6. Understanding the internal campaign-related constraints

In addition to the above external factors, you also need to be clear on what campaign constraints are being imposed internally. What is the total budget that you can afford for the campaign? Does it come with any pre-conditions for how it should be spent? For example, in terms of the creative/ media split? Specific media-types to be included? Is this negotiable?

You also need to be clear on the launch date of the campaign, and hence the amount of time available to the agency. You should be prepared to fight to achieve as much time as possible, particularly in the early stages – there is often a linear relationship between the time available and the quality of the work produced.

Double-check that you have all the necessary product detail and a SMART primary campaign objective on the business brief from the Product Marketing team.


The information you have gathered in the six areas above comprises the raw material necessary for a comprehensive Marketing Communications brief. It enables you to formulate a compelling customer insight, which in turn will provide the basis for a powerful customer proposition.

However, before you sit down to start writing the Marketing Communications brief, you firstly need to meet up with the agency to take them through your thoughts and obtain their feedback – ie the ‘pre-brief’ meeting. More on that in the next post…

If you’re interested in exploring this area in more detail (together with relevant examples), you might like my recent book ‘Successful Marketing Communications’.  If you have any thoughts or comments, do drop me a line below.

Written by Rob H

I’m a Chartered Marketer with over 20 years’ experience working in digital and offline marketing communications across the financial services, leisure, education and technology sectors – most recently working for a large financial services organisation, managing the acquisition marketing communications team. I gained an MSc in Strategic Marketing from Cranfield Business School in 2005 and the CIM Diploma in Digital Marketing in 2012. In 2012 I became the part-time course tutor at the Cambridge Marketing College for the CIM diploma in ‘Principles of Mobile Marketing’ – also authoring the accompanying Mobile Marketing study materials for the college. In March 2017 I published ‘Successful Marketing Communications‘ (available on Amazon Kindle and Apple iBooks), which has become recommended reading for delegates at the IDM (Institute of Direct Marketing). When I’m not knee-deeping in reading/ writing the latest marketing communications articles I enjoy outdoor swimming and anything involving snow – with my goal for next year being to combine the two…

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