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Embedding a Curiosity Mindset: Fostering Change in Marketing Briefs with GSK

Jonathan Elliott

Key Takeaways

  • What makes a great Brief
  • Why campaign Briefs fail to communicate effectively
  • Why agencies are hesitant to ask questions of an unclear Brief
  • Challenges of instilling best practices in marketing teams
  • There is a need for analytics and testing to be grounded in the Brief from the start

Jonathan Elliott: What inspired you to start this project?

Jim Delash: In 2021, I came across a piece of research called 'The Better Briefs' study. It was by two Australian agency strategists, and it looked at creative or campaign Briefs worldwide. It surveyed the attitudes of advertisers and agencies and found a fundamental dichotomy in how each group viewed the client Brief. It was a useful sample: about 1700 people.

Its findings were extraordinary. One in particular stood out: 80% of marketers considered themselves good at writing Briefs, but only 10% of agencies shared that view. Here, we had two groups of marketing and advertising professionals working together, looking at the same document but through opposite lenses. An agency cannot deliver best-in-class work without a clear Brief. In the study, the agencies described Briefs as 'unfocused,' 'unclear,' 'dull,' 'thoughtless,' and 'shoddy.'

And I was fascinated by that. So, I decided to look at our Briefs internally. When I asked my team for examples, I got four different versions; each was multiple pages with very different requirements. There were numerous statements in all the versions that were redundant, and I thought they had a consistent lack of clarity...they were all over the place. And I thought, "Hmm, I think we need to fix this. You can't expect to get great work from your agencies if you're giving unclear direction or, worse, redundant information."

JE: What feedback did you get from your marketers?

JD: They said, "We have our agency do the Brief." And I was like, "Well, how's that possible? does the agency get direction from the client? There has to be some way that that is communicated. If it's informal, in a meeting, for example, you're leaving yourself wide open to misinterpretation or misunderstanding". So as I was talking to people, I thought, "I don't think they recognize the importance of the Brief."

My argument was that the Brief is the most important thing you should be doing at any moment. I'd say: "If you're not giving clear direction to the agency, you won't get great work, or if you do, it's just luck. So take the time now."

I think the strategic value of a Brief often goes unrecognized. It's sometimes viewed as "some form we need to fill out, so we can check that off that we did it," but I tell my team, "This should be hard. This should not be something you can do during another call, this is not something to be multitasked. This should take you a lot of time".

If it doesn't take time and doesn't take effort, there's a good chance it won't work well as a Brief.

JE: What Are The Characteristics Of A Great Brief?

JD: For me, the first thing is to inspire the creative and media teams, not just inform them. There is debate about whether creatives should be inspired independently, but even if they are so motivated, inspiration from the Brief can only help.

Secondly, it should be a group effort. It should be a collaborative venture written by senior marketers with input from their team, internal partners, and external agencies. It's not meant to be written by a sole figure huddled away in an isolation booth for two weeks.

Thirdly, it should be clear but not prescriptive. It's a tricky balancing act to provide clear direction without telling the agencies exactly what to do. The great Brief is written in clear, simple language without marketing jargon and acronyms.

Finally, it should provide a deep understanding and insight into the target audience and their motivations. It is not a restating of data points but rather an explanation of customer behavior resulting from that data.

JE: How did The Isosceles Project come about?

JD: The Isosceles Project started with some insights from the Better Briefs research project and added two additional elements that I felt needed addressing at a Brief level. These were next-level analytics and advanced experimentation as equal parts of the process. This is how we struck on a three-sided transformation proposal.

JE: How did your teams in GSK receive it?

JD: We had our annual internal marketing conference last year, and I presented it alongside our media, creative, and analytics agencies. We presented the concept to all the marketers, and it took off right away. Some people embraced it immediately, asked lots of questions, and used it. Some people are not quite there yet, but it is now part of the curriculum and used by the in-house team responsible for training marketers, both new to the company and people who have been around.

We also talk about the response to the Brief - something we call "Words and Music." That is about the dynamic between creative and media and ensuring they come together just as lyricists and musicians need to cooperate to write great songs, and that's also part of the training.

JE: The two other sides of The Isosceles Project are Next Level Analytics and Advanced Experimentation. Let's tackle the Analytics side first. How have you made that part of improved Briefs?

JD: As in many companies, we use a lot of different channels. Email, websites, print, direct mail, and in-office advertising to physicians, but only about half are measurable directly. We were doing a lot of analytics - but they were of individual tactics, and then they only applied to about half the media spend. So when you're tracking results, there's this other half of the spend that's unaccounted for. So I thought, "This is a waste of time".

This is partly because all channels work together. If I send you an email today, and you saw a big print ad yesterday in a journal, you're more likely to be open and responsive to that email than if you didn't see the printed ad. We've noticed that through many of our statistical models, these channels all work together, and so you can't measure them meaningfully in isolation.

So why do I want to look at things independently? Asking questions like "How can we get our email open rates higher? Should we spend time on the subject line or the time of the day we send them?” you may get a 10th of a point difference. And it's not repeatable because sometimes Tuesday afternoon works, and sometimes it doesn't. And there's no pattern. It's not worth the effort.

So, we thought it would be better to cut out a lot of these analyses that take a lot of time and have no value. Focus on the more holistic picture of what the campaign is trying to achieve. I would instead look at the whole impact of a campaign using metrics like website traffic and paid search activity. We also use trigger metrics and dynamic segmentation to measure the movement of customers from one segment to another.

JE: The third side of the Isosceles is advanced experimentation. Can you tell us about that?

JD: We break these down into two types of experimentation, macro and micro, which are very different in value. The micro-testing idea was designed to create a culture shift.

People tend to all agree with the importance of testing, but then they don't do it if you don't keep pushing it. So, we set a goal last year for 100 microtests in a year. And the micro tests were done through paid search copy. We decided to use that as a laboratory to test things like "Is it better to say, 'two out of three people have been vaccinated', or 'one in three people have not been vaccinated'.?"

And we're looking for gains that might be repeatable in other creative areas. After 100 tests, we had a range of results with different characteristics. They showed that some of our strategies only occasionally worked, while others never worked at all. We tried the tests across different brands. And I think we got people thinking more about testing. So this inquisitiveness about how you present information, statistics, or no statistics, was an excellent cultural shift.

So that's micro testing. And it's gone really well, and I'm very happy with where we are. And we did achieve our goal of 100 tests, although it did take 13 months.

Macro testing is the exact opposite. There are many fewer tests, but they are much bigger in scope. So we ask questions like "What if we took one customer segment and cut spending down by 80%? What would happen?" What we learned is, in the short term, nothing, but in the long term, not good.

So, instead of using, let's say, eight channels, we might reduce the number to six, or we might change the frequency of messaging. For example, we would double it within a given time period. So, those macro tests are heavier and more expensive but have a more significant impact if they work.

JE: How have you managed to embed this new thinking into the company mindset?

JD: It's an ongoing process. You have to be constantly communicating. I meet with people who have similar jobs to mine in other therapeutic areas. And the way we talk about this is to say, "Hey, here's what we're learning."

We've struggled to find things that work across the board and we try to avoid saying, "Let me see if I can create something that's going to work for everybody." When the odds are, it's not going to. There's a time lag and many variables. So, it's more about encouraging a curiosity mindset.

We talk to the internal marketers and the people within my team, and they're very receptive and bring input, too.

So, internally, I think it has taken root. Our agencies generally believe it as well. Now, they live it; they understand the need for a good Brief, but their response sometimes comes a bit more slowly. They're slightly slower to adopt it, but we keep pushing them.

And then the third group is the conferences that I've spoken to. I've presented this a couple of times at marketing conferences. It generally goes pretty well. I get good feedback on it.

JE: Are you happy with the progress at GSK now?

JD: We have 'Better Briefs Calls' now, every month, and we have a specific topic we'll talk about in that call. And what's great is that the agencies participate much more. In the beginning, they were very quiet. So we're trying to get the agencies to speak up more when they see things that don't make sense, or they're unclear, or whatever it is. We wanted them to be fully part of this situation, not just the recipient, "We come down from on high with the message, now go execute ." I don't want them to think like that. I want them to be a participant in it.

Jim DeLash is the Omnichannel Marketing Director for GSK, a leading pharmaceutical company. He has been at GSK for 20 years with marketing roles focusing on analytics, customer segmentation, digital innovation, experimentation and strategic planning. He has also worked in the direct marketing and publishing industries. He taught Digital Marketing at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA, for eight years. Jim is a frequent speaker at pharmaceutical marketing conferences on topics such as Customer Marketing, How Do You Know (the value of testing), Milkshake Media (the role each medium plays in a campaign),The Man on the Moon, Old Guys with Cigars and the New Digital Creative (how creative needs to evolve more) and Marketing Effectiveness.

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