Articles - 28th February 2020

Why are clients so bad at briefing freelancers?

Words by Josh Mcloughlin
Illustration by Oscar Price

So you’ve landed a gig—great. The pay is decent—which can be shocking, but you don’t question it. It’s a peach of a client and might even end up in your portfolio or showreel. Then you get the brief in. Quelle surprise: it’s an omnishambles.

Don’t get me wrong, I love marketing directors, PR managers, and account executives. I do. I love the way they ask for things at the last minute. I love it when their feedback is ‘this isn’t quite right’, leaving me to fill in the blanks. I especially love it when it takes them four months to get my invoice over to accounts. But why, for fuck’s sake, can’t they write a decent creative brief?

Making sense of a botched brief is one of the most frustrating aspects of freelance work. It’s probably the most important stage in the whole project. If the brief isn’t nailed on; if there’s any uncertainty about what’s expected on either side, things are guaranteed to go wrong later on.

Clients are rarely able to articulate their needs in ways creatives understand, cloaking their confusion in the nebulous cant of business-speak. 

‘I had one client that liked to work “agile”—which they basically used as an excuse to be sloppy, vague and change the goalposts every week,’ one graphic designer recounted. ‘After a week working on the film, I was told to park it and start again on a different one. Out of nowhere, both were dropped and replaced with an infographic. It was just an excuse to do no real thinking at the beginning.’

When the project hits delays or runs aground thanks to a defective briefing process, it’s the freelancer who gets the blame and risks reputational damage, lost earnings, and wasted time. 

‘I had a client who, through the whole briefing, pitching and writing process, steadfastly refused to give us any guidance on what they wanted to feature in the film on account of us being “the expert storytellers”’, a writer working in film told me.

‘I knew this would go wrong, but what can you do? I did my own research and presented a storyline for the documentary based on what I thought would be the most engaging narrative. They offered no input on this at all until the day of the shoot, when their CEO read the storyline and trashed it because it wasn’t synced with the brand message they wanted to portray at that time. 

‘Interview questions had to be made up on the spot, interviewees had their preparation thrown into disarray and the final film was disjointed, unfocused and shambolic – all because the client was unable (or unwilling) to collaborate on developing the story.’

For the most part, those writing creative briefs aren’t malicious, and most aren’t trying to make creatives’ lives hard. But since they aren’t creatives, they’re unlikely to grasp what information freelancers need to know in order to make the magic happen.

My solution is to send a structured document in a loose Q&A format, tweaked for each client, that encourages the client to yield up all the information I need to start writing. Using a template means everybody is on the same page from the get-go, and it can be referred back to in the case of disputes about the work, delivery, revisions, and deadlines. 

Clients: these are the most basic aspects of a brief that are too often overlooked.


What’s required?

First things first: what do you want me to do? At this point, I don’t care about your brand vision,  ‘philosophy’, or how your founder built the company from scratch with nothing but guts, an idea, a private school education, free use of their parent’s apartment in Notting Hill, and a Coutts trust fund. Don’t tell me you’re ‘experiencing rapid growth’, tell me what you need me to do right now: write a strapline or a 20-page brochure, design a logomark or poster, direct a film, or illustrate characters for your show. 


When do you need it?

No, I can’t ‘just’ write a speech by ‘close of play’. Be realistic. And please don’t say ‘close of play’. I’m not working late for you and I’m certainly not getting up at the crack of dawn to spare you a roasting from your line manager because you forgot to organise a creative until the last minute. And don’t pluck a date out of thin air and inform me the work is due in two days’ time. How about asking me how long it will take? Believe or not, there are other things going on in my working life. Balls up the timings and you look bad, I look bad, everybody looks bad.


What’s the context?

Now I know what I’m doing and when it needs to be done, tell me the background. Why this? Why now? Is this a one-off or part of a campaign? I’ll hazard a guess—a hope—that this project wasn’t immaculately conceived but has some thinking behind it. Please share it. 


Who’s going to see/read/hear it?

I’m no market researcher or behavioural psychologist, but I know that ‘young professionals’ isn’t a specific enough target audience for this creative to aim at. Do your homework first and don’t expect your freelancer to shoulder the burden of audience or demographic research.


What do you want me to make them do?

When you say you want to ‘inspire’ or ‘engage’ or ‘provoke’, do you actually mean ‘buy our product’? Let your freelancer know what the whole point of this project is. 


How many rounds of revisions can you afford?

Guess what: only two revisions are included in my quote. Any more and you’ll have to cough up. I learnt this the hard way, doing 26 substantial revisions of a brochure for the smarmy marketing director of a tech giant who withheld pay until I delivered ‘what was agreed’, when nothing was.


For those clients out there who take briefing seriously: thank you. Freelancers: if you’re sick of using tea leaves to divine what the client wants, give a template a spin on your next gig.


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