The reverse brief: What aviators can teach advertisers

DPR&CO founder Philip Huzzard
By DPR&CO founder Philip Huzzard | 22 March 2018
Philip Huzzard

Pilots and air traffic controllers ensure that they each have the right information through what is called a 'read-back'. The receiver reads back the same instruction they've been given (or a slightly condensed version). If there's any discrepancy, the initiator will immediately re-issue the instruction and request a confirmation. This also alerts the receiver that there may be confusion and focuses everyone's attention on the need for clarification before disaster strikes. It's the ultimate reverse brief.

Communications professionals can learn a lot from aviation. No other industry examines its mistakes in such detail and is as effective in avoiding repeated errors. No other industry deals with as many moving parts in a time-critical environment.

Of course, errors in advertising are not measured in life or death, and time is much less critical. But misunderstandings or misinterpretation can have a profound effect on our clients' wellbeing - which, in turn, impacts ours.

Getting it wrong is embarrassing, expensive and career limiting. So the read-back portion of the reverse brief is a vital piece of insurance for your agency and your client.

There is another important difference between a pilot's reverse brief and that of a really competent communications reverse brief. Pilots need to ensure theirs is limited to only the content of the air traffic controller's instruction. Ours, on the other hand, comes with the opportunity to add some of what the client may have missed, or bring up opportunities to create further value.

In my experience, most client briefs are clear on objectives, but less so when it comes to distilling the essential message they're looking to communicate. So, while a read-back on the key points of the brief is a prerequisite, we should also help our clients bring clarity and strategic focus to their briefs.

Most organisations now have skinny marketing departments with staff buried in the day-to-day minutia of corporate life. We, on the other hand, have the benefit of fresh eyes, the time to think creatively and the focus that comes with having a singular problem to solve. I believe that the single most valuable thing an agency can do for a client is to ensure they have a powerful brief. It takes primacy over even the creative idea because if the brief is wrong, everything is wrong and even the best creative won't work.

Moreover, armed with the right data and insights, we should be the ones who help explore the what-ifs and the maybe-we-coulds.

It may seem like hard work or a barrier to action at the time. But being assiduous in how you approach the formative stages of the relationship or project can have a powerful impact on the effectiveness of your work and your client relationship.

It's a trust-building, de-risking exercise that helps keep project timeframes on track.

So next time you're presented with the opportunity to deliver a reverse brief, view it not as a chore, but an opportunity to show just how well you understand what you're being asked to do and how much you bring to the table. It's your opportunity to show that you not only cleared for take-off, but that you're also going to take your client somewhere they really want to go.

And any good client will thank you for making the effort.

DPR&CO founder Philip Huzzard

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