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Our Direct & Digital Marketing Director, Daniel Lewis, recently spoke at a CIM event about how to brief search marketing effectively. We’ve transformed his presentation into a useful guide to help you brief your next search marketing (or digital) project with confidence.

What you need to consider when briefing your Digital Agency and how to get the most out of us with better briefing.

While my background is in creative, my role as the head of our digital marketing department puts me in front of all sorts of organisations, with all sorts of digital requirements. Some just want guidance, some we may not be the right fit for, while many have become longstanding clients.

Along with our creative or web clients, what they all had in common was at some point in the relationship a brief was needed. A brief, as most of you will already know, is a reference document that provides clarity on your objectives, parameters, and measure of success.

In short, both sides need a brief to be able to understand these three key points and, as long as these remain the framework for writing a brief for your project or campaign, with further details fleshing out the bones, you can ensure both sides know exactly what is expected.

What are the benefits of a strong brief?

Clearly, understanding the objectives, parameters and measure of success of a given brief is a major benefit to both parties, but there are other clear benefits to providing a well-considered brief:

  • A brief provides a consistent point of reference throughout the project and enables us as agencies to reflect on our activity, and for both parties to continually assess performance.
  • Eliminating interpretation is essential, and is the perfect situation you should aim for. If you gave the same brief to three different agencies, chances are, depending on the quality of the brief, you would get three differing interpretations of the brief. Why not idiot test your next brief on someone with little familiarity of you as an organisation, or your specific requirement and query what they think you’re asking for.
  • By committing to writing a strong brief, it encourages you to actually think about what it is you’re asking for. We’ve experienced many times a project pivot half way through because a client didn’t go through the process properly.

Sometimes it’s because it was not signed off by management, other times there was a major revelation half way through a project that meant what had been done to that point was suddenly obsolete and we needed to start again. The list goes on, but the takeaway is that it’s essential for clients take the time to write your brief or tender, and make sure you have considered all eventualities.

That being said, there is a responsibility on agencies to question our clients, and interrogate the brief properly – we always view client relationships as partnerships. We only want what’s best for you, as it will keep you coming back!

  • A strong brief ensures accountability throughout – ignoring it as an agency may mean we end up failing your objectives, but by the same token, if you move the goalposts halfway through a project, we as an agency have a duty to hold you accountable, whether that’s through increased costs, changes of timescale or simply having a quick word!

What should I do before I brief my agency?

Before diving head first into briefing an agency, there’s a few things you need to ensure you’ve considered first:

  • As discussed, make sure you have defined (or at least got a clear idea of) your objectives, parameters, and measure of success for your project or campaign.
  • Discuss the project with your internal stakeholders. Do you need approval from management? Are they on board with the project? Will any other department require input into the brief? If you’re a marketing manager or marketing team member, do you know the technical intricacies of your product or service, or do other specialists need to be on hand to answer any questions?

Understand what levels of sign off you will require during the project. There’s no point agreeing to a timescale with an agency if you can’t sign off a crucial milestone. It means projects overrun, and you may end up incurring additional costs.

  • Do your research. And then ensure you share it! Research covers many things – your audience insight, for one, is extremely valuable to us as an agency, as is your current ranking or search volumes. It’s also important to know if you do not have this information, and will require your agency to provide input.

We can always help with keyword volumes, a review of your current AdWords set up and more. Try and understand your intended channels in advance too, as it will help you engage more openly with your intended agency.

  • Gather any information you feel will be useful to your agency – things like prior success help guide the future success of your new campaign (either in the current channel or other channels – why was it successful and what worked well?). Collate performance reports, channel reports, Google Analytics reports – anything that describes how you have performed.

Also consider what does your current performance look like. Have you measured your current rankings? How did you measure them, was it via search or did you use third party tools? Do you have any login or system information that we will need? Are there any brand guidelines, tone of voice documents, key messaging etc. that we need to refer to? This is all gold dust to us, and helps us to align better with your organisation.

  • Last but not least – meet your agencies! A strong brief is a two-way street. It’s hugely beneficial to meet an agency prior to developing your brief to outline your challenges and objectives. It gives us a chance to ask questions and to help you to finalise your brief, which in turn gives you a better understanding of your objectives.

After looking at your business from an outside perspective, more often than not, your intended brief becomes something very different. This happens incredibly regularly – a client will say ‘we want A, these are our challenges’, only to find out they want B once they’ve seen it from a different point of view.

Perhaps the most important reason for meeting with agencies is to establish chemistry. It’s crucial that you find someone you’ll trust to deliver on your best interests.

What should I include in a digital marketing brief?

So, now you’ve got your ducks in a row, what do we as agencies what to know? Generally speaking, we want to know the following:

  • Who are you? A bit of background goes a long way. What are your services, who is your audience, what does your brand stand for? Remember to treat this document as if the reader has no prior knowledge of you as an organisation. With this in mind, also consider your use of language throughout – ensure that references can be understood by people external to your business. Internal acronyms are no good if we don’t know what they mean.
  • Why have you come to see us? What are you looking to achieve? It’s important to understand the core business objectives of the task. Why is it important that you are engaging in the proposed activity and how will it impact you as a business – are you looking for growth as a company, are you looking to enter a new market, do you want to increase performance in a particular division of the organisation, do you want to speak to our existing customers?

Similarly consider your specific objectives for the activity – increased visibility, increased traffic, brand building, form completions and enquiries, ecommerce transactions, likes and follows etc.

  • Are your channels defined? While you may have clearly defined ideas about how you want to achieve your aims, it’s worth considering whether you define your channels in your brief, or leave it up to the agency to creatively meet your objectives. If you do, have a preferred method (such as Facebook over AdWords) then ensure it’s included in your brief.

If you don’t understand your channels, perhaps ask your agency for training? We provide SEO trainingPPC training and social training for many clients, helping them to understand the ins and outs of their channels, and for us to communicate on a more level playing field.

  • Share your past success and failures, along with any information that will help us to ensure that your next project or campaign delivers. Provide examples, reports, charts, and testimonials – anything we will find useful.
  • Include external factors that might affect your outcomes in your brief. These could include any seasonal issues or information e.g. we don’t sell very much of product x in October, we sell to schools so don’t market in the Summer months etc.

Are there any events that your project will tie into or benefit from being linked to e.g. a sale period, or seminar you’re promoting?

What quirks are there in your industry? IT companies, for example, are very challenging for new client acquisition due to the nature of IT buyers. Similarly, tell us about your assumptions (even if they are not backed by data) as you know your industry better than we ever will, and we can always help to prove or disprove your theories with some research.

  • Tell us your budget! We are very often asked to provide a quote on a brief without knowing the budget, as the client often believes that giving us a figure means that we will automatically come in matching that figure or think they can get a deal for below what they’re willing to pay.

For most agencies, that’s simply not the case, as we price projects accurately based on the deliverables and outcomes rather than to a pre-defined cost. Sometimes that means we’re under it and sometimes we’re over it – but it’s a true and honest picture.

Giving us a budget does a number of things, but primarily it tells us how serious you are. We’ve spent countless days crafting proposal documents for client, based on a very thorough brief (but missing a budget) and extremely lofty aims, only to find out that the potential client only had £500 for a £50,000 job.

It stops us wasting our time, avoids embarrassment, awkward conversations, and ensures clients can either find an agency who will be able to deliver to their budget, or realise that your objectives can’t be delivered without increasing it.

  • How do we measure the success (or lack thereof) of the campaign? This is where ensuring you’ve gone through the process before briefing the agency will help. Is an increase of 1,000 visitors a month a success or are you looking for 10,000? Do you need 1 really good lead or is 100 absolutely necessary? Specific KPIs ensure the accountability of the brief, and provides both agency and client with a true measure of performance.
  • Define your timescales, and if there are any milestones / key points, that they are clearly stated. Your agency may also offer their own key project milestones. Ensure you have factored in your own internal sign off process too, as we have regularly delivered projects to a tight schedule only for them to be delayed by client sign-off. That can result in additional costs, due to the additional resourcing often required in short turnaround projects.

As with your budget and KPIs, ensure you are realistic and align expectations with what’s truly achievable.

  • Finally, it really helps us if you have a single point of contact. By all means involve as many people as you want, but filter all correspondence through a single point, as that stops mixed messages and avoids additional work or unapproved outputs.

Similarly, it will also help us if you can give us an idea of your intended involvement. Do you want to sign off every single element? If so, we need to factor that in. Or you may be happy to know the general plan, and let us get on with delivering it. If you want regular meetings, make a note of that as there will likely be additional costs associated with it.

Search marketing specifics

While much of that is common sense, there are a few quirks specific to search marketing:

How to pick the right keywords?

If you’re asking us to do your keyword research as part of the project, that’s great, as it really does help to build a more rounded picture. We can review search volumes and competitor keywords, and provide semantic alternatives and opportunities for low-hanging fruit. However, if you have a specific keyword in mind to target, please let us know.

That being said, take the time to understand the implications of your choices and whether it is at all achievable. For example, if your keyword is the term ‘supermarket’, there would be at least between 5-10 competitors with huge teams and budgets competing for the same key term, so you’re not realistically going to make an impact.

Conversely, you may request to target a keyword, but we find there are only 10 people a month searching for it – is that still good value for us to keep chasing it at the expense of other terms for which there are larger search numbers? 

A lack of keyword understanding can also be seen in paid search advertising. For solicitors, the term clinical negligence, for example, can cost £50 per click as it’s incredibly competitive. Ensure you’re prepared (or your agency prepares you) for the reality of your search situation.

Consider stating an advertising spend you’re comfortable with. Similarly, consider the balance between advertising spend and your agency service spend. If you’ve got a £20k budget, of which £19,900 is going on advertising costs, you’re not going to get very much service from your agency.

Long-term planning

When considering search marketing, we typically talk in retainers, or long-term projects. When we cost them we average out the groundwork costs, things like site audits, technical configurations, keyword research etc., across the period of the retainer.

This is pretty standard in many agencies, but if you’re considering a short-term or one-off project, ensure your budget allows for set up time and groundwork costs, which may be itemised beyond the regular delivery of the project.

Know your limits

As with external factors, be aware of any inherent limitations to your requests or channel. In addition to challenges with low volume keywords, also consider your current situation.

Requesting remarketing activity when you only achieve 50 visits a day to the site, for example, isn’t going to work, as the time it will take to build up a user list would be huge. Similarly, remember that SEO as an activity can take 6 months’ worth of hard work before you start seeing any returns.

It’s worth referring back to your objectives when discussing choice of channel. If you need instant results, then SEO probably isn’t the route for you.

Make use of your assets

What does your current technology do? Consider whether we can integrate our campaigns with your current set up. Can we access your analytics platforms, can we add tracking codes or UTMs easily, and without having to go through multiple parties to do it?. Can we export your data cleanly for Google Shopping?

All of these are doable by us as an agency, but again, consider whether your budget will allow for these integrations and tracking to be implemented, or if you need to prep them in-house first.


Finally, how do you want to be informed about how your campaign has worked? We typically create PDF reports on a monthly basis covering a range of KPIs, but if you prefer a dashboard, let us know and we’ll see what we can do. Or, if you prefer to manage your own analytics, that’s also not a problem. We can usually refine the reporting process so that you get what you need out of it at the end.

After your briefing

So, you’ve had an initial chemistry meeting, you’ve prepared a killer brief – now what?

Question, questions, questions

First things first, anticipate some questions. As marketers, we’re an inquisitive bunch and there’s bound to be something that we really want to know. Don’t be frightened by this, but ensure that as and when questions are asked, the response is added to your briefing document for future reference.

Double-check the delivery

When you’ve got to the point where you’ve been quoted by and appointed an agency, ensure that the delivery plan meets your expectations and is in line with your brief.

It may well be that we just got it wrong, but as with interpretation, ensure that the brief is not missing something and it doesn’t need any form of amending. This is likely your last chance before the project kicks off to ensure you are both on the same page!

Expect the unexpected

Once you get going, keep referring to the brief as your guiding document, but be prepared to adapt. With our retained digital marketing clients, we work within an adaptive strategy, meaning that if we identify opportunities, or low performing channels, that we can switch between channels or tactics to ensure the best ROI is achieved.

In more rigidly defined campaigns, there is still room for adaptability. When running a PPC campaign, we may note that if you spend an extra £500 that you could easily increase your income by £20k, then it becomes a no-brainer. Again, ensure this is recorded in a v2 of your briefing document.

Lend us your expertise

We don’t expect to become experts in your industry overnight, so be prepared to get involved. Ensure provision for technical advice is available, as we will likely need to ask you a number of questions. A tour of your HQ may be useful, or an introduction to different team members can provide a richer picture. Remember, your expertise is invaluable to us!

Honesty is the best policy

We aim to build a lasting partnership, and therefore we appreciate honesty, as it serves all better. If something is not right in month 1, don’t wait until month 3 to raise it. There may well be no issues, but we appreciate our clients questioning what we’re doing as it not only keeps us on our toes, but talking you through it also builds trust and rapport.


If you need help with on your project, our team of digital specialists in on hand with advice – come meet us to get the conversation started.

How can we help?