The Dangers Of Narrow Briefing

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The dangers of narrow briefing

Some large SEO Agencies like Marplan and AGB are now setting up subsidiaries to cater specially for firms requiring this "fieldwork only" service. But for firms without the same internal research resources, the problem arises of how tightly to brief the agency. How detailed should the brief be, and how narrowly tied down to what the commissioning company sees as actionable? The danger here is that by insisting on too narrow a brief, the company could lose the benefit of an agency's outside view of the firm's own definition of its problems. A problem can often seem specific only because a company has not thought about it in a different way.

The recent emphasis on an "action-oriented philosophy" carries with it the danger that only those problems will be researched on which the company feels that decisions can be taken. But this is to assume that the alternatives between which a choice has to be made are fixed in advance of the research, rather than illuminated or even altered in the light of its findings. The danger to be avoided is that action-oriented research can be much easier to set up the more trivial it is, while the more fundamental questions may not convert so easily and directly into obviously actionable terms. For example, a company which, after a takeover, finds itself marketing a product in a blue package in the north of the country and in a red one in the south, might think it obvious and straightforward to settle by simple consumer surveys which of the two is most effective for national use. An agency might suggest, however, that the most appropriate subject for research was the total packaging policy of the company. Again, the border between actionable and non-actionable research is something that will vary with the overall activities and strategy of the firm, thus reinforcing the need for close co-operation with the agency over time.

"Anyway," asks Alan Hedges, "what are non-actionable data? Sometimes it may mean that the person making the statement has a low opinion of his own ability to act. But other people can be stimulated by anything. Most research doesn't make life easier, it makes it more difficult." The brief; he thinks, should stimulate the research people, clarify the problem, and specify any predetermined limits for the conclusion. Within those limits, if the research company more or less writes its own brief, the client is then getting a valuable input from the agency, which it would not get with a narrower brief.

Eileen Cole makes a similar point. "At the briefing stage, you must have standards which the client is going to operate to; courses of action he will take, and might take if certain results are achieved." The agency can then clearly point out if those standards have been reached or not, whatever else it may turn up in the course of the research. The agency should also recommend whatever else it thinks necessary, so long as the facts and the interpretation are kept separate.

When the final brief is in the agency's hands, it can go off and prepare a detailed proposal. This is in fact a specification of the research to be undertaken. It should be agreed to by both sides, and is an opportunity to confirm that there are no potentially disastrous misunderstandings between client and agency. If management has not taken the researchers sufficiently into its confidence, or if the researchers have failed to enquire deeply into the purposes for which the research is required, the resulting mis-understandings may come to light only when it is too late. A typical and widely repeated example of this is the manufacturer who demanded information on "market shares" of his product, when in fact what he wanted to know was the quantities of the product he could sell at given price levels; a totally different piece of research. It is particularly important, especially where highly technical products or overseas markets are involved, that there should be dear and mutually accepted definitions of customer types, product groups, and geographical areas.

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