The best briefs are anything but...

I'm not talking about pants 🩳

In the contract I give to new clients, I typically have a maximum of revisions for any written content. I learned this lesson the hard way. Ever-changing briefs found me over-servicing clients after they changed their mind for the 100th time about what exactly it was that they wanted me to do.

If I can’t nail what the client wants within two revisions (or three if it’s a new industry to me), then it’s probably the brief that’s wrong -not me.

It’s not me, it’s you

Assertiveness is an ongoing battle for me as a business owner, and this is one area that I am hoping to improve in 2021. To be honest, this year has been a nightmare for scope creep. Projects have grown into massive beasts in front of my very eyes and often I haven’t had the balls to tell the client that they need to cough up or move out.

During peak-lockdown, I took part in a pivotal programme from RTC North led by Ross Golightly, where we talked about so many fascinating topics, including pricing and managing the scoop of projects.

For me, the best way to tackle overservicing, underselling and scope creep is nailing the brief. It’s not foolproof, but it gives you the evidence and clout you need to tackle the conversations head-on before it all gets too much.

We’ve all been there - a client approaches you for work, you are excited and give a quote for the project and the client might haggle a bit before agreeing and you get started. But with some jobs, you kick-off the project and realise there is so much more to do than initially agreed. Without a clear and concise brief, you risk promising the world and struggling to deliver.

So, what makes a good brief?

It’s not just your client’s responsibility to provide the brief, you often need to dive deep with the right questions to find out exactly what they are trying to achieve.

Find out what they actually need from you

The client might come to you for a whole new website, but only really need content optimisation or new landing pages. Equally, they might expect “a couple of blog posts” to transform their content strategy and miraculously sell their products. By understanding their wider business goals, you will be able to determine how exactly your service can help them - or refer them to someone with more experience in that realm.

Set expectations

If you are in the marketing industry, then you will know the importance of setting expectations from the outset. An effective marketing strategy is often a slow burn, and a content-driven approach will not yield instant results. Make this clear from the outset with the client.

Share your skillset (and the love)

When I first went freelance, I’d take pretty much any job with a marketing spin. From copywriting and website work to social media management and PR, I’d do it all. I read somewhere how you should never say “no” to work in your first year of business (shit advice, by the way) and I ended up burnt out and doing jobs I hated.

Now I approach clients with an open and honest introduction about what we do (and what we don’t). Rather than trying to do it all myself, I have built relationships with freelancers who are experts in their field and if a client asks me for something I don’t do, I send them their way instead of muddling on in the hope of a paycheck.

Be on the same page

When writing a proposal to meet a brief, or trying to decipher a brief in the first place, be sure to share (and save) a detailed list of what is expected from you, and what you expect from them to deliver the project.

“2 days per month at £xx day rate” is not good enough

What do you intend to do with this time? And what is included in the cost? Make that clear from day one. You should aim to price on outputs, not inputs (cheers Ross for that one!)

So, next time you start working with a new client, make sure you can answer these questions before getting started:

  • What is your client trying to achieve? And how can you help them get there?

  • What is included in your price? And what is not?

  • How long do you expect the relationship to last? If it’s an ongoing retainer, can you identify key milestones where you will review the work and cost?

  • What does success look like for this job?

Hopefully, this will help you to dodge some of the biggest pitfalls and make working with contractors/clients as streamline (and successful) as possible.

In your opinion, what makes a good brief? Let me know over on Twitter @ContentByTheSea.


🖌🎨 I’ve been making my own Christmas cards! Such a fun way to unwind after a day spent stressing about shitty briefs and overservicing clients (lol).

🏃‍♀️💨 I ran my fastest 5k so far last week after starting Couch to 5k during lockdown. I might have actually found an exercise activity I like…

🎤 Louis Theroux’s podcast Grounded is back with a bang, his first guest is the amazing Michaela Cole and the episode is everything you could expect and more from a conversation between two absolute geniuses. I highly, highly recommend.

And plenty of other days spent walking the wagonways with the dogs and falling down random YouTube rabbit holes.

That’s all from me this week. If you liked this newsletter, then please feel free to forward to a client who gave you a shit brief or a fellow freelancer who needs a pick-me-up!

See you next Wednesday for more chat about running a business, mental health and the bits in-between.

Ellen x


Enjoyed this? You might like these past issues:

25 November: Welcome to the busy-ness Olympics

18 November: Too many cooks spoil the brother (and the marketing campaign)

11 November: Everything is different now, so why are you trying to live like before?

4 November: Lockdown Part II: Here's my manifesto 📜

28 October: Why business owners don't talk about depression

21 October: How to actually stick to something (and why it’s okay if you don’t)

14 October: Meet the bosses who shaped me

6 October: Running a business when you're sensitive AF

30 September - Let them eat lockdown layer cake 🍰