Richard Williams: why the big Brexit issue is a dodgy brief

I’m not saying I have any tips for Theresa May as she tries to get her Brexit deal through Parliament, but I do recognise some of the challenges she faces: a dodgy brief and too many people with a say in the sign off.

The best outcomes only happen when you’ve got a client who is clear about what they want, has hired the right agency to deliver it, and has the power to implement it.

At the moment Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, has the complete trust of the EU and is fully empowered to make decisions on behalf of member states. The trouble is that the person selling to him, Theresa May (below), has no such mandate.

Photo: Sky News

I feel sorry for her. She has an anarchic bunch of people behind her, none of whom can agree on what she should be selling. Frankly her job is impossible, particularly when irresponsible, mostly male, ministers keep flouncing out of the cabinet.

If she were captaining a football team, most of her players would be playing the wrong way. Some would be kicking the ball off the pitch or fouling their own side. Boris Johnson would be under the impression he was captain and Jacob Rees-Mogg would be the goal keeper, but his butler would actually be in goal.

However, it’s a mistake to think business is any better than politics; a lot of time and money gets wasted in private industry too.

I know it’s not the future of the country, but many years ago we worked on a relaunch of a famous cake brand, which took about two years to get through. We were working for the self-styled ‘Cake Liberation Army’ aka the brand team, who wanted to free their beloved brand from the inflexibility of their conservative corporate bosses, who, unbeknown to us, were keen to sell the business and didn’t want the boat rocking.

The Cake Liberation Army knew exactly what they wanted – a radical piece of branding that would have customers chuckling so much that they’d fall back in love with their brand. As usual, we came up with an idea of utter brilliance that the brand team backed completely, but things were somewhat frosty with the bosses. Endless shuttle diplomacy became the order of the day. The truth was that those right at the top of the business didn’t agree with the brief that they had rubber stamped.

Eventually our work did go to market, courtesy of the brilliant tactics of the Cake Liberation Army and it did very well…for about three months when a new boss from Mars (the chocolate company, although we did wonder..) was appointed. He hated our work, in spite of it growing sales by a third. He wanted a big logo. Unsurprising when you’ve been brought up on Mars bars.

By then we were out of the picture, but it had taken far too long to get the thing to market and, whilst our work was absolutely the right answer, politics got in the way. Ring any bells?

I guess that’s our version of Brexit. Painful for an agency, but at least it’s only cakes.

Theresa May is trying to capture the opinions of hundreds of MPs, many of whom disagree and trying to flog some kind of botched idea to the EU, who are botching it up even further just because they can and who can blame them?

My heart sinks when clients, who have a difficult project to manage, involve ‘the wider team’. It never goes anywhere. The combination of all those different opinions and different axes to grind will never approve anything any good. If you’re lucky, you end up with the least worst answer.

You’ve got to know exactly what you’re setting out to do. With Brexit there was never was a brief beyond ‘get us out’ which, once Gina Miller & Co. got stuck in, was nowhere near clear enough. You simply can’t fix a complex problem when your brief keeps changing, no matter how creative you are.

Mrs May didn’t get the chance to ask the country the kind of questions that we might ask a client: in what way do you want to leave the EU? What does leaving the EU mean to you? Is it about cutting back on immigration? Is it about making our own laws? Is it about sovereignty or do you just dislike the French?

If Theresa May had a proper brief, she might have stood a chance, but Brexit was never going to be a piece of cake was it?

Richard Williams is a founding partner of brand consultancy Williams Murray Hamm.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.

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