How to write a website brief that agencies will thank you for. With Sophie Ballinger

In this Skip the Queue podcast episode, I speak with Sophie Ballinger, Communication and Digital Content Manager at Eureka! The National Children’s Museum



Sophie Ballinger is a Communications Specialist with a background of 10 years working in the NHS and universities, before hopping across to the charity sector in 2008. She’s a skilled communicator with a playful, creative outlook (on both life and work).

She joined Eureka! The National Children’s Museum in September 2011 to develop their digital communications and press, having previously been Communications Development Officer at CDX (a national community development charity) and Communications & Social Media Officer at NAVCA (a national umbrella organisation for the third sector).

In 2014 she was one of two people that set up #MuseumHour – a weekly Twitter discussion (which she co-ran for two years) and regularly volunteer to help groups and organisations develop their communications.

On brief writing: “It’s like writing a good job description. You put the things in there that you absolutely need and the things that are absolutely necessary. Being vague just to see what’s out there doesn’t really benefit anyone.”

What will you learn from this podcast?

  • The website tendering process
  • All the things you need to include to make a perfect website brief
  • Should you do ‘open tenders’ or research your agencies
  • Crochet beards and a merkin – I kid you not

To listen to the full podcast, search Skip The Queue on iTunes, Google Podcasts and Spotify to subscribe. You can find links to every episode and more at www.rubbercheese.com/podcast.

You can also read the full transcript below.

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The interview

Your host, Kelly Molson

Our guest, Sophie Ballinger


Kelly Molson: Aye up, duck.

Sophie Ballinger: Aye up, duck.

Kelly Molson: Oh, I’m so excited. I’ve got the lovely Sophie Ballinger in here today from Eureka! Museum.

Sophie Ballinger: My official title-

Kelly Molson: Yes. Eureka! The National Children’s Museum. We are going to talk all things how to write a website brief that agencies will thank you for. But first, it’s the icebreaker questions time. All right. Weirdest thing you’ve ever won a prize for?

Sophie Ballinger: Oh. I got given a tiny, little trophy for the best social media response, and it was a visitor to Eureka! one very busy February half term who compared it to the fall of Saigon in ’76. I just replied, “You weren’t there, man.” That was quite weird, I think.

Kelly Molson: That is excellent. I have to say, your social media feed is excellent.

Sophie Ballinger: Well, thank you.

Kelly Molson: You have a good Twitter chat, which I like. What is your favourite smell and why?

Sophie Ballinger: I could be really corny and say my daughter’s head. I love the smell of creosote.

Kelly Molson: What?

Sophie Ballinger: I love the smell of creosote. I think it’s an association with my nan, who I loved to bits. Absolutely adored my nan. In order to go into her house, you had to go past a fence, which she creosoted religiously every couple years. I think that’s the association, but I don’t know. I love the smell of creosote.

Kelly Molson: Wow. Nanas and creosote, it’s quite an unusual combo, right? I thought you were going to say Werther’s Originals from my nana. Nope, creosote. To be fair, tarmac is the same for me because my dad was a tarmacker years ago. He used to tarmac kids’ playgrounds.

So every time I smell the tarmac, it always reminds me of my dad because he used to come home stinking of it. Okay. What’s your unpopular opinion?

Sophie Ballinger: See, I’ve really struggled with this. This is a relatively recent one that’s just doing my head in, and it’s why and how are Coldplay still a thing?

Kelly Molson: Oh, I’ve got someone that would 100% agree with you on this.

Sophie Ballinger: It’s just doing my head in. I didn’t even realise they were still a thing until relatively recently. I’ve got an eight-year-old daughter who has discovered Radio 1, and I haven’t really listened to Radio 1 for years. I remember seeing Coldplay playing Glastonbury on the tele.

I wasn’t there. We’re probably talking late ’90s, I guess ’99, around then, I think, “You know, maybe they’ve got something interesting.” Then I got really bored of them really quickly, and I wasn’t aware that they were still a thing all this time.

Then suddenly, every time I look at the BBC website, the other day there was a story about them going on tour. They’re doing an eco-friendly world tour where people dancing on the floor charges. Now they’ve done a single with BTS.

Kelly Molson: I know. They’re current now. That’s why they’ve done it, right?

Sophie Ballinger: I know, but why? They’ve got teenage children. Their kids must be mortified. They’re the same age as me. It’s like me doing a collaboration with Doja Cat or something.

Kelly Molson: This is my favourite unpopular opinion ever.

Sophie Ballinger: Yeah. Why? How?

Kelly Molson: Why is Coldplay a thing?

Sophie Ballinger: Explain it to me.

Kelly Molson: Also, Chris Martin does dance like a nana as well if you ever watch.

Sophie Ballinger: Yes.

Kelly Molson: Excellent. All right, well. I mean, I look forward to the tweets about this. Tell me what you think.

Sophie Ballinger: If someone can explain it and if someone can tell me who it is that’s buying their records, put them down.

Kelly Molson: The wrath of Sophie. All right, great. Thank you for sharing that.

Sophie Ballinger: I feel lighter for it.

Kelly Molson: Right. So a few months ago I was on a mutual friend’s podcast. I was on Alex Holliman’s podcast, the Choosing an Agency podcast. He asked me, “What is the best brief that you’ve ever received,” like website brief. I said, “It was the brief that we got from Eureka! The National Children’s Museum, because it was excellent.” And I went into great detail as to why. I thought it would be really interesting to have a chat with you about that tender process that you went through and why I think that your brief is excellent or was excellent.

We actually wrote a blog, which is up on our website. It’s called How to write a website brief that agencies will thank you for, which is the same title as this podcast. We detail in it all of the things that we would love to see as an agency from a brief, and it’s things like really understanding your company profile, your project goals and objectives, target audience, what’s up with the current website, really what you want from your new website, competitors, schedule, budget, what that selection process and the feedback is going to look like.

There’s quite a lot to it. Probably some more things that we could add to that now. But I thought, “Yeah, let’s have a chat about the tender process to start with,” and then we can go through in detail why I feel like your brief is superb. That sound good?

Sophie Ballinger: Yep.

Kelly Molson: The way that we got involved in the Eureka! brief, it wasn’t direct. It was a bit of a weird one. I think it was back in March 2016, you’d actually put out an invitation to tender for the new Eureka! website. It was an open tender, wasn’t it? It went out.

Sophie Ballinger: Yeah. We did an expression of interest. We didn’t put it on any kind of special tendering sites. The team just put an expression of interest out on all of our social media channels, anyone that wants to get the tender once it was ready. We got, it was I think 100 or 101 expressions of interest. Rubber Cheese wasn’t one of those agencies.

Kelly Molson: No. We were the 102nd one. We were 102 then.

Sophie Ballinger: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: Okay. We found out about it through another agency. A really good friend of mine, Eddie, he was at Hat Trick Media at the time. He’d done a photo shoot with you years before.

Sophie Ballinger: Yeah. His partner and children were… Oh no, and him. I’ve got pictures of him with a laundry basket under him.

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Sophie Ballinger: Yeah. They were the start of our Play 20 campaign and website randomly.

Kelly Molson: Random. I think he got the tender or he’d seen it somehow. Then it wasn’t for him, and he called us and was like, “Guys, this is a tender for you. I’m going to introduce you to Sophie. I really feel like you should go for this.” We saw it and went, “Uh, yeah. Defo.” That was how we got involved. So yes, we were like the 102nd person or agency that got in touch. Wow. How do you even manage that? At that point, were you thinking, “Maybe an open invitation was not the best of ideas”?

Sophie Ballinger: Well, we had done just open tenders before. I think from the previous one we had really, really good response to, but we hadn’t been anywhere near as open with that. I mean that was the bit of learning that I took from doing the open tender previously was that actually there were lots of people that just weren’t able to do it.

The reason Eddie couldn’t go for it was because one of the things I did specify in it was that I wanted the CMS, content management system, to be open source. And the CMS that they work with wasn’t, but they said, “Look, we can’t go for this, but we know someone who’d be brill for it.” That was when they put it through to you.

But again, had we not specified that in the brief, they would’ve wasted their time doing a submission for it, and they would never have got the gig, basically. That was actually one of those things, it was a learning curve from the previous time we’d done it.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. So 102 submissions of interest. What did that look like? Because I know what we went through, so we got in touch with you. We got the brief late, so there was timeframes in it that you wanted a response for. We got this a lot later than everyone else. You very kindly actually gave us an extension so that we could come up and visit you, really get a good feel for Eureka. Actually, you gifted us some time to talk to you as well.

But what I really liked about the brief, and this is one of the things that I think is key about a brief, is you said, “I’m happy to answer questions. I’m happy to schedule time to speak to people.” That is quite a rare thing sometimes with a brief is that, especially with very formal ones that go out on the formal tender platforms that I can rant about all day long.

You don’t often get the opportunity to actually meet somebody in person or even grab a phone call to talk through the project and talk through the brief. But if you had 102 interests, how many people did you meet and speak to?

Sophie Ballinger: Well, the actual submissions, I think we got, oh gosh, 38. I did meet a lot of them, not all of them. But for me, first of all, when I’ve gone through tender processes previously I’ve often had my eyes pretty tied on them anyway. So I might be working public sector or other institutions where you are told what you can and can’t say, and they’re really strict on it. I’ve brought that approach across to Eureka!, and my Director at the time, that was how he viewed it. Whereas this time around, I just said, “But why?”

For me, the relationship and my ability to get on with the people I’m going to be working with and vice-versa, they might spend some time with me and never want to see me ever again, but that is a key part of an effective working relationship with an agency. So I did say, in fact, my boss then, who’s my boss now, Michelle, was on here before, wasn’t she?

Kelly Molson: Yes.

Sophie Ballinger: She was just, “Go for it.” I said, “It will take a lot of time and I probably will have to spend a lot of time going and meeting people, explaining the museum. But I really want them to understand us.” I want them to understand me. I want to see if we get on. Want to get some kind of feel for whether I think they get us, and a big part of that actually which you and Paul were brilliant at is I want to see if they’re going to come into the museum and interact with stuff and have a go and throw themselves into it.

Can’t remember how many people I met with. I basically say, “If you want to come, I’ll give you some tickets and I’ll give you some time.” Everyone that took us up on that, I blocked out an hour to spend with them. It did take up a hell of a lot of time, a hell of a lot of time, but for me it was absolutely invaluable, absolutely invaluable. You just get a sense about people’s creativity, just whether they get us or not.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. I love that. Actually, I would say from our perspective as an agency, it’s a really generous thing to do. Because we want to see how the relationship is as well from our side, but also, there’s something really important about visiting the place that you’re pitching to do work for. I think that’s a necessity. Yeah, having the generosity to give agencies that time is really, really important. You’re asking them to commit an awful lot of time in putting a proposal together.

I mean when we pulled this proposal together, it was not a, “Oh, we’ll just knock something out in a day and it’ll be done.” There was a lot of time and effort that goes into it, so I think it’s really respectful to give the agency that initial time to ask those questions.

Sophie Ballinger: I was going to say, it’s the least we can do. Yeah. We’re expecting agencies to do or we’re hoping they’re going to put a decent amount of time in and thought. Yeah, as you say, it’s respectful. It’s good manners.

Kelly Molson: Fast forward to the chosen agency, which was us. Thank you very much. We obviously enjoyed your company and didn’t want to sack you off as a client, which is good. Another thing that was really good about the process is you communicated really clearly.

Well, you communicated really clearly up front what was going to happen, what the evaluation process was going to look like, how long it was going to take, how many agencies you were going to shortlist to, and then actually what you were going to ask of them over the next stage as well. Because sometimes that’s a bit loose, we’re not sure.

I’ll be honest, you did ask for creative for the next stage. So you shortlisted down and the next stage was meeting the agency with the team that were going to be making those decisions. This is always a really controversial thing in a brief is to ask for creative, but you did it in a way that, again, I think was really respectful of the agency and their time, is that you actually offered to pay for the creative. That for us, we very rarely do creatives as part of a tender process because I think that if you haven’t had that chance to speak to the client and that team…

You know our process. You know it’s really collaborative. We’re going to ask a lot of questions. There’s a lot of research and stuff that goes into that before you come up with the creatives for it. It’s very hard to pitch something that you’re never going to like what we pitch. It’s going to be impossible. It’d be like one in a million if we pitched something in this process that you went, “Oh, yeah. That’s it. We’ll have that one.” The fact that you offered to pay for the time for people to do that, again, brilliant. That was a massive tick for us.

Sophie Ballinger: I’ll be really honest about that. Again, the previous brief that we’d done, which was I guess four or five years before, we asked for creative and we didn’t pay for it. We had a similar level of interest and we got one agency that contacted us and said, “Nah, we don’t do creative.” That was it. This time around, actually initially we asked for creative and we weren’t giving a payment. We got within hours people saying to us, “We’re not so sure about that. We’re not very happy with that.”

Of course, there were agencies that were fine and probably would’ve gone ahead with it, but for me, I guess partly because my background, I went to art school and did all that stuff. And it’s like, actually, I know how much goes into the creative process and it just absolutely resonated with me straightaway. It was really interesting the huge sea change in the space of a few years from people just sucking it up and doing it to actually raising concerns.

I think it was literally within about 24 hours of us sending that information out, we’d backtracked on it and we re-enhanced the budget. Actually, we knew as well that that budget wasn’t enough realistically to cover the time that an agency would want to put into that creative work. It was all that we could afford.

But apart from anything else, as you said, it just felt respectful. I have been involved in tender processes before at other places, I’ll say very clearly, where there hasn’t been a respectful attitude to that work as far as even with just the intellectual property of it. It’s like, “Ooh, we like that idea, and can we squeeze that into there?” It’s never sat right with me.

Sophie Ballinger: I’ve also been involved in tender processes where I’m aware that agencies are being seen and they’re not going to get the gig, again, for whatever reason. I mean we’ll come onto budget. I’ve been involved in ones where the budget that an agency’s quoted is far beyond the budget that we had available, so they were never going to get it but bosses at the time were kind of curious to see what more they’d get for the money. I’m sitting there looking at how much work they’ve done, and it just feels wrong.

Yeah. Again, I’ll be really honest. It came back in a huge wave of people just going, “I really want to go for this brief, but I’m not comfortable with that element of it.” So we changed it and I was relieved and actually really, it made me even more enthusiastic for the project that we were doing. I liked the fact that straightaway the people that we were working with weren’t afraid to voice a potentially unpopular opinion.

Yeah, it was fundamental for me. I’m really glad it happened and I’m really glad to say that it’s something that Eureka! has adopted subsequently for any tender that we do that has a creative element.

We did one recently for a digital marketing agency based in Liverpool where we’re putting a second site next year. We asked for creative for that and we made that payment as part of that as well.

Kelly Molson: Oh, that’s excellent.

Sophie Ballinger: Yeah. We have adopted that for policy now. I don’t see it very often. I do see it every now and then. Would love to see it more.

Kelly Molson: I would love to see it more. But I just think, yeah, like you say, it’s that level of… It’s respecting the time that goes into it. I think that was really a bit of a game changer for us. Okay, let’s talk about the brief. Let’s talk about why it was so good.

The first thing, we’ve talked about this, is that you let people talk to you. That was the best thing about this. You let people talk to you. You let people come to visit, and you met with them. Massively time consuming on your part, but awesome for everybody involved and really important from your perspective in terms of how that relationship’s going to be, what those people are like.

It’s really interesting that you said about interacting with the venue as well. I hadn’t thought about that. That just was an actual thing that we did because it’s awesome, but yeah, I hadn’t thought about that you’d be looking for that, necessarily.

Sophie Ballinger: Yeah. I love taking people on tours of the place. I get quite a good read on them just from that. Yeah, it’s interesting.

Kelly Molson: Okay. The second thing that really stood out for us about the brief was the tone of voice, the way that it was written. Let’s face it, web briefs can be a little bit dry. You’re talking about content management systems. You’re talking about functionality and things it needs and payment processing and all that kind of stuff. However, you made this brief really fun. You wrote it in Eureka’s tone of voice, and it was excellent.

I’m going to read out a bit here. I’ll probably read it wrong, but in an ideal world, we’d love families to look at our website, let out an audible, “Wow!” And then think, “I’ve got to go there.” And potential funders to gasp but be inspired to support our work, “There must be a way.” For our part, we’re absolutely, positively, definitely, completely unwavering in our determination to be a little less loquacious. I don’t even know if I pronounced that right.

Sophie Ballinger: Loquacious.

Kelly Molson: Loquacious, sorry. I did not pronounce it right. Loquacious. We mean we won’t be so wordy, promise. Just even that, I mean apart from the fact that I can’t read properly, I mean that sums up the tone of the brief, right? It was just lovely to read. Yeah, we really got a feel for what it would potentially be like working with you and with your organisation just from the tone of voice of that. Did you get any help with this? I think you did, didn’t you? Was there a workshop that you went on?

Sophie Ballinger: Not with the tone of voice element of it, although I felt really inspired by it. I went to Aalia Walker, who at the time, she was with the SMACK agency. She’s with Milk & More now, I think. She had done a workshop at a Kids in Museums event that I went to, and it was about the briefing process, what the perfect brief would be. It fired me up. The timing was perfect because it was just before I started working on this brief.

She was just talking about why can’t you tell us what the budget is? Why can’t you be open about this? Why can’t you just tell us what the challenges are? Tell us some things you don’t know and the things that you don’t know that you don’t know. It’s just, be really open and A, you’re more likely to find an agency that’s on your wavelength. And that inspired me to… I’d done quite a lot of work at Eureka! generally, since I joined it, and I’ve been there 10 years last month.

Kelly Molson: Wowsers.

Sophie Ballinger: My Eureka! birthday. I mean, I’d been there a few years at that point and they hadn’t had a digital person. They hadn’t really got a tone of voice for their external communications. They very much did in the museum, very much did in the museum. You talked to the staff, they are chatty and confident and friendly and funny and human.

And they’ll admit if they don’t know something, and then they’ll go and find out for you. They’re really a bit geeky about little… They have little snippets of information, and everyone has their own talents. We absolutely try and encourage those because it’s what makes a visit to Eureka! memorable for me.

I couldn’t quite understand why you get into it and it’s very human and conversational as soon as you walk through the doors, but externally, it wasn’t particularly human and it wasn’t particularly conversational. Obviously, initially with social media channels, that made absolute sense. But that started to filter through to the other content and the other copy.

Actually, one of the big things that we knew about the website is we tied ourselves in knots trying to explain what a children’s museum is. We’re not a science and discovery centre, we’re not a museum where everything’s in cabinets or there’s a historical collection or a collection of some nature. We’re not a collections-based museum. It’s an interactive space designed with kids, for kids. On previous websites, we again were tying ourselves in knots trying to explain that and it’s like, “Well, let’s just show them.”

I mean, that was one of the challenges that went into the brief was how can we show this, but a key part of that as well is that tone of voice filtering through. Again, it was a conscious decision to do it in that way because for me, if you don’t get it, you don’t respond to that tone of voice, we don’t particularly want to work with you anyway. We know that people will have looked at that brief, cringed and never wanted to go back to it ever again. I mean, I can’t think who and obviously they’re philistines. But yeah, it was an important bit for us.

Again, I will say, because I sat down with it and I just started writing the brief I’d always wanted to write and expected it to go up to my director and them to go, “What?” But they loved it and encouraged it. Yeah, it was absolutely inspired, a fire was lit under me by Aalia. I did run it past her as well before we sent it out. I just said, “Look, you’ve inspired me to do this. Can you have a look at this and tell me what you think?” She had a look at it and was just…

Kelly Molson: Excellent.

A big shout out to Aalia, and Lubna from SMACK agency. I know that agency very well and they are superb. Okay, next thing. You defined the feeling of the brand really, really well. The tone of voice, that set our tone of voice because we knew how we’d have to communicate with you. I can remember writing our brief. You know us, we’re quite chill. We’re quite laid-back about… Just the way that we speak is quite friendly and it allowed us to be a bit friendlier in our response. Do you know-

So you get us as well. That was really great, but I think that the way that you defined the feeling of the brand was really incredible. So we could really understand what it was all about without necessarily… Sometimes it’s difficult to describe what Eureka! is, but describing that feeling of it, that really gave us a sense of, “Oh yeah, we really want to work with this organisation. This is for us.”

The other thing was that there was a challenge in this brief. The website brief was the website that needed redesigning. It wasn’t performing particularly well. There were some things that were challenging. There were things that people were potentially not understanding about the museum. But you also had this kind of challenge that, actually, it wasn’t necessarily a digital challenge.

It was a, look, we’ve got this issue with people having to queue, and if they want their annual pass, they’re going to have to queue again when they get here. So then they’ve got this double queuing situation. They’re just basically just getting really pissed off and what can we do about it?

That was great. To have an open ended, “Well, here’s the brief for the thing that we really need, but actually, we’ve got this problem as well. What do you think you can do?” We were like, “Ooh. Well, this is good, isn’t it?” It was really open like, “What do you think that we could do about this?” This was like, oh, great. This is a real challenge for us to think about. That was awesome.

Sophie Ballinger: Yeah. I was just trying to find a way to write, help!

Kelly Molson: Help, but constructively. Help me. Then you actually carried out some internal testing as well, which was really useful.

Sophie Ballinger: Yeah. And fascinating. I wish I had time to do it constantly. Yeah. Obviously, I dived face first into Google Analytics and had a look at where the traffic was and actually where we wanted it to be, so there’s that element of it. But we also did some really intensive qualitative stuff with some user testing, and it was stuff I’ve done previously in the university sector. Tends to be on a much bigger scale, but with this, we spent a day.

We had six people who were our audience, including… we found some teachers. We tried to identify people, all but one of them, who weren’t aware of Eureka!, hadn’t visited us. Then we had someone that knew us really intimately as well. That sounds a bit rude. And spent a day. So we gave them a number of tests. I sat with them. I was just mostly observing.

The agency we were working with at the time, Reading Room, they run the actual process for us. We just gave them a number of tasks and asked people to vocalise what they were doing and where are you looking for, what search terms are you using.

This is a website you want to find out about this and watch people trying to do it. Within I think the first two people, there were some huge things. We had, for example, really a low conversion rate on the book tickets page. I forget what the conversion rate was, but we knew it was low and we thought it was really weird.

Really quickly, it’s because that was the quickest way for people to find out how much it costs. So they’re not actually necessarily going to go and book that way, but they’re struggling to find prices elsewhere. That’s what the vast majority of people wanted to know. It was how much, where are you, are you open now, when are you open? That was the bulk of it.

We also knew we had a lot of other audiences. One of the other ones that we did, I sat with a teacher and went through. The way we had the school information, there wasn’t enough information for her. She needed really quiet details, downloadable things that she could print off for her class. She needed lengthy information about what the curriculum links were. She’s one of the rare web visitors who wants lots and lots and lots of information, lots of wordy information. Whereas, of course, the vast majority of people, how much, are you open?

It was really, really, really useful. Again, it was time consuming because we were coming up with, planning what the scripts were and what we wanted to do before, but absolutely worth it, invaluable, invaluable insights that we got from people.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. And really helpful for us as well. Because we do our own testing, but yeah, having that outside of you is always better than just our own internal kind of opinions about something. Going back to what you said at the beginning around Eddie and not being able to take the project on because he didn’t work with an open-source CMS, that was really important as well, the fact that you defined what…

You didn’t define the platform. I know you were familiar with WordPress, so there was maybe a bias toward it, but you just defined what you needed from the CMS. That was really great for us as well because we could understand if we worked in a platform that was actually going to fit what you needed. That was quite great, so there was a lot of specification around the things that you really needed to have as well.

You defined what you needed for the project and we’ll talk about budget in a bit. But you defined exactly what you really needed and then some things that you might like to have, but you were realistic that some of those things that you might like to have might be outside of that budget as well, which was really good.

There was a must have and then a like to have list. Sometimes you don’t get that. Sometimes in a brief you get, this is everything that we want and this is the budget for it. And you have to go, “Whoa, okay. Well, look, we might need to strip some of these things out and think about them as a phase two.”

That’s another thing as well is that when we talked to you, it was really clear that you could take a phased approach as well. I think that comes out of being able to speak to somebody about what’s the real need here, what’s the necessity. What do we need to launch with, and then what are things that maybe potentially come later and how does that affect what you’re doing?

Sophie Ballinger: Yeah. I’m always really aware of fake deadlines. We pluck a date out of thin air and we’re going to work towards that. With a project as big as this with so many different elements, I knew, I mean we were coming up to our 25th birthday, so we couldn’t move that. There were elements of it that had to be ready for that and then others that actually it’s not the end of the world if we don’t. If we can deliver more for then, great.

But yeah, it’s something about being really clear because if people don’t know the fixed parameters that you’ve got, then they’re going to rule themselves out the minute they’ve done a submission for it. It’s not fair asking someone to do all that work if they can’t… It’s like writing a good job description. You put the things in there that you absolutely need and the things that are absolutely necessary. Being vague just to see what’s out there doesn’t really benefit anyone. It was really important for me, so we knew there were some things here that are deal breakers. So let’s be really upfront about that.

Then there are some other things that, like the example you gave with some of the features, we didn’t know how much they cost. We thought we’d quite like that, but can you do that within the brief? Actually, we’re not going to discount you if you say, “Well, that’s not something that you could afford within that brief, but for the sake of a bit more money… ” We were just really open about that and receptive to the answers that we got, which were pretty consistent on that particular element, to be honest.

Yeah. I’ve seen a few briefs recently where it’s really vague. To me, that’s just a waste of everyone’s time. Because the submissions that you read, again, I’ll go back to the previous tender process and I don’t know how long I spent reading responses. You read them through and like, “This is really good.” And then you get to an element and it’s like, “Ugh. Well, they can’t do it.” Actually, it’s wasted their time and it’s wasted mine, not anywhere near as much as mine potentially. Yeah, it’s the more open you can be, the more efficient you can be for everyone’s sake.

Kelly Molson: Absolutely. Let’s talk about timeframes and budget. Because again, with this brief it was a really realistic timeframe, and I think that’s important. We see a lot of briefs that come in and you’ll look at the timeframe and then you’ll think, “Okay. Well, by the time we’ve submitted and they’ve reviewed and they’ve chosen, actually that leaves about eight weeks for this project. And that’s nowhere near enough.” Then when you push back, they’re like, “No, no, no. That’s the deadline. That’s it. It’s not moving.”

I check sometimes. I have a tendency to keep either briefs that we haven’t won or briefs that we’ve decided, for whatever reason, we’re not a good fit for. We can’t achieve that deadline. We’ve had the discussion and they’re like, “No, it’s not going to move.” Then I check. I set a little diary reminder to go, “I’m going to go and check to see if that website went live then.” And they never do. They never do.

Sophie Ballinger: They never do.

Kelly Molson: I always think, “Well, look. Yeah, be realistic about it.” If most agencies are coming back to you going, “This isn’t achievable. This is maybe achievable. Is there any wiggle room on this deadline?” It’s not an achievable timeframe, so definitely have a little word with yourself about that.

But also, budget. There was a budget indicated in this brief. I cannot express how important it is to have a budget, and I think there’s still that perception that it’s because agencies are going to go to the top of it. It’s not about that. Genuinely, really is not about that.

It is about what can we deliver for you that is going to work for your budget and for your timeframe and all of the things that you need. An effect on the CMS, for example, that we use, or it might have an effect on what level of testing we can do or how much time we can spend on wireframes or how many meetings we have. It has an effect on every single part of that project.

We might have just the most incredible idea and we can pitch it to you, but then we’ve got to work out how we make that idea happen with the budget that you’ve got. If we know upfront, we can do all that before we speak to you rather than actually going, “Oh my God, you could have this amazing thing,” and then finding out that your budget is 5K and then we’re going, “Oh, you can’t have that now. There’s no way we could do that for you now.” It’s so vital for us, but I want to stress how much it isn’t about us going, “We’re going to go to the top end of that.”

Sophie Ballinger: Which I do get and I hear that a lot, the fear that if we say, “We’ve got 15 grand,” then everyone’s going to say, “Well, we can do this for 15 grand,” whether it’s going to cost them two or 30. Again, going back to a previous tender process I was involved in that didn’t have a budget on it, obviously, everyone received the exact same brief and I think on this particular instance we got about 14 or 15 responses to it.

Hand on heart, the bottom one was 4K and the top one, I’m sure it went up to 160 or 180 responding to the same brief. So of course, they were just straight out because we have nowhere near that much money. That was one of the processes where they interviewed someone that had quoted for higher than the budget that we had just to see what the difference was, which just felt really unfair to me.

There’s something fundamentally wrong with that brief if you’ve got such a difference in it, but that’s always really stayed with me. Because I do remember getting this eight-page 4K submission versus this, I think it was, 160, 180. Again, it just felt unfair and like a waste of their time.

Kelly Molson: That’s crazy. Totally going to put my prices up now.

Sophie Ballinger: I did say, “What kind of website are we getting?”

Kelly Molson: Gold plated.

Sophie Ballinger: Gold plated, or we figured maybe there was some kind of reenactment that went to people’s houses and started reading content for them. Yeah, it was nuts.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. But then that just shows you why it’s really important to put something in there. And don’t get me wrong, we will always push back. If we don’t feel the budget is enough, we definitely push back. But we’ve also been like, “Yeah, this is a great budget. We could do everything that you need with this and probably have some left over as well.” Okay, clear feedback.

Oh, this is another thing that happens loads and I don’t know how to solve it. Whenever we get a brief and it isn’t as perfect as this one, there’s always loads of questions that we ask regardless of what brief comes over. And one of the questions is, if we don’t win this, can we get feedback? Actually, if we do win, can we have feedback as well? Because even if you win it, there might still be stuff that you’ve not done as brilliantly as someone else that’s proposed. It’s just on the day you swung it or whatever, something made you win it. You got on well with that person, I don’t know.

Either way, you really, really need feedback and partly because there’s so much time that goes into putting a tender submission together, it would be really great to get some feedback. Because if that’s all we’re going to get, at least we can then… There’s something constructive that’s come out of it.

We can improve for the next one. We can understand why we didn’t win it or what we could’ve done to win it, what we could’ve done better. Even when I ask, I would say 60% of the time, maybe 70% of the time we don’t get feedback.

Sophie Ballinger: That often?

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Sophie Ballinger: That really surprises me.

Kelly Molson: It’s really frustrating and I really push as well. I don’t let it go. I will send multiple emails. If there’s a phone number, I will be ringing you. There is a few things. I think it is quite hard to give constructive feedback. And if you’re not very good at it, you shy away from it. I think that people are uncomfortable about delivering bad news a lot of the time, but we’re really thick skinned and we really need it.

We really need to understand what we did wrong. Maybe it wasn’t anything wrong. Maybe it was just someone just absolutely nailed it. And yeah, if in another circumstance, we would’ve won it with what we delivered, but actually these guys blew it out of the water.

But if we don’t know, you just have this feeling of, “Oh, I just feel really sad.” I’m kind of used to it now and I am really thick skinned, but it’s a bit demoralising to the team. They need to know why we didn’t win that. Because we’re all excited about it, the whole team is invested in a brief when it comes in.

And we’re all invested in really wanting to work with that company or we wouldn’t put the effort in to put in that tender submission together. It has sometimes a quite negative effect on the agency when they don’t get the feedback. Not that they don’t win. We all know we can’t win everything, but it’s about not understanding what is really hard.

Sophie Ballinger: I guess as well and for people that don’t work in agencies and don’t go through that process, it’s trying to explain to them that you go for a job interview. You get called back for a second interview and you do a task as part of that. You work on a big presentation. Then you don’t get the job and you never hear anything from them ever again. Yeah, of course, yeah get invested in it. If that keeps happening to you over and over again, of course, it’s going to start to knock your confidence or start to, as you say, it can be really quite disheartening.

Again, I’m a big gobsmacked by it because it’s something that we, and it’s not just me, I’m not going to say I’m an angel on it, but the ethos at work and the people that I work with at Eureka!, it’s really important to us. For example, with the tender process you were involved in, we did feedback.

For all the people that were shortlisted, we do feedback in a spreadsheet on every single one so that we could offer feedback. Realistically, we couldn’t necessarily have a conversation with everyone that had submitted, but what we did say is, “We will give you written feedback if you want it.” Sometimes they don’t. And for anyone that came to the actual doing creative stage, we would have a conversation with them.

I had a phone conversation, I think, with everyone that pitched. I should say sometimes it’s not necessarily going to be that constructive. In fact, to me, I’d say it was a closer thing, but this was one of those, not to blow smoke up your behind, but this is one of those where we just said, “Actually, this agency just blew everyone out of the water.”

It was quite difficult because one of the agencies that had pitched for it was an agency that we’d been working with, so it wasn’t an easy conversation. But I respect it enough to try and be honest about what was going on. It’s fair. As I say, I know that that’s just not me. I think I’ve been influenced by the people I work with and probably vice-versa, but we know how important it is.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. Very important and really appreciated from our perspective as well.

Sophie Ballinger: Yeah. It can be really painful.

Kelly Molson: Actually, one of the questions that we often ask, I don’t always want to know and I didn’t in this circumstance, but sometimes it’s nice to know what agencies we’re up against. With this process, it’s slightly different because I think we knew it was an open tender. I mean, we had no idea that you were going to get up to 40 submissions. That was mad. But when you get shortlisted to go through to the next stage, it’s often quite nice to know who you’re up against. You were open to telling us, but I actually said I didn’t want to know for this one.

Sophie Ballinger: Yeah. We asked all the agencies because I think one or two of them had asked. We asked the agencies if they were happy for other people to know they were involved if they wanted to know. I think, did you say you were happy for other people to know but you didn’t want to? I can’t remember now.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. I didn’t want the pressure. I think we really wanted to win it so much that I didn’t want the pressure of looking at who we were up against and going, “Oh, they’re much bigger than us,” or they’ve got much more experience in that sector, or this, that and that. Their work’s awesome. I just thought, “Don’t know. Just be yourself, go in and do your thing. Don’t know about all those things.”

Sophie Ballinger: Yeah. And have a look afterwards.

Kelly Molson: Oh, I did. Yeah. Yeah, I definitely did afterwards. But what I would say, what’s happened, so recently a few briefs have been sent to us and it’s lovely. What’s really nice is that we’re chosen for people to send a brief to. More and more so we’ll receive a brief and they’ll say, “Look, we’ve chosen four agencies that we’ve sent this out to.”

Some will say, “We’ve sent this out to 10 agencies,” and I think that’s too many, personally. But it’s nice that you’ve been chosen as one of those four agencies, and in those circumstances, I do always ask who the other agencies are. I don’t always get told, but I do always ask because I think for us, it’s a way of gaging, do we think that we’re actually in with a chance of winning this?

I think that’s a really honest thing to say is that we will not go for every brief that lands on our desk because, honestly, some of them we just don’t think that we’re going to win. It might be because there’s an existing relationship with an agency that’s on that list that it’s gone out to and we don’t understand why you would want to change from that.

There might be potentially some research that’s been carried about by an agency and the research has been included in that brief. And you’re like, “Why would you get them to do the research? You must have a good relationship with them to do that. If you’re not going to give them this, why don’t you just go to them like, is everyone just wasting their time?” Do you know what I mean?

Sophie Ballinger: Yeah, yeah.

Kelly Molson: It’s really honest, but sometimes that happens. I think sometimes we go, “Okay. Well, what work have we got scheduled in?” And we have to be really realistic and say, “We are really busy right now. What time can we dedicate to this pitch? What time can we dedicate to putting this tender document together?” If we don’t think that we’ve got enough time to do it justice, we’ll also say, “We don’t think that the timing’s right for us to be able to do this.” I think sometimes knowing who you’re up against is important. In this circumstance, I felt it was going to be a distraction rather than something useful.

Sophie Ballinger: Yeah, yeah.

Kelly Molson: Okay. Your brief essentially covered all of the points that we go through with what is a great brief. I’ve talked about this at the start and I will link to our blog post in the show notes for this episode, but essentially, we’re looking for a really detailed company profile and doing that in a way that it really showcases what it’s going to be like to work for that brand. So that tone of voice is so hugely important in that essence.

We need to know what the project goals and objectives are, and we really need to be able to ask you questions about that as well. If you’re putting a brief together, think about how much time you’ve got to dedicate to this process because being able to speak to the person that’s wrote this brief and ask them questions for an agency is absolutely vital. You are going to get a much better response if you allow that to happen.

We need to know about your audience. If there’s been any persona work done, that’s always helpful. Where the current website has failings that we can’t see that we don’t know about. What the new website needs to deliver and really be specific about if there’s a content management system that you are totally wedded to, we need to know about that upfront because it might not be one that we use.

I put competitors on this list, but I think from an attractions perspective, I mean obviously you’ve got competitors, but it’s more about what space do you sit in and what are you and where do you sit into that kind of ecosystem. A schedule of timelines and that’s not just for the project, that’s for the process of potentially winning this project might look like. Budget, big thumbs up for putting a budget in there.

Then actually, the feedback and selection process. I think some of the best briefs we’ve ever had, it’s specified what that’s going to look like as well and so we know if there’s going to be an expectation of creative. And we’re going to bring you and say, “Hey, we don’t do that,” or, “Do you really need to see a creative at this point? Because I don’t think it’s going to work, and maybe we should look at stuff that we’ve done previously. Will that work?”

Sophie Ballinger: Can I make a quick point about creative, actually?

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Sophie Ballinger: I was thinking about this because different people respond to creative in different ways. Something that I thought was really interesting in this process, because I absolutely take the point in the process as well where it’s like, well, you can not get a job because you’ve done something in green and they didn’t like green. It’s like, “I could’ve made it blue or purple or whatever,” and you can lose it. There are people who could take creative too literally. I think that’s a real issue and that’s why I can see why people don’t like creative, the amount of work that goes into it aside.

If you were doing the process from my side of it as the client, it’s understanding that creative is changeable. Yeah, as you say, it’s not going to be the final thing. But also, because what I would say with the creative is that when Rubber Cheese presented, actually the end website is very different, very different from the creative that was in the pitch. That didn’t matter. The thing that particularly me and Michelle Emerson, my director, look out for is the process that took you there, the walk that you went on to get there and how you respond to us pointing out elements that wouldn’t work for our brand.

It’d be wonderful if you came in and at your first attempt it was absolutely nailed it, but we also understand that it’s an iterative process. Anyway. I think that is really important if you are asking for creative, it’s understanding that you’ve given someone one bash at your brief. I have worked with people who take that creative very literally and don’t understand that it’s just an example. For me, it’s really useful to see someone’s design ethic, their approach to it, the creative process, the feedback process, how open they are to it.

The pitch that I was involved with yourself, I think it was the longest one that we had and there was a really long discussion between everyone that was involved in that pitch that was prompted by the creative. That’s really telling for me.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. I can remember it felt quite brutal. I’m not going to lie.

Sophie Ballinger: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: I mean, I like pitching and it was great. I felt like it went well, but we left going, “I don’t know if they actually liked what we delivered because they really went in on us on it.” There was a lot of picking it apart, and I was thinking, “Well, this was just supposed to be a creative. It was never going to be the final ka-bang.” Yeah, it was interesting to see the discussions that it sparked, and I guess that’s part of the process as well, isn’t it?

Sophie Ballinger: Yeah. But don’t ditch something because you didn’t like green.

Kelly Molson: I mean, that’s a life lesson there, isn’t it?

Sophie Ballinger: I like green very much.

Kelly Molson: Same. Can I ask, and it might be that this is just the way the organisation does things, but would you do it again in the same way? Would you have an open tender? Because I guess you then had to spend time reading 38 submissions. That’s a hell of a lot of time to then get them down to five, so the timeframes would’ve been… Because if it’s an open tender, you never know how many you’re going to get, right? So you might have got five, but actually, you got nearly 40 and you’ve got to distil that down.

Sophie Ballinger: Yeah. Could’ve had 102.

Kelly Molson: Wow.

Sophie Ballinger: Short answer, no. Again, it’s interesting. Because that process went so well, we adopted the same for a number of other briefs. We did a number of open tenders on, the next example that my team was directly involved was a PR agency brief. We would not do that again. That sounded really negative. It was still a really good experience, but it was too much, I think.

Kelly Molson: What would you do?

Sophie Ballinger: I think obviously I haven’t done another web tender since then because we still have a relationship with Rubber Cheese and we’re very happy where we are.

Kelly Molson: Why would you need to? Oh, the horror.

Sophie Ballinger: Why would we ever need to? It’s really interesting. When we have done briefs for other stuff, so creative design agencies for, obviously, we’re opening our second site, a science and discovery centre. We’ve been going through the process quite a lot there, and we have identified agencies and we’ve done quite a lot of our homework. We’ve gone out to a number of them to invite them to pitch for it or tender for it initially.

It’s really weird because, of course, then you end up everyone knows each other. So with Mersey we aren’t based in Liverpool so we don’t know a lot of agencies there. So we went to partners that we’re working with on that development and asked them who they’d work with, who they’d recommend.

On the one hand, you lose the wildcard element of it, but then, on the other hand, it can be faster, a hell of a lot faster and a lot less time consuming. It’s really weird because I’m also aware of the fact that had we not done an open tender, then we wouldn’t be working with Rubber Cheese now.

Kelly Molson: I know. It’s a really tricky one, isn’t it?

Sophie Ballinger: Yeah. But it hasn’t worked for us. I mean, it may be one of those that case by case. There might be other briefs that come up and actually, we know that we should just go for it. We did do an open one. We worked with Playmaker Studios, who basically are over in Liverpool, to develop our brand for Eureka Science and Discovery Centre. Was that an open one? Yeah, we did an open one for that. We promoted it on social, but we did also send it to people.

Kelly Molson: Oh, okay. So you did a bit of both.

Sophie Ballinger: Bit of both. Again, that worked out really well for us and who knows whether we would’ve ended up working with them if we did it differently. But yeah, it’s a funny one. I really don’t know. What’s your take on it from the agency perspective?

Kelly Molson: It’s really difficult. Actually, in the podcast I mentioned at the beginning of the interview, the Alex Holliman Choosing an Agency podcast, I did state in that podcast that I like it when the organisation has done their own homework and they ask you, so they know who that tender’s going out to. Because honestly, I just think it saves a lot of time for everyone. I just can’t imagine how long it would’ve taken to read through 38 submissions.

Sophie Ballinger: A long time.

Kelly Molson: So long, because I remember how long our submission was as well. From a time perspective, and I think fewer agencies, the better. Again, it’s from a selfish perspective. When you’re one of 10 agencies that it’s gone out to, does it really need to go to 10? Do you really need 10 submissions? I think four, five max is about right.

But then on the other hand, like you say, in this circumstance if Eddie hadn’t sent this brief to us, we would never have been working with you. So there is something to be said for having it a little bit open. I like that mixed approach that you took. I still think I’d sway towards doing the research and sending it to a handful.

Sophie Ballinger: Yeah. I think generally, that’s what we do for the most part now, but I wouldn’t be closed to the idea depending on the brief and depending on the project as well. I mean in all honesty with the PR one, I mean we benefited greatly.

You can imagine PR and reputation management agencies, we got so many things sent to us. Every day we were walking into the office and there was a new kind of mystery box with a crown in or one that had a knitted beard in it. I mean, it was just really random stuff. It was kind of fun, but it was so much time and so much effort that was being put into it and money.

When we’ve been looking beyond that, we haven’t repeated that because, again, it didn’t feel fair and it took a hell of a lot of time. Actually, out of web agencies that wanted it, I met with a lot of them. PR agencies, just so many of them wanted to come. It wasn’t me that had to spend time with them. It was my colleague, Ruth Saxton. But it was so time consuming for her. It was insane. So many things around that. Yeah, I don’t know.

There probably are briefs that I would say, go for it. And if you don’t know really what you want, it’s that being honest. If you’re very specific about where you want to be with it and you have a vision in your head and you want it to be very comparable to this competitor or that competitor, but maybe you do try and look for source agencies or find examples that do that for you.

But actually, when it’s a brief of that nature, when it’s like, “Look, these are the problems we’ve got. We don’t really know what we want. Otherwise, we could just go find someone and get them to do it for us. We want creativity, innovation, help, support, a relationship. We want this.” We didn’t know where to turn for it, so I think it was right for that one.

Kelly Molson: Thank you. I really appreciate you talking through this with us today. Two last questions for you. Actually, three questions. What happened to the fake knitted beard? I hope that you kept it. Second question-

Sophie Ballinger: It could-

Kelly Molson: Second question on that, is that better than the fake fringe that I once sent you? I think not.

Sophie Ballinger: No.

Kelly Molson: I think not.

Sophie Ballinger: Nothing. Do you know that I’m in the process of moving and that fringe has appeared again recently? But even better than that, I think my mum was babysitting and she found it and was just…

Kelly Molson: What is this? A fake fringe, everyone needs one.

Sophie Ballinger: Obviously.

Kelly Molson: To explain, listeners, I wasn’t sure whether to have a fringe cut at what point, so I bought a fake fringe that I could wear to see… I didn’t wear it out. I just wore it around the office to see if I looked okay with a fringe. There’s nothing weird about that at all.

Sophie Ballinger: It doesn’t look like a merkin at all to the untrained eye.

Kelly Molson: I’m so glad that you said that and not me. Okay. Final question.

Sophie Ballinger: You horrified my mother.

Kelly Molson: Wow. On that note, final-

Sophie Ballinger: What was the question?

Kelly Molson: Final question for you. No, final question, a book that you would like to recommend to us?

Sophie Ballinger: A book? Oh, The Beard, circling back, came home with me and I may or may not have put it on my baby daughter several times and taken a photograph. Book, I’m even prepared for this. I’ve got, look. I’ve got it here.

Kelly Molson: Ah, ooh.

Sophie Ballinger: I was going to be really geeky and do a workbook that’s really good for people that work in content, and I decided not to do that. I love books, but I’ll be really honest. Particularly since I’ve had a child, I’ve struggled. If you go downstairs, I’ve got a bit of a show-offy book collection. There’s lots of Russian literature and when I had a brain that could process all this stuff. I can’t do it anymore. Anyway, this guy is a chap called Craig Clevenger, and this is his first novel, The Contortionist’s Handbook.

Kelly Molson: Oh.

Sophie Ballinger: The reason I’ve done this one is I reread it a couple of times. I don’t tend to reread books very often. I love them, but I very rarely reread them. This one I inhaled. It’s about a chap who fakes his own identity and goes in cycles, and he rebuilds his identity each time. It’s him trying to get out of a very difficult situation, so it’s kind of a thriller.

I just loved it and I love the fact it felt like, you know when you discover a new author? It was recommended to me by a member of staff in, I think it was, Waterstones in Derby. I just bought it on the off chance, and it’s a debut novel. He’s written a couple of others since. He works in a library in Texas.

I might’ve spoken to him, and he might’ve sent me a copy of his second book. Yeah, so I wanted a bit of a pay it forward as well. I’ve also got, this is the paperback copy that I bought at the time. So if anyone wants it, if they tweet me, the first person to tweet me, I’ll post a copy of it out to them.

Kelly Molson: Oh. Well, I was going to give it away as a prize. Totally ruined my prize giving, but whatever.

Sophie Ballinger: Oh, sorry. But this is the copy that I got given in Waterstones in Derby. Oh, I’ve obviously lent it to someone else as well because I’ve got a little, it says, “Enjoy.” Enjoy, S.

Kelly Molson: Oh. Well, leave that in there. Okay. I’ll tell you what, let’s do it properly. If you want to win Sophie’s book, head over to our Twitter account and you retweet this episode announcement with the comment, “I want Sophie’s book”, you can win it. I will make sure that she sends it out to you.

Sophie Ballinger: I will do, with the, “Enjoy.”

Kelly Molson: Thank you for coming on. It’s been a delight to chat with you. I am going to see if I can get the word loquacious into a conversation today. Hey, I said it right. Woo-hoo! Yeah, thank you for coming on and sharing with us, Sophie.

Sophie Ballinger: Pleasure.


Do you know someone we should be talking to?

Do you know someone fascinating we should be talking to?

If so, email us at hello@rubbercheese.com – we’ll get back to you shortly.

Paul Wright.
Kelly Molson Managing Director

Host of the popular Skip the Queue Podcast, for people working in or working with visitor attractions, she regularly delivers workshops and presentations on the sector at various national conferences and universities including The Visitor Attractions Conference, ASVA and Anglia Ruskin University.

Read more about me

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