What is the single common thing that drives every social media strategy? A belief in the power of word of mouth? People? Measurable objectives? Facebook?

Nope. It's the brief. Whether created by a planner or a marketer, whether served to an agency or an internal team, the brief is the genesis of any social media activity, whether that's a short-term campaign or ongoing community management. And if you're not achieving your anticipated results, the culprit – underneath all the cultural resistance, resource issues and problematic metrics – is probably that original brief.

There's a great meme currently doing the rounds on Twitter, called 'client brief vs. client budget'. It consists of two images. The first, labelled 'client brief,' shows a still from the movie The Life Of Pi, with Pi standing defiantly on the prow of his boat while the CGI tiger Richard Parker roars in the foreground. The second, labelled 'client budget', shows a scruffy Indian boy in a makeshift costume posing behind a grumpy ginger cat. It has provoked glee – and homemade spin-offs – from thousands of creatives around the world. It has also, no doubt, secretly enraged thousands of planners too.

Every business in the world has more ambition than resource. Surely it's the job of a creative team to turn constraints into opportunities? Surely the culprit of social media is the response to the brief and its subsequent execution, not the brief itself? Inevitably, it's a bit of both; but too many campaigns are doomed, in full knowledge, from the start. Client and agency alike are all too used to accepting that every potential cash cow must be turned into a camel; designed by committee, but likely to spit out the basic metrics required to keep us all afloat. How do we stop settling for 'close enough?'

Let's take ourselves back to exam time at school. What makes a good exam question? Geared towards getting the best out of its students, it is driven by hope, not cynicism. It is specific enough so that students understand what they are being tested on, but not so prescriptive so that it precludes individuality or originality of thought. It is crystal clear on practical constraints – word count, time limit, format, number of examples – but, as to the spirit and technicalities of the solution, the examiner is open to being surprised. In fact, the examiner, 50 camels on, is desperate to be surprised. But the examiner also knows what good feels like. Even if the topic sits outside their specialist subject area, they have the experience and confidence to distinguish esoteric bullshit from left-field brilliance.

What makes a good answer? We all know that the first commandment of exams is to interrogate the question. The question, you see, is not the question. The question simply points to a whole host of more real and complex questions buried beneath those words on the page.

Here are some of the most common 'iceberg questions' buried beneath social media briefs. How will this answer stop me from losing my job? How can we convince the CEO that this isn't a waste of time? How can we make our service better so that people don't talk so negatively? Why should anyone be enthusiastic about this product when none of us even like it?

By interrogating the question, you also interrogate objectives and assumptions. Does your team value this enough to put in the necessary resource? Is your CEO willing for everyone else to have a public opinion? Will 20,000 Facebook fans really make any difference to your bottom line?

When you've surfaced the real questions, it's time to find some answers. At their core, you need one big, over-arching emotional idea: a story based on what your target audience really wants. This is your argument. Around this core argument you then create a number of more practical answers, known as tactics; these should be specific, surprising and scalable, offering a number of different entry points. And don't forget to show your workings; explain the insights that led you to your conclusion.

Finally, add something bold and disruptive. The thing you'd love to do, even though they probably won't. Stretch the muscle of their minds so that even if they reject the idea, they're that bit more loosened up.

Whether you're creating a brief or responding to one, I'd encourage you to spend twice as long as you normally do exploring those words on the page. You might not end up with a tiger, but you'll have so much more than a grumpy cat.

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Admap. Click here for subscription information.