Why I teach

I am both an adjunct college English instructor and a faculty member of the Association of National Advertisers’ School of Marketing. The first is about teaching young adults, the second about teaching marketing professionals, from junior to senior levels. Both require that I make a real connection. Truthfully, I don’t always know if or when that happens.

Today’s essay is lifted from the syllabus I created for all my English classes at Glendale College in Los Angeles, which you can see here dated from 2014. I took advantage of my experience in the advertising business to design something unexpected.

I teach to inspire curiosity.

To provoke it, instill it, awaken it, even re-awaken it. Curiosity is the engine of inquiry, a catalyst of self-awareness, the train-whistle-in-the-dead-of-night that calls you irresistibly to a new adventure. NightTrainsRGB-1160x823

It seems impossible, to me, to be a student of any kind and lack a basic curiosity about the world around you. When I meet someone who appears to care about nothing in particular, I ask myself, “How did this happen?” It is as if this person had lost a limb. Something is missing. Ignite curiosity, give it breathing room and the tools to thrive, and you have given birth to a life-long learner.

Everything begins with a question.

Ask me a question, and I will challenge you to answer it yourself. An answer you offer I will question. Certainties you lay at my feet I will kick away with skepticism. Doubts you raise I will help you explore. My objective is to show you how to hone more penetrating questions, fuel sharper examination, generate deeper understanding.

Wait…this is a writing class? Precisely. Clear writing begins with clear thinking. In my class, you will discover that the Socratic Method drives everything we do, from one-on-one conferences to writing and homework assignments, from group work to class discussions, which I call Socratic Seminars. Even reading assignments couple questions about content with questions about how you read the content. You will be challenged to think about how you think so that you begin to think more clearly about everything. Socrates_Louvre

Not so curiously, you may find yourself in unfamiliar territory, reading authors whose ideas seem foreign, perhaps radically different from your own. You may encounter subject material that challenges long-held beliefs. That is the essence of the college experience. Get used to it.

Every question is welcome. Silence is not. I encourage you to take risks, be courageous, stretch yourself.

I have an unshakeable belief that each student in every class I teach has the capacity to grow and improve.

That means you.

An excerpt from How To Write A Killer Single-Minded Proposition

The following is from the Introduction of the forthcoming book, How To Write A Killer Single-Minded Proposition

“You need a whole book to explain how to write one sentence?” a family member asked me. He was clueless about what I do for a living, but don’t blame him.MrMonocle

The answer, in a word, is “Yes.”

I was just as surprised as he was. I say that without an ounce of irony or sarcasm. To illustrate this point, I reviewed the Word deck for my first book, How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief, a text that takes readers through the process of writing the advertising document of which a single-minded proposition (SMP) is but one part. That text runs to over 18,000 words. The text for this book — parsing just one sentence — comes in at just under 16,000 words. I’m certain I could have written more.

If it were so easy to write this one sentence, everyone would be doing it, as the saying goes, and you wouldn’t need this or any similar book. You might say that everyone is doing it and doing it poorly. I will amend that to say people attempt to write this one sentence, but they struggle.

I made two discoveries as I wrote: First, I reconnected with colleagues, some of whom I hadn’t spoken to in almost 20 years, and I was happily surprised at their ingenuity and imagination. No two answers to the questions I put to them are alike. That speaks to the almost countless avenues into the writing of this beasty little line. It also reveals the amount of energy this line requires of the professionals who spend so much time attempting to write a good one.

Second, these conversations, bits and pieces of which are sprinkled throughout the text, confirm a need to focus on the basics, which this book lays out for you to review, consider, challenge and add to. More than anything, I want to start a conversation about the SMP in particular, and generally the Creative Brief itself.basics-alphabet-blocks-web

Not everyone uses the term “single-minded proposition” or, for that matter, believes in it. This fact lays out the path this book will take. Section I addresses the status quo, what’s generally practiced and accepted about this one box on the Creative Brief. I will take you through five elements of the brief and examine how each one influences the writing of the single-minded proposition: communication objectives, product benefits, insights, brand personality and target audience. These elements reside in one phrasing or another on most Creative Briefs.

Section II examines new perspectives regarding the SMP’s effect on the brief (new to many, but not all). Here I explore the writing and thinking of two people: Paul Feldwick and Lance Saunders. I have met and worked with Saunders. I know Feldwick only by reputation and the book and articles he authored. Their ideas, many would argue, are already at work in our industry.

Who are they?

Paul Feldwick is a consultant, a brilliant account planner, and a protégé of Stanley Pollitt, one of the founding fathers of account planning, the discipline from which Creative Briefs emerged. His book The Anatomy of Humbug: How To Think Differently About Advertising is an enlightening and compelling argument for alternatives to proposition-based advertising.

Lance Saunders is a friend and my mentor when I began studying the Creative Brief seriously, in 2007. When I met him he was director of strategic planning at Campbell Mithun in Minneapolis. Today, he is president and chief operating officer at DDB Canada. Saunders proposes that we focus our energies on an ownable emotion.

There are others, I am sure, who echo the ideas presented by these professionals. These two, however, succinctly challenge us to higher standards of truth and authenticity, and therefore better Creative Briefs that inspire better creative work.

What follows are the ideas I think about when I read creative briefs. These are the questions I ask. This is the information I want. This is what turns over in my head.

As an educator, I pay attention to the things students ignore, overlook, forget. I know that students, in general, don’t do “optional.” I learned that the hard way, probably because I forgot that’s what I “didn’t do” when I was a student myself. So I take those extra steps and explore as many nooks and crannies as I can. I am curious — perhaps the single-most important quality a creative person possesses.

Call me intrepid. Call me obsessive. All writers would be advised to study the guiding principle behind what makes a well-conceived SMP so gratifying when it’s done right: clarity.

It’s such easy advice, and so difficult to achieve.

Expected publication: April 2018 on Amazon and other online book retailers.

Navigate the seven C’s to write an inspiring creative brief.

In my travels this year on behalf of the Association of National Advertisers’ School of Marketing, I’ve met hundreds of dedicated marketing and advertising professionals. They shared with me their challenges, frustrations and successes with the creative brief. If I’ve learned only one thing from these remarkable people—and it’s difficult to reduce to one—it’s this:

You must maintain a sense of humor.

The brief is the most important part of the creative process because it’s the first step, and that makes it hard to write. Very hard. As it should be. So you must learn to have fun, laugh and accept that brief writing is a process.

From California to Virginia, from Miami to San Francisco, from Phoenix to Cleveland, I heard the same basic questions repeatedly:

How do you know what to include and what to leave out?

How do you make the brief clearer?

How do you get everyone to buy in?

How do you write a really good single-minded proposition?

The answers to these questions require the seven “Cs” outlined below. They are my gift to you this holiday season (plus a New Year’s Resolution I urge you to consider. It’ll be easy…I promise!).


Think of the creative brief as an argument. An argument requires evidence to support it. To be a good argument, you must take a stand, a clear position. Preferably, a position that might cause push back.

How can we all find ways to be courageous?

If someone disagrees with you about your argument, you’re in the ball park. If they don’t disagree, you might be in safe territory.

Better to be outside your comfort zone with your brand.

Writing a creative brief requires courage. Ultimately you want everyone to agree with you that you’ve taken the brand assignment in the right direction. Being safe is the wrong pathway. Presenting solid evidence in the form of consumer insights and an authentic emotional reason to believe in the product are better choices. You have to defend your position.


Less is more, especially with a creative brief. You can’t say everything in your advertising communication. Don’t even try to.

Constraint is liberating. Put someone in a box and it fires up the imagination. This isn’t my opinion. This is reality. As a creative, I know how it works.

Constraint begins here, with the creative brief. It means you have to decide what is absolutely the most important claim about your brand. So make it. Then stop. You’re done.


If you don’t have it, find another line of work.

Advertising is about ferreting out what your customer wants and triggering that want with a message that demands…action, a response, a purchase.

I wrote a short essay for my college students explaining why I teach. Here’s a sentence from the opening paragraph:

“Curiosity is the engine of inquiry, a catalyst of self-awareness, the train-whistle-in-the-dead-of-night that calls you irresistibly to a new adventure.” cat-art-print-17-x-17-unframed--[2]-33278-p

The creative brief is the natural repository of your curiosity. Feed both!


We tend to forget that advertising changed dramatically in the 1960s when copywriters and art directors were paired to work together. Two brains. Two uniques perspectives. Two sounding boards.

This principle is now considered best practices in writing creative briefs. The collaboration must include a creative. That means asking for at the very least some comments on a draft creative brief before the briefing takes place.

Creatives have a stake in the process. Include them, always. When the actual briefing begins, there will be no surprises.


I’ve lost track of how many creative briefs I’ve read in my career. The really good ones had something in common:

The are well written. They were composed by someone who understood a sentence. Who could write a narrative, a story with drama and tension. They were composing a concise, cogent argument.

There is no substitute for craft in a creative brief.


There’s never time to do it right. There’s always time to do it over.

You can avoid this maddening reinforcing loop by giving yourself enough time to think. Demand thinking time! watch-time

A quantity you do not have, right? I hear this one, too.

One solution I recommend: Not every project requires its own creative brief. One-offs, special promotions, limited-time offers and projects of this nature can be handled with what I’d call a creative brief “addendum.”

In other words, a paragraph or two of new information to supplement an existing creative brief.

In other words, pick your battles.


I saved this for last.

Clarity is the starting and end point of every creative brief. You’ll know you’ve achieved it when the creatives start to riff on the project in front of you, and you may not even be done with the briefing.

They’ll have questions, of course. Every brief invokes questions. The best briefs always do that.

Clarity means no wasted words. Your argument is sound. Your rationales produce nods of agreement.

So there you have it. My gifts to you for 2017.

Are you still struggling with your briefs? Please consider my request for your New Year’s Resolution. It will make a world of difference:


I’m serious. Professionals always practice. Think LeBron James. Better yet, think Brett Hundley.

Who’s he? The new Green Bay Packers quarterback, the unfortunate guy who had to replace Aaron Rogers when he was injured earlier this season. Boy oh boy does he practice.

Why not you?

Here’s what you can do. Take as little as three minutes a day. No pencil, pen, paper or keyboard required.

On your commute home, identify a brand, any brand. Your car. The phone in your hand. In your head, answer these questions:

What are two brand benefits?

What is the single-minded proposition for this brand?

Who is the ideal consumer? Why?

Do this everyday with any brand. You’re honing a valuable skill. Do this for 30 days in a row, and you’ll have a new habit. Then, the next time you have to write an actual creative brief, you simply click into your muscle memory.

Practice makes creative brief writing easier.

Inspired Creative Brief: The Blog is off in December. I’ll be back in January 2018 with a Sneak Peek of my new book, How To Write A Killer Single-Minded Proposition. Don’t miss it!

Why “I” is better than “we” on a creative brief.

After years of preaching that the creative brief is about the content, not the template, I’m about to commit heresy. I’ve changed my mind. But only a little.

The creative brief template is just a set of questions, sometimes statements, requiring thoughtful responses. Emphasis on the word thoughtful.

Now I think that is not enough. Here’s why: The creative brief is, in the end, for the creatives. It’s meant to inspire them to creative brilliance. That part hasn’t changed.

The creative brief is also meant to be an inspiring document for the entire team to rally around. The “team” could be on the client side or the ad agency side.

But let’s look at the discipline from which the creative brief springs: account planning. At its most basic, account planning speaks for and embodies the consumer. The thoughts, feelings, aspirations, hopes, needs and wants of the human beings who buy the stuff we sell. The creative brief, therefore, addresses what we know about them.

So what if we changed the nature of the template to reflect this reality? I’ve seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of creative brief templates in my career. A tiny fraction do in fact take this approach. The vast majority do not.

What kind of change am I speaking of?

An adaptation, not a wholesale revision. A subtle, but significant, shift in thinking.


We need to introduce, or re-introduce, the first person “I” into the creative brief. I’ve seen plenty of briefs that use “we.” This is not the same thing.

The brief, after all, addresses the customer. The brief talks “to” the creative team, of course, but it’s “for” the customer.

Here are the questions I use on the creative brief template I teach in my workshops.

  1. What is the problem we’re trying to solve?
  2. Why are we communicating?
  3. Who are we talking to?
  4. What’s the background?
  5. What is the single-minded proposition?
  6. What’s the proof that the SMP is true?
  7. What is the key emotional benefit?
  8. What do we want people to feel after seeing the communication?
  9. What is the desired tone and mood?

These are the basics. I exclude things like budget, media, mandatories, copy points, approvals. Those things tend to be straight-forward. These nine questions require thought. (Some of you may wonder about the difference between #7 and #8. There is a big difference. You’ll have to attend my workshop or read my book to understand my thinking).

So what if we made a subtle change from first person plural (we) to first person singular (I)? How would this change the way we think about both the brief and the work it produces?

Let’s try it:

  1. Why are you bothering me with this communication?
  2. Why should I pay attention to this communication?
  3. Show me how well you know me.
  4. What do you know about me that I may not know about myself?
  5. What’s in it for me?
  6. Why should I believe you?
  7. Why is this important to me at a gut level?
  8. How will I feel after I’ve seen this?
  9. What am I supposed to feel about you?

Notice how I connected #8 and #9: they are meant to confirm each other.

In fact, if you look closely, using the singular first person connects many of these questions in a way that the royal “we” does not. It makes the brief feel more intimate. It’s less a brief and more a letter that requires…honesty, authenticity, truth.

Notice as well that #3 is no longer a question. It’s a statement. Actually, it’s a taunt, so it’s question-like. I could have phrased it, “How well do you know me?” But that’s not open-ended.

I like where this leads. I think it shifts our thinking from what “we” want to what our customer wants.2017 customer strends

I’m counting on you to revise and edit this further to suit your particular situation. I’m sure you could hone my questions to make them even better. Whether you adopt these question on your brief or not, I hope they make you think about how you craft this document.

It’s not a form to be filled out. It’s a thinking person’s document.

How to break the first rule of advertising

On July 19, the folks at Faktory, an ad agency in Utah, published a thought-piece on Medium.com. I liked it so much, I posted a link to my LinkedIn page. I still like it. A lot.

The premise is elegant and simple: If you want people to not only remember your communication, but to break what the writer described as the first rule of advertising (“No one looks for your ad”), you must connect with your audience in three ways:

  1. With a truth
  2. With an emotion
  3. With a story


A truth is what I’d call an “insight”: something unique or previously unknown about your consumer, the marketplace, the product category, sometimes a combination of two or more.

An emotion is the deliberate evocation of an authentic feeling. This is what the best of advertising does so well. And so rarely.

And story. This is a narrative, they wrote, that rewards you at the end. They claimed it did not need to be linear. But they added a fourth point that I think was redundant:

Don’t mess [your audience] up by trying to say or do too much.

This is correct. But the good folks at Faktory veer off course just a bit. I think they should stick to three ideas, but enhance one of them. Specifically, point #3: a story with a message.

The definition of “story” after all, is: a narrative that arrives at a point, a resolution, a message. A story without a message isn’t a story at all.

The ads they liked so much—Old Spice #SmellLegendary—are in fact linear stories. Each has a beginning, a middle and an end. They may be absurd, but they are linear, and they have a point. I know this is what Faktory’s writer meant. smell

I have a name for this reward: The single-minded proposition.

Your ad (story) will not resonate if you have too many things to say. But one clear message, driven home within a compelling narrative, makes a memorable, and therefore effective, communication.

That’s why I would argue that the “rule of three” applies: A truth, an emotion, and a story (with a clear message). Do these three things, and you can negate Faktory’s astute “first rule of advertising”: No one goes out of their way to look at advertising.

Because some well-told stories have accomplished the seeming impossible: they’ve gone viral. People not only look for them, they even ask for them by name.

All I’ve done here is nit-pick. I’ve added succinctness to an otherwise strong argument. A story without a point is no story at all. It’s an example of your drunken Uncle Fred at the family dinner rambling on about…well, whatever. He has no point. But he loves the sound of his voice.

Here’s an example in :30. It’s a TV spot for Lexus, called, I’m sad to say, “Turning the Page.” There is no truth. No emotion. No single-minded story. It’s a spoken cliche reinforced with a visual cliche. What we used to derisively call “See–Say” advertising: see it, and because the advertiser believes the audience is stupid, say it, too.

Where do you find the elusive truth? The authentic emotion? The single-minded story?

If you’ve read my essays before, you know the answer: the creative brief.

This is where creatives find the inspiration for Big Ideas like #SmellLegendary and the other examples Faktory’s article highlighted. If you haven’t read the article, read it now. Re-read it. Talk about it. Make certain your creative briefs address each point.

Well done Faktory.


Five truths every creative brief writer must face.

I offer these five truths about the creative brief that will help you take a successful first step of the creative process.

1. Collaborate, especially with creatives. Never write this document by yourself.

How many of you remember Steve Jobs’s Parable of Rocks? It bears repeating. This is Jobs speaking: Steve Jobs

“When I was a young kid there was a widowed man that lived up the street. He was in his eighties. He was a little scary looking. And I got to know him a little bit. I think he may have paid me to mow his lawn or something.

“One day he said to me, ‘Come on into my garage I want to show you something.’ And he pulled out this dusty old rock tumbler. It was a motor and a coffee can and a little band between them. And he said, ‘Come with me.’ We went out into the back and we got some rocks… some regular old ugly rocks. And we put them in the can with a little bit of liquid and little bit of grit powder, and we closed the can up and he turned this motor on and he said, ‘Come back tomorrow.’ This can was making a racket as the stones went around.

“And I came back the next day, and we opened the can. And we took out these amazingly beautiful polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other like this (Jobs clapped his hands), creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful polished rocks. river rocks

“That’s always been in my mind, my metaphor for a team working really hard on something they’re passionate about.

 “It’s that through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together they polish each other and they polish the ideas, and what comes out are these really beautiful stones.”

I know you’re thinking that he’s speaking about creative people: art directors, copywriters, digital folks, graphic artists and others. Maybe.

But think about the principle. Put an account planner, a creative and an account management person in a room together, and have them forge a creative brief as a team. Everyone has a stake. It’s not “You write it, I’ll work from it.” No. It’s a team effort.

Creatives have done this for decades. Creative brief writers should be doing it this way, too.

2. You must make choices. Less is definitely more.

The tendency is to cover your butt. You don’t want to accused of forgetting something. So everything is included. Nothing is excluded. Your brief is not brief.

Not everything matters. You must make decisions. The principle of “Liberating constraint” applies here. Box in your creative team with restrictions, rules, walls, the very things they detest. The result is creative freedom. This is the definition of the creative brief.

The creative brief is not a product encyclopedia. It’s the opening line of a brand poem.

3. Take a stand, and stand by it. You must be courageous.

If the Single-Minded Proposition (or the Core Idea, or the One Thing, or whatever you call it on your brief) does not spark a debate, go back to the drawing board and try again.

When it does spark a debate, relax. You done good. Now defend it.

4. If you’re really a professional, practice.

Gary Player, the South African golf legend, told this story some years ago.

Player was practicing sand shots out of a green-side bunker when a fan stopped by to watch. Player hit shot after shot after shot, each one landing softly on the green and rolling into the cup. After each shot, he heard his fan say the same thing, “That’s just luck!”

Player, clearly annoyed, turned to the man and with a smile on his face, said, “That’s right! The more I practice, the luckier I get!” Gary Player

If the only time you write a creative brief is when you actually have to write a creative brief, you’re doing yourself a disservice. And everyone else on the team.

Imagine if Gary Player hit a sand shot only when his ball actually landed in a bunker. Or if LeBron James shot a free throw only when he was fouled. Imagine if these two sports giants never practiced. You know what would happen. We would never have heard of them. They’d have been failures.

It’s your job to practice writing a brief even when no brief is required. You can do this anytime: On your commute. Waiting in line for coffee. In the dentist’s chair. Think about a product, an everyday item, anything. What is its Single-Minded Proposition? Who would truly use it? What insights can you conjure about this consumer? What are the obstacles to overcome?

These are simple mind exercises you can do at any time. You don’t have to put fingers to a keyboard. But you do have to engage your brain. It’s a muscle like your bicep or hamstring. Use it. Practice.

The point is to develop muscle memory. Do this for 30 days and you have a habit. A professional habit.

5. You have permission to be creative!

The creative brief is the first step in the creative process. I like to quote Sir John Hegarty here: The brief is the first ad. It doesn’t have to be great, but it must be good.

So don’t be shy. You are allowed, encouraged, to offer up creative ideas. I have seen them called “creative starters” on some briefs. They may lead nowhere, but if you leave them out, we’ll never know, will we?

Remember these five truths and you will write better, clearer, more inspiring creative briefs.

Why do you tolerate four or five rounds of creative revisions?

If you claim that you use a creative brief, yet you ask your creative partners to return four or five times—or more—with revised creative work, do you need me to tell you something is wrong with your creative brief?

Can’t you see the obvious?

This is the classic definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting different results. error-code-18

Yet it is a story I hear regularly when I lead workshops on writing the creative brief. It is the most common complaint I hear.

I don’t need to see your creative brief template to know what the problem is. The template is fine. I promise.

Content. The problem lies in your creative brief’s content. You don’t have the right information. Or you have the right information, but it’s buried beneath too much useless, irrelevant information. Or your brief’s content lacks conviction, specificity, clarity. Or all of the above.

The creative brief requires you to put a stake in the ground. It requires you to make choices, to leave out more than you keep. Completing this document requires courage. It is an act of strategic reduction.

It is not a repository of everything you know about your brand. Instead, it is a reliquary of the bold and definitive argument for your brand.

Process. The brief itself may be only part of the reason why there’s a disconnect between a client’s request and delivered creative work. It may also be your creative briefing process. That process breaks down, becomes dysfunctional, if the document does not have advocates from senior management. If the process is not taken seriously, is treated as an afterthought, a necessary evil, you can count on multiple rounds of creative that miss the mark.

A broken creative briefing process is the author of the saying: “There’s never time to do it right. There’s always time to do it over.”

Consider this analogy:

When I played golf a lot, I learned to approach the par-5s backwards. Since I didn’t have the length off the tee to get to a par-5 in two shots, I always planned for a layup. Thus I asked: Where do I want my second shot to be resting? My answer was: about 100 yards from the pin. So if the par-5 were 500 yards, and I wanted my second shot to be sitting at the 400 yard mark, give or take, that meant my drive could be relatively short, say 240 yards. That would leave me with only 160 yards to get to my ideal 100 yard approach shot. (It’s called strategy.)

That is a lot less daunting than trying to boom out a 260 drive followed by a 240 yard approach. On my best day, a “once-in-a-lifetime” series of shots, I might pull that off. I parred a lot of 5s with my less-risky plan. Sometimes, I even birdied.

The point is this: If you don’t have a plan for the time it takes to do your projects, the best creative brief in the world becomes a useless piece of paper. And if the piece of paper doesn’t have the right, agreed upon information, with clear objectives and insights, no schedule will survive it.

To get the best work in the fewest rounds, you must have a plan. You must commit to a creative brief that works within a reproducible creative brief process. The creative brief is Step Number One in the creative process itself.

I would much rather hear a company tell me that they don’t use a creative brief. This, at least, presents an opportunity to inculcate a process that brings all players together around a common purpose: The brand.

When I lead workshops on the creative brief and I see an example of a company’s brief only to discover that it is a rote document with little or no original thinking, no insight, no inspiration, I am not surprised to learn that the creative work falls short. Not occasionally. Not once in a while. Always. Repeatedly.

It usually means a weak or non-existent creative brief process as well. One leads to the other. The two are inter-dependent.

Here, then, is some advice on how to repair or re-invigorate your creative brief and the process you establish:

Think misers. Social scientists tell us that we tend to be miserly when we think. Thinking is hard work, even for the likes of Albert Einstein. So we avoid it when it’s not absolutely necessary.Albert_Einstein_Head

Keep this fact in mind when you approach the creative brief. It is a document, and part of a process, that requires thinking. Serious thinking. The creative brief is part of the creative process, so plan for it. Build enough time into your production schedule so that its writers (more than one) can THINK about it thoroughly.

The creative brief should go through multiple drafts. More thinking! It is not the product of a committee, but rather a dedicated, small group (account, planner, creative), all stakeholders, who weigh in on the effort. One person should do the writing, but the other one or two must be good editors and BS detectors.

In the same way that art directors are paired with copywriters in the creative department, creative briefs should be produced by teams. Who think! Together!

This is current best practices.

No one practices writing the brief. Yeah, it’s a fact. No one writes a brief until they actually have to. Think about that for a second. Imagine if LeBron James didn’t practice a free throw or jump shot until he had to do it in a game.

Uh-huh. We’d have never heard of LeBron James. Like all exceptional athletes, he spends more time practicing than he does playing. He has to. Do you? practice

You can practice writing briefs without a pen, paper or keyboard. You can do it in your head. You may do it without knowing it. Ever watch a TV spot and wonder what they were thinking? Imagine, if you can, what the brand’s most important message is. Did the spot address it? Why or why not? If not, how would you say it? That’s creative brief-writing practice.

It’s also thinking, and this is where the social scientists’ term “think misers” comes from. You watch the spot, don’t get it, or wonder how they arrived at that idea, then stop thinking. It’s too much work. Besides, your show is back, so you can turn off your brain and just take in the entertainment.

Do it differently next time. Actually THINK about why that spot works or doesn’t work.

This is practice. It’s grooving your swing, so to speak. It’s forging creative-brief muscle memory.

Invite senior management to write a creative brief. Do this collaboratively. Loop them in as early as you can. Ask for suggestions. Give them a firm deadline. Move on if they miss it.

Even if you get a C-level exec to participate only once, you’ll remind them of the value of the process, or clue them into it if they’ve never done it before. This is how you acquire new stakeholders. This is how change happens.

Like all processes, they are slow to become instituted and slow to change. But when you recognize a broken process, address it as soon as possible. Your brand deserves it.



To tell an authentic brand story, write an inspired creative brief.

In 1989, I was a copywriter for a small business-to-business advertising agency in Milwaukee.

Two facts stand out about this job. The first is that the shop did not use a creative brief. The document was not part of its day-to-day operations. I fixed that.

The second relates to one of its bigger clients, an American manufacturer of turf equipment, one of whose marketing executives I met on many occasions. This executive used to repeat a phrase I never forgot. He used it every time I, or one of my colleagues, asked this question when we started a new project:

“What’s the one, most important thing we need to say about your product?”

His answer still startles me, almost 30 years later.

“We don’t have just one thing,” he said. “We have a unique package of features.”

Except that no one tells a story about a unique package of features. That’s not how it works.

Storytelling as a tool for advertisers was not on many people’s minds in the late 1980s. A handful of brilliant thinkers, like Steve Jobs, knew better.

The history of storytelling dates to at least cave dwellers who left us drawings on walls that told visual stories. Let’s just say that storytelling is old. lascauxhorsesaurochshd

The creative brief isn’t. But chances are, few people working in advertising today were in the business when the creative brief came into existence. Account planning was born in 1965, and with it the creative brief.

The purpose of the creative brief has remained unchanged since its inception: to give succinct and inspired instructions to an advertiser’s creative partners with the expectation that a sales-driving idea emerges.

In the last 50+ years, the creative brief’s template has changed, but its purpose has not. It remains debatable whether the brief’s credibility and respect match its designed purpose, but that’s another story.

At least three questions that should be on every creative brief provide the impetus for a memorable brand story.

But first, a word of advice:

No brand story can unfold without internal buy-in. An authentic brand story is not manufactured. It does not arise from external (meaning outside the company) sources. It does not answer the questions What? or How? about a brand. It answers Why? Why does the brand exist?

Think about the best brand storytellers and you’ll see why this advice is true. And why it matters.

Here’s my short list:


I’ll let the founders speak. (By the way, I own two pairs. I LOVE ’em!!)

Blue Apron.

I’ve used this product, too, but not currently. This isn’t an endorsement. It’s high praise for the story they tell. Here’s a highlight from their website:

“Our mission is to make incredible home cooking accessible to everyone.”


Every piece of communication from the company reflects this singularly focused message.


I use an electric shaver, but if I didn’t, I’d probably buy Harry’s razors. Why? I’ll let their website speak:

The shaving company that’s fixing shaving
We created Harry’s to be different from the other shaving brands. Unlike the big brands that overdesign and overcharge, we make a high-quality shave that’s made by real guys for real guys.


Each brand’s core message answers the question: Why does this product exist? That’s what the story is built around.

So which questions on the creative brief help creatives arrive at a brand story?

1. What is the Single-Minded Proposition? No matter what you might call it, and it has many names (Unique Selling Proposition, The One Thing, Key Message), this is the heart of any great story.

You’ll know your story is right when you can end it with this line: “And that’s the reason why (single-minded proposition here)…”

Try it with the three brands on my list of brilliant storytellers above. It works.

2. What is an authentic customer insight? If you’re focused on meeting company goals, you can’t successfully address what your customer needs. They come first. Always. A believable story begins and ends with your customer. Your insight should reflect this essential truth.

Arriving at an authentic customer insight does not require gobs of research money. If you know what the Socratic Method is, you have the tools to dive deep into your customers’ thinking to discover and address your their emotional wants and needs.

3. What is the company/product/service background? If you don’t ask this question, you will never understand why the company or product or service came into being. You need to be the equivalent of a brand archeologist. Move beyond features and benefits.

We advertising folk are storytellers. It’s in our DNA to fashion a story on behalf of the brands we are tasked to sell.

The details—the essential elements of your story—are embedded in the creative brief.

Storytelling is about basics. So is the creative brief. It’s the first step in developing your authentic brand story.

Would you like students to quote you in classroom discussions?

I need your help.

My new book is tentatively titled How To Write A Killer Single-Minded Proposition. It’s a companion to my critically acclaimed text, How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief 2nd edition. OOS Icon

Like my current book, this new graphic text will be a nuts and bolts examination of the single-minded proposition (SMP). It will include step-by-step instructions on how to arrive at this sentence or phrase, practical exercises, examples of well-written SMPs, and advice on how to fix weak SMPs. I’ll also look back at the history of the creative brief.

An important feature will be comments and insights from professionals in advertising and marketing on this most important part of the creative brief.

Will you help me? Do you have an opinion on what makes a good SMP?

This is your chance to weigh in.

If I use your comments, I’ll send you a signed copy of the new book absolutely free

First, please complete a short, four-question survey. If you wish, you can cut-and-paste this URL into your browser: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/FZF7WMN.

Also, share this link with friends, colleagues and people whose opinions readers would value.

My current textbook is now required reading at a growing number of undergraduate and graduate programs around the country, including the University of Minnesota School of Mass Communications and Journalism and New York University’s graduate program in Integrated Marketing.

Students could soon be quoting you in classrooms far and wide. quotes

Thanks in advance for your enthusiasm and willingness to share your wisdom.


Can you explain your brand to a six-year-old?

Albert Einstein famously said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” Albert_Einstein_Head

The “it” is, well, whatever. Fill in the blank with anything: love, time, President Donald Trump.

Now I want you to substitute your brand for “it” and tell me if you can clearly and simply explain “it” to a six-year-old child. If you don’t have or know a six-year-old child, be careful how you answer. You will be using adult-speak in a heartbeat.

You’re being dismissive right now. I can tell. Do you truly know your brand? Can you explain it to a child?

Don’t laugh. Try it.

Uh-huh. As I suspected. It’s not so easy, is it?

This conundrum lies at the heart of why so many people who work with brands have difficulty being good brand communicators. How do I know this?

I’ve listened to experienced professionals at advertising agencies and Fortune 500 companies grapple with vocabulary to explain their brands.

Ask anyone responsible for devising a sentence called the “brand value proposition.” Ask anyone responsible for writing a brand “positioning statement.” Ask those responsible for writing clear, inspiring creative briefs.

Einstein was on to something with his insanely simple idea. Understanding how to do it would save boatloads of time, boatloads of money, boatloads of stress.

Consider this exercise, something I use in my college freshman composition class. Read the paragraph below, and tell me in two words, no more, what it is saying:

It is the opinion of the group assembled for the purpose of determining a probability of the likelihood of the meteorological-related results and outcome for the period encompassing the next working day that the odds of precipitation in the near-term are positive and reasonably expected.*

This causes my students migraines. First because they are not good close readers and second because their vocabularies are limited. Rather than looking up something they don’t know, they ignore it.

Herein lies another truth: If you ignore what you don’t understand, you are bound to perpetuate the misunderstanding.

This “exercise” paragraph is a tautology on steroids. A more technical term is verbal diarreha. It is an example of not knowing how to say what can be said in two words.

Can you explain your brand in two words? Two simple words that a child can understand?

If you can’t, you won’t pass Einstein’s simple test.

It’s probably costing you dearly.








*The answer: Rain tomorrow.