When your creative brief process is broken and how to fix it.


Beginning writers tend to learn a lesson about plagiarism the hard way. They commit it unintentionally. They didn’t mean to quote an author without giving him or her due credit, but…

Unintentional plagiarism, I can attest from years of classroom experience, is the most likely kind of plagiarism a college freshman blunders into. The problem is, it’s still plagiarism and they still fail the paper.

The analogy works for a broken creative brief process. The participants, whether they’re in an ad agency or the marketing department of an advertiser, often have no idea their briefing process is broken. They didn’t mean to mess it up, but they did. Something isn’t right, and they keep chugging along hoping to muddle through.

It’s not unlike the definition of insanity: You keep doing the same thing over and over and hoping for, well, you know the rest.

So how can you tell when your briefing process is broken? What are the red flags?

Look for these four warning signs. In fact, if you recognize even only one of them, it’s time to address your creative briefing process before it does, in fact, break.

You Know It’s Broke When:

1: The people who work from the brief roll their eyes after it’s presented.

That’s an exaggeration. The people who work from the brief, and this is the creative people, are a difficult lot to begin with. They love to complain: about bad briefs, bad coffee, bad shoes. They complain because it’s in their nature. They tend to be jaded and borderline cynical. Okay, forget borderline.

They complain about bad briefs, especially, because they read them so often. They may in fact respond to any brief with an exasperated sigh. It’s reflexive. They can’t help it.

But if this happens frequently and is followed by a rush of questions of a certain nature, you’re in trouble.

These questions tend to look like this:

“I thought you said we couldn’t…”

“Are you sure you mean it this way? Last time you said…”

“Why is this okay now? Last month…”

“But I thought they hated (insert color/celebrity/location/idea)…”

“Wait a minute. That single-minded proposition has two/three/four ideas. Which one do they really mean?”

2: The parties do not agree on content.

You Know It’s Broke #2 is a subset of #1. Even if you can satisfactorily answer all the questions posed by your creatives after the briefing, you may not have a salvageable brief.

Those questions—and the underlying attitude of skepticism—tend not to be addressed to anyone’s satisfaction, and are a symptom of the broken process.

The fundamental premise of the brief comes into question. One of two things can happen.

First, the briefing ends in disagreement and creative go off and write their own brief, even if it’s not a formal document. They devise their own Single-Minded Proposition and that becomes the brief.

Sometimes this actually works. But you won’t know it even happened until the day the work is presented. If the work does not meet expectations, the Creative’s Creative Brief Syndrome is typically to blame (that’s my fancy term for the creative department’s DIY brief. Which you don’t want).

I know. I’ve committed this heresy myself, although only a handful of times. I’d say my batting average was above .500. That’s exemplary if you’re in the Majors. It’s horrible when you bomb in a creative presentation.

The second scenario, and the more likely outcome, is that the creative team leaves the briefing confused, and that’s what the work looks like when it’s presented. It’s a perfect illustration of “garbage in, garbage out.”garbage-in-garbage-out

These situations are why I wrote my book on the creative brief. It was the result of feeling utterly frustrated because my creative department operated either without a formal brief altogether, or we functioned with a brief that one or more players did not fully embrace. Any process is only as strong as its weakest link.

3: Only one player in the process writes the creative brief. This situation will almost always guarantee Reasons 1 and 2 above.

You Know It’s Broke #3 stands independent of the first two. It’s a symptom of old-school silo-ing, a tradition that dates back decades.

The creative departments of major ad agencies know first hand about the silo effect. In the 1950s and into the 1960s, most creative departments did not have “teams” of art directors and copywriters. They were separate departments. The did not talk to each other.

Geniuses like Bill Bernbach changed that. Copywriters and art directors were teamed up and expected to work together. The results played a seminal role in producing the Golden Era of advertising in the 1960s.

silosAccount and brand planners have wised up in recent years. They have been moving away from working independently as the owners of the creative brief and have advocated for cross-department collaboration. The principle that works so well in creative departments applies here.

If the author of the creative brief in your place of business works alone, even if she works with a partner in the same department, chances are you have a broken creative briefing system, or one that is sick and needs 911.

If creatives have no role in the process, they have little at stake. If they collaborate on not just writing the brief, but then also play a role in briefing on the brief they helped author, things change. Drastically and dramatically.

4. The reviewers of the creative work don’t know how to review the creative work.

The ability to offer clear feedback on the creative work is an absolute job requirement. There is no excuse for being inarticulate or afraid to hurt someone’s feelings.

Rest assured, advertising creatives are professionals. They have thick skin and can take criticism.

Still, being a critic is not easy. It takes finesse, patience and practice. Especially practice.

So I recommend that you practice. A lot. You don’t become adept at writing a creative brief by doing it once. Or even 10 times. You must write them dozens of times and even then you’ll learn something new with each attempt.

Find a piece of creative work not connected to your job or your brand. It could be a TV spot or an email.

Critique it. What do you like? What doesn’t work? Make a list. Write down your thoughts. You don’t have the creative brief against which to judge it, so use your savvy as a consumer.  You are, after all, a consumer.

Team up with a creative in your department or at your agency. Work one-on-one with a piece of neutral creative (meaning something neither you nor the creative is connected to) and ask questions about how to review it. Believe me, your creative partner will have some thoughts and won’t be afraid to speak them out loud. This is a learning opportunity for you.

The point is, the only way to become proficient at reviewing creative is to review it.

Remember the old joke: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

Step back and ask yourself some tough questions about your creative brief and the process of briefing. If you suspect any one of the symptoms I’ve discussed above, it’s time to reexamine your process.

What “Finding Dory” can teach us about brand insights

Two disparate worlds collided this weekend that produced an insight. This is supposed to happen to people like me who use insights for a living.

First, I read contributing Atlantic editor David H. Freedman’s thoughtful piece, “The War on Stupid People” in the July/August issue. He tells us that the lack of intellectual chops, otherwise known as being stupid, has become the new acceptable put down. “Those who consider themselves bright,” he writes, “openly mock others for being less so.”

This practice is reinforced in corporate America. Many companies, Freedman tells us, are implementing new intelligence tests for potential hires. If you don’t measure up, it becomes a mark against you, and a reason not to make an offer of employment.

This in spite of the emerging evidence that smart people do not necessarily make the best employees. Something about having little experience with failure and thin skins. Interpersonal skills, self-awareness and emotional qualities, Freedman writes, can be better job performance predictors.

Perhaps his most astute observation is this: “Among other things, the less brainy are, according to studies and some business experts, less likely to be oblivious of their own biases and flaws, to mistakenly assume that recent trends will continue into the future, to be anxiety-ridden, and to be arrogant.”

The sad fact is, the minority of Americans who are in this intellectual elite influence the world for the rest of us.

Then I went to see the Disney/Pixar blockbuster, “Finding Dory.” It was not on my “must see” list, but after reading so many positive reviews, I relented. It is that rare combination of laugh-out-loud entertainment and serious message vehicle. As a college educator, I was reminded to take its message into my classroom everyday. Finding-Dory-Disney-pixar-2016

But as a brand strategist and storyteller as well as a creative brief educator, I saw another message. Advertising professionals take data and research seriously, as we should. What we learn from the things consumers tell us as well as what we discern from their unconscious (i.e. body language) behavior, lead us, or so we hope, to a valuable insight, maybe even more than one. The kind of insight that makes tailoring communication to persuade them to try and/or remain loyal to a brand.

That’s the theory, anyway.

I left the theatre while the credits to “Finding Dory” were still rolling, and I couldn’t help but laugh to myself. The central question posed in the movie is the very question we brand guardians must ask to guide us in finding the insights we covet.

Before I get to that question, here’s a brief synopsis for those of you who have not yet seen this charming, heart-warming and outrageously funny tale, which incidentally also made me cry.

“Finding Dory” is a sequel to the popular “Finding Nemo” that came out in 2003. Its premise is that a year after Dory, a fish with short-term memory problems, helps Marlin find his son, Nemo, she remembers she has parents and sets out to find them. Marlin and Nemo go along to help. Thoroughly engaging mayhem unfolds, and it is no “spoiler” to tell you that in spite of her clear deficiencies, Dory finds mom and dad. It’s how she manages this feat, and what she learns that make this adventure so memorable.

Back to the question: At one point in the movie, when Marlin and Nemo get separated from Dory, the two struggle, momentarily paralyzed with inaction. Nemo poses the question, “What would Dory do?” to help his dad figure out the next move.

At first, papa Marlin assumes the intellectual approach and begins to analyze and synthesize the situation in order to ascertain a strategy. Until he realizes that’s not how Dory operates. Dory’s lack of conventional intelligence, which might be classified these days as a developmental disability, gives the lie to her abilities.

Marlin has his “Ah-ha!” moment and decides to take a leap of faith, Dory-like, to keep the search for Dory, and the story line, moving.

It is both this question and its answer, combined with Freedman’s observations about so-called intelligence, that produced my own “Ah-ha!” moment.

Finding a brand insight is a hard thing to do. There are no guarantees that intrepid digging will uncover anything remotely insightful. But this guarantee is, well, guaranteed if you stop at data and research.

A brand insight comes, not from brainy application of intelligence, but rather from what I’ll call the “Dory effect”: trusting your instincts and allowing intuition to rule.

By this I do not mean to ignore data and research. On the contrary. Remember the advice of James Webb Young in his 1948 masterpiece, “A Technique for Producing Ideas.”  When you are in the creative zone of the five steps Webb outlines, you eventually arrive at step 3: information overload requires you to walk away and clear your head. By this moment the seeds have been planted. But only at this moment can they bloom into an idea. techforproducingideas1

This is the answer to the question, “What would Dory do?” It is the leap of faith Dory took from the moment she decided to go on her parent quest. It is the foundation on which rested every decision she made along the way.

It is the foundation on which insights arrive, too. I say “arrive” because I believe the intuitive, creative mind is more likely to be receptive to an idea than one grounded only in data- and research-based analysis.

No one “uncovers” an insight. An insight emerges after information is processed and left to settle, and then sparked by the intuitive brain.

Date and research are the nutrients. Intuition is the blender.

The next time you are in the hunt for a brand insight, don’t forget to ask:

What would Dory do?

How many “practice” creative briefs have you written?

kobe-bryant-practices-in-nike-kobe-9-elite-02-570x570Basketball legend Kobe Bryant has made countless jump shots and layups in his practice sessions.

“As a kid growing up, I never skipped steps. I always worked on fundamentals because I know athleticism is fleeting.”  Kobe Bryant

Tennis star Serena Williams has likely hit uncountable numbers of volleys in practice since she was a young girl. Someone asked if her success were due to luck.

“Luck has nothing to do with it, because I have spent many, many hours, countless hours, on the court working for my one moment in time, not knowing when it would come.”14SERENA1-master768

The legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus has said that he played fewer tournaments than his fellow competitors because he chose to spend that time practicing his game at home.

“Nobody—but nobody—has ever become really proficient at golf without practice, without a lot of thinking and then hitting a lot of shots.” Jack Nicklaus

Seinfeld has told tens of thousands of jokes on stages across the country. Ballet star Misty Copeland has spent thousands of hours in the classroom, working at the ballet barre, all in preparation for her performances. Speaking legend Tony Robbins has rehearsed hours and hours for his presentations.

The same is true for ministers, gymnasts, coaches, courtroom lawyers…you name the profession, and you can imagine the almost unimaginable hours of preparation these dedicated individuals have devoted to their craft, all to be ready to display their skills when they matter most: on the job.

So I ask you: How much preparation have you put in to write a creative brief?

Here’s my guess: Exactly none.

There is no preparation. You just write one when you have to write one.

And therein lies a major missed opportunity. No one practices the skills required to write a creative brief well. There is no “creative brief boot camp” to make you sweat your tail off learning the fundamentals of writing this document. There should be.

Sounds absurd, right? Not from where I sat, which was on the receiving end of one of those too often poorly written documents that landed on my desk.

As a point of comparison, creatives constantly practice their concepting skills. Young creatives especially. Sometimes they don’t know when to stop practicing. They do “spec” work, whether it’s for their own professional portfolio or some pro-bono client or even a friend’s dog-sitting service. They’re like little “Energizer bunnies”: they keep concepting and concepting until their brains cramp. This is how they get really good.

When I was younger, I used to flip through the Yellow Pages (remember that?) until I’d find an interesting business, the more obscure the better. Then I’d create a spec ad for that business. Back in the 1980s, when I was just getting started, I wrote a spec-ad for a music teacher who taught the accordion: “I can teach anyone to carry a tune.” Groaner, yes, but the fact is, I practiced my craft even when no one was looking.

If you write creative briefs for a living, can you say the same? If the answer is no, my next question is: Why not?

I’ve said it over and over: the creative brief is the first step in the creative process. Get it wrong here and everything that follows suffers proportionately. It’s the principle of “garbage in, garbage out” at work.garbage-in-garbage-out

Practice is vital.

But who has time to practice?

Professionals do. If you’re a professional, you must practice.

Here are three techniques you can adopt right away.

1. Practice in your head.

One of the more important questions on a creative brief is, “What is the Single-Minded Proposition?” This is something you can practice formulating as you commute to and from work. You don’t even need pen and paper.

Imagine the product or service, conjure its key benefit and translate that benefit into a “What’s in it for me?” proposition that directly addresses the product’s best customer. Think of that short phrase or sentence. Don’t stop there. Think of alternatives. Come up with many SMPs. Which one is the best? Why?

Turn this into a brain-game and repeat it often. It’s called practice. It’s what professionals do.

2. Follow your creatives’ lead: Do spec work for a favorite cause or a pro-bono client. Now you have a reason to practice.

If you don’t do this already, it’s time to start. Most agencies and brands dedicate time and resources to charitable causes. Volunteer. Even pro-bono projects need creative briefs.

3. Start an in-house creative-brief writing workshop whose purpose is honing brief-writing skills. Volunteer to lead it.

The first time I was asked by a dean of student affairs at one of the community colleges where I now teach whether I’d ever taught grammar, I hesitated for just a second before saying yes and accepting the assignment.

In truth, I’d never taught grammar before. But it turned out to be the best and most fun experience I’ve had in the classroom. And I mastered the fundamentals of grammar because…

…I had to teach them!

Whether you’re a 20-year veteran or a newbie, you, too, can teach someone how to write a better brief. When you teach, you become a better practitioner. If you do even rudimentary research online, you’ll find source material that will help you teach brief writing, and my book is only one of them (although I happen to think it’s the best source).

The point is, every brief writer needs practice. No professional doesn’t need practice.

Take the initiative. Start now. Because you’re a professional.

What all good single-minded propositions have in common.

Many years ago, about a week into a new job I’d taken as creative director on a major international brand, I was reviewing a creative brief that had been approved by the client and was the inspiration for a batch of new creative work that would be presented a week hence.

The brief was a disappointment. The single-minded proposition was a disaster. It was, rather than singularly focused, a triple-minded Frankenstein’s monster. I remember sighing audibly, then asking if it were too late to re-visit the SMP. 04

“The client really likes this one,” I was told. “But if you insist, we can set up a conference call.”

It was a battle worth fighting, but the timing was definitely wrong. I acquiesced instead.

It was not the first time I had read such a beast on a creative brief, nor the last. It’s no accident that when I started teaching college freshman English, I encountered the same apprehension and confusion around writing the dreaded “thesis statement” in a college essay.

The “thesis” and the “SMP” are two sides of the same coin: They are the hardest sentence/phrase to write and the most important statements in their respective vehicles. When done well, they are a thing of beauty and the inspiration for the rest of the document. When done poorly, everything else suffers.

Two thoughts can guide you here, with some inspired clarity from writer, philosopher, and painter, Walter Russell:

Mediocrity is self-inflicted. Genius is self-bestowed.

There is no reason for the SMP to be such an intimidating exercise. Like everything else we do as communication professionals, the more we practice a thing, the better we become at it. A few minutes examining what the really good single-minded propositions have in common reveals much for us to absorb and from which we can benefit.

First, let’s set the stage with a solid definition of the single-minded proposition.

My favorite comes from Jon Steel’s book, “Truth, Lies and Advertising,” when he quotes John Hegarty, the legendary creative leader at BBH in London.

Hegarty suggests that you write the single-minded proposition on a piece of paper, above or below an image of the product. The result becomes, in his words, a “good” ad, but not necessarily a great ad. The SMP, says Hegarty, is the “first ad.” I would amplify that definition by saying it’s the first draft of the first ad. The creatives use it as inspiration for what, everyone hopes, becomes the polished, final draft ad.

In other words, the SMP is the Big Idea. The creatives unearth Big Executions of the Big Idea, what we call creative solutions.

Here is some thinking from other advertising practitioners:

A proposition is the one-liner – usually rounding off the brief – that encapsulates the strategic thought that we’re asking our creatives to dramatise and bring to life as ads. Indeed, it is usually this one-liner that creates the most debate from all parties involved, as reductive thinking is inherently controversial.

Matt Hunt, European Head of Planning, Grey Healthcare Group

I had to think for a while to remember the last time I saw a pure proposition; one free from bullshit and extras, that simply tells you where to start digging…too many account teams and clients no longer understand what a single-minded thought actually is.

The Denver Egoist

Now, let’s examine a few examples of single-minded propositions for real products from real creative briefs. (Notice that all of these SMPs come from dated briefs, some more than 20 years old. It is notoriously difficult to pry a brief from the proprietarily paranoid…er…protective ad agency.) single_minded_1337085

Toro (circa 2010):

Toro makes the tools. You make the yard.

H&R Block (circa 2008):

Now you can have an expert on your side.

Izuzu Rodeo SUV (circa 1994):

The normal rules don’t apply.

AARP (circa unknown):

AARP gives you the power to make up your own rules.

Lexus GS300 relaunch (circa 1998):

The GS300 is the kick-ass Lexus.

These single-minded propositions have much in common, and much from which we can learn. I’m sure you’ve drawn your own conclusions after having glanced at the list above, so compare your list with mine. I have deliberately not presented the creative because I want your focus on the SMP, not the resulting creative.

The point is, unless and until you take the time to really examine these sentences and understand why they work, the SMP will remain an intimidating mystery for the person who has to write it, and an eternal source of ire for the creatives who must work from it.

1. It is often just a phrase, but never longer than a sentence.

Obvious, yes. But when you’ve suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous paragraph long, throw-in-the-kitchen sink SMPs, I hope you’ll see that the good SMP is concise. Obvious, yes, but not so obvious when you have to face your client. gleamingkitchensink

2. Its focus is always singular; it’s about one thing only.

Obvious, yes…again. Its called “single-minded” for a reason. Research repeatedly shows that consumers respond more readily to one, neat idea.

3. The best SMP is modest because it doesn’t need to be any more.

You’re not competing with the creative department. You’re showing them a starting point. Think about Hegarty’s definition: The SMP doesn’t have to be great, just good. The SMPs I’ve shared with you here fit that definition.

4. The best ones are fearless.

Like a college essay’s thesis, the SMP must take a stand. Once you realize that an SMP is not for public consumption, you operate from a place of freedom. Remember your audience: The creative department. They depend on you, the writer, to kick-start their thinking. If you’re not brave, you make it harder for them to be.

The SMP is the first thing creatives look for on a brief. Their body language is impossible to miss after they’ve read one. Obvious…yes?

Don’t settle for the mediocre. Practice combined with confidence creates genius.


A tale of two marketers

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times…

Two marketers, both of whom work for the same reputable national brand, arrived at the office early on a Monday morning. Both had been working for this brand for 10 years. They each managed a different product line within the company. Screen-Shot-2014-03-19-at-8.56.14-PM

And there the similarities ended.

Our first marketer, an intrepid soul, had just returned from a meeting with senior executives of his product line. They asked him for a new advertising campaign to kick off the next quarter. He took copious notes and felt confident that he understood his marching orders. He sat at his desk for a moment, gathering his thoughts, and called his in-house advertising department and spoke with the creative director.

“Good morning, it’s Chuck,” said the CD.

“Hey Chuck,” said our marketer. “Can you get your team assembled in an hour? I want to brief you guys on the new campaign.”

“Sure thing.”

An hour later, our first marketer, brimming with enthusiasm, arrived at the conference room where Chuck accompanied his two teams of copywriters and art directors.

“Morning everyone,” said our marketer. “Here’s the skinny on the new campaign.” And he proceeded to talk for 30 minutes.

“That’s it?” asked the CD. “No creative brief?”

The marketer shook his head. “I gave you everything you need to know. It’s all straight from the executive team. Can I see ideas by Friday?”

The CD assented reluctantly. He and his teams looked crestfallen, but not surprised.54713640

A week later, the creative team returned to the conference room to present their campaign ideas. The marketer looked, listened and frowned.

“You didn’t follow instructions,” he fumed. And he sent them back to the drawing board. This time, they worked over the weekend.

Monday morning, the results were the same. Our marketer didn’t like what he saw.

“You keep changing direction,” said the creative director. “You asked us for one thing last week, and now you want something else.”

The creative team struggled all day and by nightfall, had come up with a third set of ideas. Our marketer felt only marginally better, but decided to present the work to his senior executives the next day.

The meeting with his superiors did not go well.

“This work is off base,” said one.

“You know how we feel about using humor,” said another.

“I thought we agreed that this product feature wasn’t appropriate,” said the third exec.

The list of objections continued.

“It seems that every time we give you direction,” said the first executive, “you return with ideas that don’t meet our objectives. Why does this continue to happen?”

Our intrepid marketer skulked off to regroup.

Meanwhile, our second marketer sat in her office after a meeting with senior executives for her product line. They, too, asked for a new advertising campaign. She sat across from Chuck, the brand’s in-house ad agency creative director. They were deep in discussion about the assignment.

“I took lots of notes at the meeting,” said our second marketer, “and I turned those notes into a client brief. I’ve already run it by the executives and they approved it.”

“This is good,” said Chuck. “Let’s get to work on a creative brief for my team.”

And for the next two hours, Chuck and our second marketer brainstormed to fill out an inspired and inspiring creative brief. When they couldn’t agree on something or got stuck on a point, our second marketer put in a call to one of the senior executives and the three of them discussed the problem in a conference call. It typically took less than five minutes to resolve.

When they had a completed draft, our marketer typed it up, made copies and walked each one to the offices of the three senior executives she’d met that morning.

“Can you take a look at this creative brief and get back to me by the end of the day with your thoughts?”

They all agreed. Each executive made minor changes. Our marketer incorporated the edits into a new draft and emailed a copy to Chuck. He called his marketer to discuss the changes. They both agreed the brief was tight and ready for the creative team.

The next day, our marketer and Chuck briefed his copywriters and art directors with the final creative brief. The team asked a few questions and promised to have ideas ready soon.

When concepts were presented, the marketer smiled. “These are great. They’re on brief. I’m confident the senior execs will approve one of them.”

True to senior executive-dom, they offered some push back, but at the end of the presentation, they approved one of the ideas. They complimented the marketer for shepherding the project so smoothly and praised the creative team for its ingenuity.Kamala-Khan-Ms-Marvel-Comics

Do you recognize one of these scenarios? They are condensed versions of real situations. I’ve worked at brands and ad agencies that did not use creative briefs, or had allowed the creative brief to become a rote exercise. The work always got done, but the truth is, it often took more than one try. The results were often less than satisfactory.

The process was broken.

Ask yourself this question: Would you try to assemble furniture from Ikea without the instructions?

You might say, “Sure, I’m game!” In fact, if you’ve experienced the situation described above for the first marketer, you have assembled Ikea furniture without instructions.

You can do it, but it likely will take longer and the experience will be frustrating. Just ask the creative team.

The more important question to ask: Why would you even try?

Is it the best of times or the worst of times?

A Creative Brief Manifesto

manifesto11For almost seven years, I have toiled as the “one lone voice speaking out” on behalf of the Creative Brief, in the opinion of my esteemed colleague Sean Duffy, a man of wisdom and impeccable taste.

It has been a labor of love. The Creative Brief represents the best of the analytical side and the imaginative side of the advertising business, a combination that I revel in as a former direct-response creative.

I cherish any opportunity to dissect, explain, advocate for, instruct on, and simply talk about this under-appreciated, abused and too often poorly written document.

But it is more than a document. It is the best-kept secret for any one or any organization in search of a simple, direct method for establishing a value proposition.

I suggest that the Creative Brief escape its advertising-industry handcuffs and fulfill its promise as a purposeful roadmap for any business, any entrepreneur, anyone with a vision to market a product or service and who also struggles with arriving at the unique selling proposition. The one thing.

This struggle is common. It is universal: Everyone experiences it. There is a solution.

In trained hands the Creative Brief has the power to exquisitely distill anything—an ad campaign, a brand, a philanthropic foundation, your life’s ambition.

At its best, the Creative Brief promises gravitas by means of the Socratic Method. It is not, and should not be, limited to the advertising and creative businesses, where, quite frankly, it has languished as the poor step-child of the creative process in spite of its role as the creative kick-starter. Socrates_Louvre

So allow me to present a treatise on behalf of everyone who believes the best is possible even when the best is too often a mere hope.

This Creative Brief Manifesto is a set of prescriptions for businesses to adopt to clarify their message, to hone their value proposition. Critically, the brief is about content, not format. Adapt the five points below into provocative questions. The answers provide the imaginative shove that gets you—or your designated team—to your objective.

Remember, this is the starting point, not the ending. All great endings require an inspired beginning. Otherwise, as Euripides said, “A bad beginning makes a bad ending.” Which is a fancy way of saying, “Garbage in, garbage out.”

1. Start with feelings, not facts.

Social scientists, marketing researchers, creatives and many others all have ample evidence to demonstrate that you and I may rely on facts to help us make decisions, but if our hearts are not moved, if we do not have a strong feeling, we are not truly committed to the thing, whatever it might be.

This truth has nothing to do with what the client or the business owner wants the feeling to be. It’s all about discovering what the customer feels…and why. emotion

2. You’ll never grasp the emotion without first discovering an insight.

If you don’t know Socrates, you don’t know Jack. Think you need a ginormous research budget to unearth this so-called “insight”? You don’t. If you know how the Socratic Method works, you have the basic tools you need to discover an insight.

3. What’s in it for me?

The single-minded proposition (SMP) has fans and detractors, but one fact remains unchallenged: Customers remember what resonates with them. Keep it simple. Make it  memorable.

The point is no longer to merely intrude and be pervasive. You must engage. It’s not about one-way communication in the age of social media. It’s about a conversation.

But whether you support or abhor the SMP, clarity (i.e. distillation, conciseness, laser focus) is the mandatory exercise.

4. Prove it!

You will never fall in love if there is no trust.

There is always a role for facts, and to seal the deal for the love affair, offer evidence that the emotional claim is believable. The best evidence has not changed: Testimonials, awards for reliability and quality, #1 best-seller.

Or, as Rod Tidwell says to Jerry McGuire, “Show me the money!”

5. Begin the story here.

Remember the Native American proverb: “Tell me a fact and I will learn. Tell me a truth and I will believe. Tell me a story and it will live forever in my heart.” The Creative Brief is the moral to the as-yet untold brand story.

It is a kind of “here’s where we want to end up” without knowing the path to that ending. The brief suggests a path, it points in the right direction, and trusts that those who execute from the brief will get there. Who knows how many left or right turns might be necessary, many or all of which appear to be leading you astray.

This is the great unknown, the mystery that arises from every brief: The writers put their trust in those who execute from the brief, and those team members trust the writers to have done their jobs in refining—distilling—the brief to its clarifying finest. Here is what you need to know, the brief tells them, and what is here will inspire you. Go, now, and perform alchemy.

How many practitioners believe it is possible? It’s just a piece of paper, they say. Don’t expect too much.

It’s time to stop thinking that way. What’s on that piece of paper is a product of human inspiration.

Invest in the outcome. Trustworthiness

Make sure you have skin in the game.

The Creative Brief is the best-kept secret for anyone or any business that wants a clearly marked path to an effective and believable value proposition.




Every creative brief needs to be dangerous and unpredictable

warning_sign_boldTypically, inspiration arrives unannounced, often from unexpected sources. So it was when I read Michael Dukes’s first professional blog post the other day on Medium. He wrote about how to inspire creative ideas. I tip my hat to a fellow creative and say “thank you” for your inspiration.

The creative brief gets the creative ideas started. At its most elementary, a creative brief is an eloquent, focused set of instructions. It can be written for an advertising agency’s creative teams, a small business owner’s marketing team, a firm that hires a couple of talented freelance ad people. Whoever works from a creative brief needs this document to find a spark of an idea that heads her down the right path toward a relevant, insightful creative solution that sells.

Thanks to Michael Dukes’s thoughts on finding those ideas, here are my own thoughts on how to inspire any creative person who needs the best set of instructions possible to achieve her objectives. Notice how similar the points are along both paths.

These four thoughts are minimum requirements before you even begin to write a creative brief:

1. Abandon your comfort zone.

If a creative brief is to succeed in inspiring its readers, it can’t be a rote document. Translation: Cutting and pasting from a previous brief is a mortal sin.

A brief is simply a template that asks for relevant information. If a template lulls you into a rut, change the template. Ask the same questions, but use different words.

If your brief template has 10 blanks to fill in, eliminate unnecessary questions and make the document work harder with fewer words (see #2 below). You could even ask additional questions, as long as they force you to become more deeply focused.

Who says you have to write only one brief per project? There is always more than one way into a creative solution. Creatives are required to present multiple ideas. Creative brief writers should be too. how-to-expand-your-comfort-zone

Don’t let the template become your prison. Change it regularly to keep it fresh. Creatives who read and work from the document won’t be expecting that. If creatives and account folks collaborate on writing briefs, this idea will be easier to execute.

2. Impose limitations.

This is a favorite mantra. The imagination works harder and more effectively when it is constricted. “Think outside the box” is a stupid cliche. Think not only “inside” the box, but make the box as small as possible. I’ve written about this before. I am likely to return to it.

The creative brief is a reductive exercise. Resist the temptation to fill it up with useless information just to make it seem weighty. How little information can you provide and still spark killer ideas? You’ll never know unless you collaborate with creatives to test your powers of conciseness.

Let this be a kind of “Goldilocks” creative brief test: Keep reducing and editing the document until it’s just right.

3. Make it a struggle (for the creatives, not you)

Tom Jordan, now retired as CEO and Chief Creative Officer at Hoffman York in Milwaukee, gave me some of the best advice of my career when I worked for him in the late 1980s. He said that good creative ideas draw the circle, but don’t complete it.

In other words, they leave just enough unsaid to draw the reader/viewer/listener into the story. You must trust their intelligence to figure out the rest. It’s harder to accomplish that it might seem.

This is excellent advice for creative brief writers, too. The brief’s job is to inspire the work, not do the work. Its purpose is to find the nugget of an insight that will open imaginative doors for creatives.

A good brief makes the creatives grapple with new thinking, not by burying them with useless information, but by handing it to them in an unfinished state.

Easy? No. That’s demonstrated in the dearth of well-written briefs. Don’t let that frighten you.

4. Expectations are low, so you have nothing to lose.

If you’re old enough to remember the comedian Rodney Dangerfield, you recall his famous line: “I get no respect.” He speaks for the creative brief. It’s a document everyone loves to hate. Sad, but true.

DSez300_400x400So change that. Start by teaming up: one creative, one account person. Everyone must have skin in the game. Make a pact to raise the bar on expectations. The way to think differently about the creative brief is to, you know, think differently. The process has to begin somewhere.

Why not you? Why not now?

This isn’t rocket science. This is about fundamental insights and clear thinking, two attributes that all communication professionals possess in abundance.

Dangerous and unpredictable creative should be everyone’s goal. Start with a dangerous and unpredictable creative brief.

Every brief writer needs a fishbowl.









As the noted psychologist and TED Talk veteran, Barry Schwartz, has said, “Everyone needs a fishbowl.”

A fishbowl, that is, that provides at least the appearance of limitation and constraint. He argues, in his book, The Paradox of Choice, and his TED Talk, that too many choices do not make us happier or give us more freedom. Instead, too many choices cause paralysis.

Creative brief writers must understand this principle. The brief is designed not to give creative teams unlimited choices, or even abundant choices, but to restrict those choices. The creative brief, by definition, is a reductive document. It must glean the most important information about the product, reduce it to its most essential elements, and present those elements in a compelling fashion to inspire the creative team.

The result is more creative freedom, not less.

Too much information kills the brief. (Which is why the oldest, least-funny joke about the brief is related to its name.)

As the brief is designed to inspire good creative, it’s no mistake that creatives have learned from experience that the best creative ideas arise from restriction. Consider these words from T. S. Elliot: MTIwNjA4NjMzODAzOTMzMTk2

“When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.”

Advertising and marketing professionals live this daily. There is never enough time, never enough budget, never enough people, never enough resources to complete a project in the manner of their choosing. Lucky them. The best such professionals extract the best from the least.

Who has not heard or uttered this complaint:

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

This excuse speaks to a lack of discipline in the face of restraints. Because we all face restraints everyday. The trick is to know how to use them to our benefit. Restrictions are liberating in the hands of someone who understands the nature of the imagination and creativity.

That’s why the creative brief remains such a critical component in the creative process. And why the brief is so damned hard to write. It also explains why the brief remains the target of so much abuse. When it’s hard to get it right, there are relatively few examples of outstanding briefs, and many examples of duds. I know: I’ve read too many of the former and not enough of the latter.

I suspect that brief writers are rather upset with me at this stage. They know the challenge of writing a great brief, and I’ve just made their lives a bit more difficult by emphasizing the importance of saying less, not more. Of saying less with more power and elegance.

I wonder, sometimes, if creative brief writers shouldn’t be schooled in the art of copywriting before they are allowed to write a creative brief.

I know my own education as a copywriter, which was earned by doing, not by attending any paid class, brought me face to face with the task of “copy fitting,” a mundane exercise that every copywriter endures.

Anyone who has ever taken a composition class learned how to cut a piece of writing in half. The challenge is to assure the message remains intact even as the word count dwindles. That’s what copy fitting is: Say what you have to say in only the space your art director allows.

Well, creative brief writers of the world, the creative brief is usually a page in length, which doesn’t mean you have to use the entire page. It can be 10 questions, five or even one astutely worded pick-axe.

Like Sardines in a Can October 12, 2002

To do it right and well, place yourself in a fishbowl. The idea is called liberating constraint. You will reward yourself and your creative team with more imaginative opportunities when you learn the benefits of living like a sardine.

50 years after its invention, the creative brief needs some fixes.

The creative brief dates to the early 1960s when account planning was introduced to the advertising world by a Brit named Stanley Pollitt. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the creative brief. Its role in developing great advertising deserves recognition and, no disrespect intended, a review. All good things can be improved.

As both an admirer and advocate of the creative brief, I offer a small gift to this document’s long history: Some ideas to make the creative brief better.

1. Consumers make decisions about brands based on their feelings, not their brains. The Single-Minded Proposition must reflect this truth.

This is an insight that is not new, but is slow to be embraced. Some account planners and academics have been writing about this topic, and I have written about it without being fully aware of the research. Professional experience, however, is hard to ignore.

Too often, we accept single-minded propositions that focus on rationality, on a mistaken belief that people make decisions based on facts and evidence, that we act reasonably. The process humans follow to arrive at a buying decision is sloppy, filled with irrational thinking, often contrary to our own best interests. Branding would not exist as we recognize it today if it were not because of this odd path we take before we open our wallets.

We must, therefore, change the way we view the core of the creative brief—the single-minded proposition. Some argue that the “single” nature of this idea is a relic, and there may be some truth in that, but I believe the most important argument here is the missing, or under-representation of, emotion. faces-small

It’s a scary thing to place so much weight on a hard-to-measure part of human psychology. The good news is, measuring emotional responses is actually getting easier, and more social scientists are exploring it, with fascinating results.

Advertising driven by direct appeals to emotion also works better. It is often more engaging, more humorous and more memorable. Refer to the link above for evidence and its nearly five pages of references.

The single-minded proposition is dead, as I suggested in a recent post. It must be replaced by an updated single-minded proposition that embraces the human nature of decision making: The messy, dynamic, more trustworthy emotions that make us who we are.

Just ask any creative. She knows from experience.

2. Creative brief writers must become better writers.

We must all become better writers, but this is especially true for communications professionals.

Please don’t mistake this as a plea for better headline writers. Anyone can write a headline. For proof, visit a parking lot and see how many clever personal license tags you can find. writer-1-300x300

Good, clear writing is a direct result of good, clear thinking. The creative brief is the first step in the creative process. It is the first ad written for any new communications project. It is the inspiration for the creative team. It must carry this weight with grace.

A poorly written creative brief is uninspiring for one reason and one reason only: Lack of clarity.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, lack of clarity is not, repeat not, because the brief fails to offer “outside the box” thinking, a term that has become meaningless; worse, it is simply dumb and wrong.

Lack of clarity means incoherent, unintelligible, not particular. It means fuzzy, blurred, unsharp. Good writing makes ideas coherent, intelligible, particular. Good brief writing makes coherent ideas sizzle.

Creative brief writers must be dedicated practitioners of the art of clear writing, first and foremost.

3. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate.

Less is more does not work in this space. Creative teams are called teams for a reason. Isn’t it about time we initiate creative brief teams?

If you have a stake in the outcome, you vest yourself. It’s time for creatives to take an equity stake in the document they love to loathe.

4. Re-new your vows to the creative brief.

I came across a blog post from a thoughtful account planner who suggested that the creative brief had outlived its usefulness and that in its place, clients, agencies and creatives should substitute a freer, uninhibited approach to producing creative solutions: A kind of “divergent thinking meets convergent thinking” informal brainstorming session.

I found myself shaking my head for the nth time. Someone is always trashing the document when the problem, in fact, is the content and the content’s originators.

No matter who complains about the creative brief, the complaint is rarely different: It doesn’t inspire enough. It doesn’t propel good thinking enough. It doesn’t work hard enough. It doesn’t do something quite enough.

To my thinking, this misses the point. The document is simply a place holder. It is ultimately only as good as the answers its questions provoke. Asking better questions might help, but that is the easy part. Producing better answers is my response, and it is definitely the hardest part.

Don’t blame a poorly imagined story on the document in which it resides. Look at yourself, the story teller.

transmutation_circle_part_1_by_orbita2k2-d5mkp26Renew your vows to this instrument of inspiration. Believe it can perform alchemy and it will. It is a blank space awaiting…


Why the brief will always be part of the creative process.

Sometimes you have to ask the simple questions because they tend to be the hardest to answer: Why do we use a creative brief at all when so many people seem to question its purpose and doubt its usefulness? Does this document have a role today?

The hardest questions to answer are therefore the most important questions to ask.

So I will go down this road and venture an answer. In my reading about the brief, and in my many discussions, I hear more complaints about this document than direct answers that address its role. But my answer is clear and unequivocal: Yes, the creative brief is as important today as it was when it was first introduced in the 1960s.

Here is my rationale for the creative brief:

1. The creative brief is a set of instructions.

Two thoughts come to mind here. The first is a recollection of something my 7th grade science teacher, Mr. Bredeson, posted on the wall of his classroom. It was a hand-lettered sign that read: “When all else fails, read the directions.” dummies

I’ve never forgotten this simple lesson. I repeat it every semester when my college classes begin anew. Guys tend to be the biggest offenders: They think they know how to put something together and dive in. I’m sure there are some who succeed without a hitch. But the important question is, “Why?” Unless you have time to kill, why would any sane, educated person attempt to assemble something without reading the instructions?

Which leads me to my second thought: If you’ve ever purchased something from Ikea, you know it requires assembly. The directions that all Ikea products come with are illustrations, not written instructions. They are generally clear and easy to follow. Could you assemble one of Ikea’s products without following those instructions? Maybe. But why would you even think about doing such a foolish thing? Unless you have time to kill and are incredibly stubborn, those instructions are designed to get you from a pile of pieces to a usable product in the least amount of time. They are designed to make your life easier.

ikeaYou simply can’t get to point B from point A quickly and efficiently without those instructions.

2.  Unlike Ikea instructions, a creative brief must also inspire.

Ikea instructions are designed to build a useable piece of furniture. A creative brief is designed to inspire the creative team to produce sales-generating creative. It must offer insights into the product, the consumer’s thinking and it must also kick-start the creative team with ideas, what John Hegarty called the “first ad.”

This is where I think the complaints arise. There are pedestrian briefs and inspiring briefs. Too many of the former, too few of the latter. So the call to junk the brief arises from a dearth of well-written sets of instructions. In other words, the typical brief may tell you what to do, but it gives the creative team no spark.

3. The creative brief is a measuring stick to judge the work.

There are many analogies here. One of my favorites is the “Telephone Game” (or Chinese whispers if you live somewhere else). It’s a kid’s game.

One person begins by whispering a word or phrase to the person next to him. That person then whispers what she thinks she heard to the next person. And so on. The typical result is usually unrecognizable once five or six people have passed on the word and it reaches the end of the line. WordofMouth

This is a remarkably clear rationale for a creative brief, and it stands up to scrutiny when the work is presented for review. If you don’t have clear directions in the beginning, you end up with unclear and usually off-message work at the end.

Another way of saying this is, “Garbage in, garbage out.”

The point here is simple: The creative brief is not going anywhere. It has a permanent role in the creative process. It is the first step in the creative process. It exists to fulfill the three, basic functions discussed above.

In my reading, I have come across nothing that challenges the validity of these three points, perhaps because no one even thinks about that.

Instead, I read frustrated complaints about poorly written briefs; creative processes that are missing briefs entirely; briefs that don’t address the realities of today’s mobile environment; briefs that fail to address the emotional rationale of consumers’ behavior; briefs that are not flexible.

But nowhere have I read that anyone proposes scrapping the brief. At its best, a brief is merely an organic placeholder, flexible enough to adapt to any circumstances. With this important caveat:

It’s not about the questions. It’s about the answers.