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.

Ad agencies: Bad client briefs are your fault.


In April, Adweek ran a story titled, “New ANA Survey Shows the Gap Between Clients and Agencies on Issues Like Compensation and Briefs.” ana_logo

The ANA is the Association of National Advertisers, an organization begun in 1910 with more than 650 companies, representing 10,000 brands and annual advertising and marketing expenditures exceeding $250 billion. When this group speaks, ad people listen.

So when I read this line from the ANA’s Executive Summary, I was aghast:

Agencies emphatically believe that clients do not provide clear assignment briefings.

To add salt to this wound, of the 105 agencies surveyed by ANA, not one “strongly agreed” that clients provide clear client briefings. Not one.

I won’t win any friends in the ad agency world when I say this, but it’s your own damn fault.

Nowhere in the Executive Summary did I see a single mention of the creative brief. Only the client brief was pilloried for its weaknesses.

The briefing, from client brief to creative brief, is the beginning of the creative process. Ad agencies own this process. So own it!

Here, then, are three tangible steps that advertising agencies must take to correct this failure.

1. Take the initiative

Don’t complain about a bad client brief. Do something about it. You can’t afford to make excuses.

Whether your relationship with the client is brand new or twenty years old, the first step of the creative process begins with a brief. This is when you, the ad agency, must be prepared to perform in-the-field triage. If past experience tells you to anticipate an unclear brief, address it on the spot.

How? The easiest and most direct step you can take is to make sure both an account person and a creative person review the client brief while it’s still fresh. Build this step into your process and communicate it clearly to your client. Make it non-negotiable.

When I worked for a pharmaceutical ad agency in Chicago 20 years ago, I was startled, at first, by what happened when a new client came to visit for the first time. Agency executives began not by trotting out the creative team, not the account management team, not even research. They began the day-long orientation by introducing the new client to the accounting department: accounts receivable and accounts payable. It’s one of the reasons this agency remained profitable…and open.

goldfish jumping out of the water

The power to set expectations resides with you, the ad agency. So set them. Don’t wait for them to be set for you.

2. Fix a bad client brief with a great creative brief

Never let a bad client brief stop you from delivering a stellar, inspired creative brief.

A client brief is only one-half of the briefing process. It is a statement of the problem the client wants the ad agency to address.

The agency’s creative brief is the response.

That has always been one of its primary functions. The creative brief is a clarifying document. It clarifies not only for the creative team, but also for the client. The agency’s creative brief says to the client: This is what we think you have asked us to do.

Ergo, there is no excuse for a bad client brief. When the client sees the ad agency’s response to its brief, and if anything about the assignment was not clear, it will show up in the creative brief.

Ideally, the creative brief will have overcome the client brief’s impreciseness. fixitBut even if it doesn’t, there is never any reason why an ad agency should complain about missing the mark with its creative product.

The creative brief, well written and appropriately inspiring, is designed to prevent poor creative from happening.

3. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate!

I am constantly amazed that “collaboration” is still such a foreign concept and unfamiliar word in the ad game. That is changing, but slowly.

The model is the copywriter/art director collaboration that has existed at ad agencies for decades. This model should be replicated between creative and account management, and I have written extensively on this topic. It should also be replicated from day one with the parties at the client and the agency who are responsible for “briefing,” which includes the client brief and the agency’s response, the creative brief.

So, implement these three steps in your briefing process and you should never have to endure an unclear assignment from your client.

Pipe dream? No. Not at all. Failure to believe and act on these ideas sets you up for more failure.

Remember, you’re not putting your faith in a document—either the client or the creative brief. You’re putting your faith in its clarifying and inspiring powers. calrify-values

How do you initiate changes in the way your creative brief gets written?

Change is easy to talk about, harder to actually do.

If part of your job includes writing creative briefs, and you’re not satisfied with how you’ve been trained to write them. Or you just think it’s time to step up the overall quality of the way briefs are written where you work, it’s natural to ask the question, “So, how do I change the process around here?”

I think we both know the answer.

With apologies to Nike, just do it.

If you’ve been reading any of the posts on this blog, you know enough to start writing better, clearer, more inspiring briefs. I’d like to believe you’re doing that already.

But the way to start is to just start. I also think it will pay huge dividends to enlist your creative team as collaborators. That alone will make your job easier and give it more credibility.

In other words, I’m suggesting that you simply take the initiative. Don’t wait.

Ask forgiveness, not permission.

Advertising and communications professionals tend to be self-starters, people who don’t wait around for orders. Whether you’re a creative or an account management person, the field of communications attracts problem solvers.

Let the quality of your work speak for the need to write better briefs. There’s no guarantee that what you do will automatically filter into another brief writer’s efforts. But it might. One thing is certain: it can’t filter into your colleagues briefs if you don’t step up and make your briefs better yourself. It has to start somewhere. Why not with you?

Writing a better brief offers many benefits, not least that it gives you, the brief writer, a bigger role in the direction of the creative you’re asking your team to develop. That’s a heady thing.

You can lead your team to the buried treasure. Or you can lead them astray. You have the power to do both.

Use that power wisely. Grasshopper.