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.

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.

How to convince your agency or in-house creative department to use a creative brief.

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

Imagine that I hand you two identical boxes that contain identical contents.

One of the two boxes comes with a set of instructions to assemble the contents. The second box comes with no instructions. Suppose I told you that you had exactly one hour to complete the assembly.

Which box would you choose?

If you’re sane, you’d choose the box that comes with instructions. Why make your like difficult, right? keep-calm-and-follow-directions-35

But that’s exactly what it’s like for the creative department when you give them a project without a creative brief. You handicap them from the start.

Why on Earth would any professional communications firm even contemplate handing over a communications project to its creative team without a set of instructions? Why? Would someone please explain this concept to me? Because I just don’t get it.

Yet it happens. Every week or so I get an email from a reader or fellow creative bemoaning his or her situation where the creative brief (ad-speak for “set of instructions”) either does not exist, is ignored or is given lip service at best.

There is more truth to the cliche that the worst communicators are people in the communications business. They’re outstanding at talking to everyone on the planet…except themselves. They know every trick in the book to reach this audience or that, but when it comes to commiserating with each other, they are mute. They think the rules don’t apply to them.

This is a sad state of affairs.

If the decision makers where you work wouldn’t try to assemble the contents of a box without instructions, and that stark fact doesn’t convince them to use a creative brief, what can you do?

I have some advice that could change their minds.

I have witnessed more spinning wheels when a creative brief is ignored or underutilized. Meaning that creative work is rejected internally or by the client, or both, because something was missing, something was overlooked. More often, something was simply not clear.

The result is predictable: The creative team is forced to go back to the drawing board, but not necessarily with any clearer direction. Sometimes this happens repeatedly. I have painful memories of one project early in my career where I revised copy 17 times before it was finally approved. I learned quickly not to take it personally.

There is another route. The creatives will actually figure out the project, deliver some good (maybe even great) work and everyone is happy. This happens more often than you might imagine.

The question is: Why must it be this way when there is an alternative?

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Here’s how you can fix the problem: Try an A–B split. ff_abtesting_f

If you’re not versed in direct response, this means that you conduct a test with two approaches to the same project: one team gets a creative brief, the other doesn’t. If the creative brief isn’t part of your agency’s culture, you’ll have to do your best to create a template and fill in the boxes yourself. You must acquire evidence to show tangibly what happens when a brief is a part of the project from the beginning.

My experience shows that a creative team working from an inspired creative brief delivers better work the first time with fewer re-dos and miss hits.

You may have to try this experiment without buy-in from your bosses. You may also have to do it on the sly. You absolutely must find a creative (or an account exec) so there is collaboration between the two groups. Creatives will leap at the chance to work from a creative brief if none is currently available. Account folks should too, but may need persuading.

If your agency is too small for multiple teams on the same project, then choose two projects with similar objectives, similar target audiences or similar creative tone.

The point is, build your case for the creative brief with experience using a creative brief. Specifically, you should be able to answer the following questions in the affirmative before the work is submitted for review:

1. Is the direction from a creative brief clear, resulting in focused creative solutions?

2. Does the single-minded proposition inspire good thinking?

3. Is there an insight about the product or the target consumer that also inspires good thinking?

4. Does the creative brief establish a yardstick against which creative solutions can be assessed? In other words, can you say for certain whether or not a creative solution is “on brief” or “off brief”?

5. Does the brief establish clear expectations regarding the tone of voice for your product or service?

You’ll notice that these five questions are variations of those you would find on a creative brief itself.

So how do you measure the results of creative solutions arrived at “with” a creative brief versus those “without” a creative brief? A degree of subjectivity is inevitable, but if the creative solutions (meaning the ad ideas or concepts) address these questions successfully, you have demonstrated that the set of instructions you wrote (the brief) delivered creative that followed those instructions. Sometimes, that’s proof enough of the creative brief’s value.

Essentially, you have shown that #4 is achievable: You’ve proven that creative can be assessed, and your brief is the yardstick. high-jump-bar

This is the most important criteria for any brief: You set the bar at a certain height and ask whether or not the work at least achieves it. If it exceeds that height, wow. What a benefit. If it underachieves, you have a way of discerning why (the standards established by the brief) and a way to fix what doesn’t measure up.

Without a brief, how can you know if the work is good enough? Even if everyone in the room agrees that the work is good, even great, can they say why?

Since no one created a check list in advance (another way to describe a creative brief), no one can say with assurance that the work they see fulfills any criteria.

Your creative brief becomes the check list. The road map. The yardstick. The standard to which you can point and ask, “Did we get it right?” yardstick-measure-ruler-inch

Don’t let another day slip by if your creative work place does not use a creative brief. Don’t deny yourself the opportunity to work with a set of instructions. It’s very possible to assemble a piece of furniture from Ikea without any, but why would you want to even try?

The creative brief doesn’t make producing ideas easy. Hard work takes care of that. But it certainly makes everyone’s life easier…if you put it to the test for which it was designed.

Keeping things simple

by Jean-Francois Fournon, Creative Director, Shem’s Publicite, Casablanca, Morocco

I like American people.

They don’t intellectualize things. They keep it simple. And advertising has to be simple if we want consumers to remember our messages. So that may be one of the reasons why Americans are very good at advertising.

Another reason I like Americans is their habit of explaining how to succeed, how to speak in public, earn more money, be successful in life and write a good brief.

Here we are. Very simple rules, full of examples, step-by-step explanations. Nobody gets lost.

I spent most of my creative career criticizing briefs, making planners feel uncomfortable until they said they would go back to the drawing board.

In fact I was a lazy writer and like really lazy people I tried to gain time. Nowadays I know that it’s not because you refuse a brief that the date of presentation will change so you end up getting stuck with less time to work on a brief. So it’s better to fix things during the briefing session if possible.

Anyway this rebellious attitude needed some convincing arguments to oppose the planners. And that’s how I started digging into the inner logic of briefs. And I discovered that even if there are nine or 10 sections in a brief, only three really mattered to me.

First one: what do we want to achieve with this brief?

This can really be inspiring and you may find unusual solutions when the rest of the brief guides you toward more classical ways, a nice :30 TV spot or a print campaign. At the early stage and this one is the earliest, everything is possible and I like this feeling!

Second area that I find inspiring: the consumer.

Most of the time our target is summarized by abstract figures. Here in Morocco, people are defined by their CSP (socio-professional categories according to their income). So you are allowed to do smart campaigns when targeting CSP+ and down to earth ones when targeting CSP-.

Which implies that the more money one makes, the smarter the person is.

Come on, this doesn’t reflect life. People with less money need to be smarter and ingenious to cope with life. They need to be imaginative.

So reading a brief I cannot really understand who I’m talking to unless I get an in-depth description of these people. And the best way I’ve found is to personalize the target, to give him/her a first name and describe his/her life as precisely as possible. Even if it doesn’t have any obvious connection with the product we are advertising. At least it enables me to put my feet in someone else’s shoes. And that’s a lot.

Last key point: the single-minded proposition.

I know that I can sometimes find a good idea including two benefits but I keep these exceptions for myself and prefer to officially shout that without a unique proposition the idea cannot be simple, pure and great. This short sentence (because the SMP needs to be concise) can be inspiring to the point that on several occasions I used the line without modifying it.

On an RSF (Reporters without Borders) campaign I did in 2002 with Saatchi Paris, I used “Don’t wait to be deprived of news to stand up and fight for it” as a baseline (tagline). It was written by a great young planner and was so powerful that I didn’t find anything better. The line was actually so good that when my art director and I got stuck for ideas, we came back to the meaning of it to develop new ones. And it remained the tagline of RSF for the next six years.

This is my learning after some 20 years spent reading briefs, trying to crack them and occasionally succeeding. While getting older, I’ve noticed that a perfect command of the brief gives you an advantage as a creative (less time spent complaining which is highly unproductive) and forces the planners to push the boundaries and be creative  themselves. And when everybody is creative in what he/she does, the whole agency wins.

“One team, one dream” as the Saatchi brothers used to say.

Build a better box.

When I began my career as a copywriter, I viewed rules the way other creatives viewed rules: with disdain.

I wanted nothing to interfere with the creative process. Nothing to stand between me and a big idea. You know, the whole “live free or die” thing. It’s a philosophy the young and inexperienced find especially appealing.

Now close to 25 years into my career, I have a different view.

It’s not that I’ve become a conformist. Hardly. It’s that I understand the liberating nature of constraint. The tighter the box in which you force me, as a creative person, to work, the more likely it is that I’ll find a way to produce a big idea.

I was reading an article somewhere, I no longer remember the publication, when I came across the following three words:

Rules inspire creativity.

They brought to mind the thoughts I expressed above. And they also got me thinking about the creative brief. Because the brief is a document filled with rules. You might even say constraints. These constraints are imposed on the brief writer for a reason. The brief is designed to be an act of reduction, of summarizing as succinctly as possible, the very essence of a brand’s most desirable attributes.

You are forcing your creative team to live inside a box. The size of that box, big or small, is in your hands to decide. But no matter how you look at it, you’re a box builder. You’re creating rules for the creatives to follow (and, one hopes, about which they feel liberated not constrained).

So why not approach the task with the same sense of possibility?

As I’ve discussed here before, to write an inspired creative brief requires you to bring creativity to task. It requires you to dig a little deeper, research a little more, ask pertinent questions (maybe even impertinent questions now and then). In short, to write an inspired brief requires the same things of a brief writer that creatives need to produce great work.

Rules may seem like speed bumps, but only to the uninitiated and inexperienced.

The challenge of identifying to whom you are addressing the communications can either be phoned in, and the result is a list of bullet points that mean nothing. Or you can be inspired and create a persona, a word-picture of Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. Brand User with the same attention to detail as a short-story writer or poet. It’s up to you.

You can cut and paste the client’s suggestion for the key message and let the creatives figure it out. Or you can make the effort to write that “first ad” for the creative team, and put your mark on the project from the beginning.

Creatives, the really good ones that is, use rules to help them. To inspire them. To liberate them from perceived constraints.

Brief writers have the same opportunity. You can let the apparent constraints of a brief template smother your creativity. Or inspire it.

I think you know which option I’d recommend.


Creative Brief: The Blog is taking off the entire month of August. It will be sunning itself on the beaches of the Greek island of Mykonos, where, it is said, briefs are not required. Traitor!

The Blog and I will return in September. One of us will have tan lines.