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!).

Courage

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.

Constraint

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.

Curiosity

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!

Collaboration

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.

Craft

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.

Consideration

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.

Clarity

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:

Practice!

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!

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.

It’s better to think inside the box.

A killer creative brief is hard to write. It should be hard. It’s supposed to be hard. If it were easy, no one would complain about the dearth of good creative briefs. And creatives love to complain about bad creative briefs. complainer-657x360

Ergo, writing a good one is not easy.

Is that why so many are poorly written? Because expectations are so low?

Perfect, at least some of us have come to know, is the enemy of the good.

Many authors have been attributed to this line: “I would have made this letter shorter, but I didn’t have enough time.” Some credit Mark Twain. Others Cicero.

Constraints force us to make choices. The best of us respond to the challenge. Too often, the creative brief writer throws up his hands and gives in to the temptation to include everything for fear of missing something. As Oscar Wilde would say in response, “I can resist anything, except temptation.”

To write a killer creative brief requires courage, confidence and brevity.

Next time someone (your boss, the client, a weak-minded account type) encourages you to add more to your creative brief, make them talk to the hand. Then recite these three reasons:

1. Liberating Constraint.

Force yourself to keep your brief to one page. That doesn’t mean a two-page brief is automatically bad or wrong. It simply means you are conscious of the need to find the essence of a product’s message.

The concept is called “Liberating Constraint.” When you force yourself to be reductive, you open creative doors. When you agree to reside inside a self-imposed “box,” the experience frees you. There’s a ton of research to back this up. prison-bars-image

You are not writing a user guide. You are writing explicit instructions to the creative team. The brief is designed to give them a push, point them in one possible direction, spark their thinking.

The brief is the first step in the creative process. Get the creatives started, then step back and let them do their jobs.

Ultimately, this means you must make choices. You must edit. You must be selective. You must be, well, brief.

Your goal, always: One page.

2. Two pages: No! Two minds: Yes!

Whomever writes a creative brief is not weak of heart. You got game. You strut. Even if inside you’re quaking in your boots, you don’t show it. You gotta exude confidence.

This is precisely why writing the brief is never a solo project. You must collaborate. It’s not the work of a committee, but rather of a dedicated team.

Compare this process to what creatives do: an art director/graphic designer pairs with a writer, and the two of them play a kind of creative ping pong. Ideas bounce back and forth between them. Some are rejected, others are kept to explore further.

The creative brief demands the same dual-minded attention. You share responsibility for the document. You both take credit. Which means you also must accept blame for a poorly written effort.

Hey, creatives routinely present lame ideas. It happens. Truth be told, they are often the ones who know their best from their worst ideas. The difference between creative teams and brief-writing teams: Brief writers create a single creative brief. Creatives always present multiple ideas. Oh well. Get used to it.

3. When the brief-writing team includes a creative, creatives now have a clear stake in the process.

When account or planning folks were the sole proprietor of creative briefs, that essentially set up a “them vs us” mentality. It was a lot easier for creatives to diss an even moderately bad brief. Why not? They had no skin in the game.

Make a creative part of the brief-writing process, and all that changes. As it should be. Creatives now own a piece of the effort. And when a creative assists the account or planning colleague in the briefing process, fellow creatives quickly realize their brethren is on board.

It makes a huge difference.

Liberating Constraint is my main message here, which clearly covers points 1 and 2.  But point 3 is a benefit, and creatives by nature will help keep the brief-writing process focused and concise. Creative always exist inside a box of one kind or another: a :30 spot, a one-page ad, any communication with a time or space limit. These are all examples of constraints. how-to-expand-your-comfort-zone

Thinking “outside the box” has become a horrible cliche that means, well, I have no idea what it means any more.

Thinking “inside the box” means self-imposed limits. That’s a great definition of a creative brief. It’s no guarantee that the document will be well written, much less inspired. But at least it won’t take very long to discover that fact.

Practice Liberating Constraint whenever you write a creative brief. Force yourself to make enlightened, insightful choices based on your brand story. Your brief will be more inspired. And so will your creative teams’ work.

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.

peter-steiner-you-can-be-anything-you-want-to-be-no-limits-new-yorker-cartoon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

The creative brief as liberating constraint

Over the course of my advertising career, now in its 30th year, I have seen two kinds of creative briefs. The first is the “kitchen sink” version. The writer essentially had no idea what belonged, so everything went into it. The second version I’ll call the “Client Brief 2.0,” a kind of cut-and-pasting from whatever document the client hands over to the ad agency account team.

Either version reveals much about both the writer and the process. When I would receive one of these briefs, it was easy to conclude that the writer was not up to the challenge of what an inspired creative brief should be. The brief, this person seemed to be saying, is beyond me.

I understand. While training around the creative brief is much improved since I began my career in the 1980s, it is still far from acceptable. Evidence the piles of poorly written briefs.

So start thinking about the brief differently.

It is not an invitation to your creative team to do whatever they want. It is not a blank check, or a blank slate, on which they can live out their creative fantasies.

Instead, think of the creative brief as a prison of opportunity. Better yet, it is the ideal liberating constraint.

David Ogilvy is famously quoted as having said, “Give me the freedom of a tight (creative) brief.” david-ogilvy_unpublished This is another way of defining the term liberating constraint. Here is another:

A liberating constraint restricts one’s freedom in one sense (or dimension), where the restriction allows greater freedom in another direction.

As a former working creative (copywriter then creative director), I always reveled in the restrictions of a creative assignment. I preferred to tackle new campaign ideas for a back hoe rather than Coca Cola. A back hoe has definable benefits and a very targeted user. Coke is, well…for everyone, and no matter how hard you dig to find evidence to the contrary, it’s a parity product.

A creative brief, by definition, must wear its liberating constraint elegantly. The writer must first establish clear objectives. The nature of well-defined objectives creates clear constraints for the creative team.

As a brief writer, think of your job as identifying the dragon your creative team must slay. This dragon is your objectives. Give the creatives detailed information and a clear set of objectives, David Ogilvy was saying, and the confines of this information become the catalyst for their ideas.

They will be boxed in by these objectives, and if you’ve presented them reasonably well, the creative team will use them as a springboard for advertising concepts. prison-bars-imageThey will push against your boundaries until the ah-ha moments arrive. Give them structure as well as information, and they will find the room they need to work.

This is your challenge as the brief writer. Or better, as a member of the small brief-writing team. You compel the creative team onward to creative brilliance by providing them with a document that by its very nature holds them back and forces them to accept constraint.

You just don’t want to tell them that. It’ll be our secret.

 

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.

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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.