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

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

Can’t you see the obvious?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider this analogy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is current best practices.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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?

3 steps to avoid a creative brief that looks like a walk-in refrigerator.

Ideas present themselves when you least expect them. Just recently I was reading the Los Angeles Times and came across an article entitled, “Europe’s little fridges hold secret to less waste.”

It was a eureka moment.

Having lived in Europe myself for a short time 30 years ago, I remember my own tiny fridge in the seventh-floor walk up I rented. It forced me to shop more often because it held much less. But each meal was fresher and I wasted much less food. I also produced much less trash overall.

This everyday appliance is a perfect illustration of what can go wrong with a creative brief. It’s also the ideal comparison between the European model of a brief and the American.

The creative brief is an invention of the British, who would not like being called Europeans I know. Apologies, but you get my point. Brits, too, are known for smaller fridges.

Food_wasteAmericans, on the other hand, tend to purchase larger fridges and pack them with a week’s worth of groceries. We also tend to waste more food and produce more trash.

Ditto, I’m afraid, with the American version of the creative brief: Too much information, much of it wasted and unnecessary. It can end up looking like a double-door refrigerator monstrosity.

The lesson here is to remember that the brief is designed to not only inspire the creative team, but primarily to provide strategic reduction.

It is about getting to the heart of the matter.

The tendency, especially among inexperienced brief writers, is to include everything. Leave nothing out. This bad habit is born from the fear that the writer might forget a valuable tidbit that could lead to a winning idea.

It’s the wrong way to think. It’s also laziness.

Your job as a brief writer (including the creative who helps you write the creative brief) is to take the time you need to eliminate the waste and the unnecessary and the irrelevant. To weed out the superfluous and discover the hidden treasure that is the essence of an inspired creative brief. buried-treasure-iStock_000004087953Large1-1024x768

So here are three tests to administer to your next creative brief. Fail any one, and especially more than one, and you must consider revisions.

1. How many communication objectives have you listed?

If the answer is four or more, edit. Ideally, aim for three, and make sure that one of the objectives is always “Reinforce the brand.” That leaves two objectives, one of which will be the first among equals. Another name for this? The Single-Minded Proposition. One of your objectives must be the SMP. You will find the SMP nowhere else.

2. Be absolutely certain your SMP is truly Single-Minded.

Clients understandably want to say everything wonderful about their product or service. That’s why they hire ad agencies. The agency’s job is to talk them out of this nonsense. People who buy stuff (you and me and everyone else) are emotional creatures. We respond best to focused messages.

The analogy I like to use is this: You’ve heard about people who can fall asleep on a bed of nails. Too many points and they can’t truly hurt you. But have you ever considered sleeping on a bed with one sharp nail sticking out of it? No. You’d be crazy.

A well-written Single-Minded Proposition should resemble the bed with a single nail. You wouldn’t want to sleep on it, but you’d never miss the point (pun intended).

3. Find a consumer insight.

However you arrive at this consumer insight, you must have one. More than one if possible. But even just one can lead to a creative brief that inspires the creative team to find a big idea.

The consumer insight combined with a killer SMP is the heart of your inspired creative brief. There’s more to it, of course, but these two items are the infrastructure off of which you hang other pieces of information. Don’t bury these ingredients among useless information.

This means work. It is hard work. It is writing that springs from intense and creative thinking. It requires practice. Lots and lots of practice.

As I say to my college composition students, writing is not a formula. It is an art. It is a process that must be honed. It requires editing and revising. And it requires criticism and feedback.

Even though a well-written creative brief is the “first ad,” as John Hegarty calls it, it must never be a first draft.

Are you trustworthy? It’s a must for a creative brief writer.

I used to say that before you can write a single word on a creative brief, you need a strategy. It’s time to amend that. There’s an important precept that straddles the two: trust.

Strategy must be in place before the brief can be written. But before you can begin the creative brief process, you, the writer, must have established a clear, open and honest relationship with the team of people who will work from your brief. This is why collaboration is so important. This is why the very idea of writing a creative brief by yourself is…crazy.

But step back for a moment and ask yourself: Are you trustworthy? Don’t take this question for granted. Even if you’ve been working in your organization for years, you may not know the answer. Worse, you may overestimate the answer. And if you’re brand new, you must take the necessary steps to build that trust.


As Warren Buffet has said, it takes years to build a good reputation and only five minutes to ruin it.

I teach English composition, critical thinking and argumentation at Glendale College in Los Angeles. This semester, I plan to challenge my students with a short writing assignment in which they argue their trustworthiness:

Are you trustworthy? Make your case in a short, well-written paragraph. Show it to your  friends and family. Do they agree?

Whether your task is to write the creative brief or you work from it, knowing the degree of trustworthiness you possess plays a huge role in the success of both the document and the outcome.

TrustworthinessI urge you to try this exercise. Not only is it an exercise in building trust, but it’s also an exercise is learning how others view you. The fact that you’d ask the question and invite others to respond will enhance their respect for you.

The creative brief is the first step in the creative process, and as the first step, its most vital content is unwritten.




Why should creatives care about strategy?

by Jerry D’Ascoli, creative consultant, art director, search and rescue. See his work at jerrydascoli.com


We’ve grown to hate the word, creativity’s kiss of death. “Let’s keep on strategy.” “We’ll need some real strategic thinking here.” “Strategically, I don’t think we’re in a good place.”

So why is this exhausted term even important? After all, we just toss the strategy and do what we want anyway. Since we, as creatives, know what the client really needs.

Here’s the thing. We do know what is engaging, convincing, and different. But for all our ego and grandstanding, without a solid strategy, our efforts are for naught and the agency, client and product are done a huge disservice. Strategy is what will elevate good creative to the hallowed halls of greatness.


I’m talking about an Umbrella Strategy. This goes way beyond a specific ad, execution or campaign. This gets to the root of the Brand. Its voice, personality and direction. And everything that represents the Brand needs to resonate from it. If it’s optimized—clearly defining the Brand and distinguishing its character—it becomes the most powerful creative tool you have. Truly.

The Client’s Brief

A creative brief: it at the least, points you in a direction and at the best, arms you with tons of background and support points so you can just “create” (ahhh, dare to dream). But what we tend to forget is that ultimately it’s the Client’s brief. If the agency team—Creative and Account—takes the time to generate an umbrella strategy with the Client, the Client becomes vested in not only the process but the positioning. Every brief that ensues—from the door hanger to the integrated social-viral-mobile-digital effort—becomes one traceable to the core brand attribute. Nice.


Let’s see, we’ve got a great umbrella strategy? Check. A client vested in it? Check. A brief based on it? Check. A marketing challenge to solve? Check. Now let’s go off, think big and broad, stretch our imaginations and the client’s limits. Killer ideas. Even better executions. The walls are papered with them. Pizzas have been consumed. Brains have been stormed. Creatives exhausted.

Offense or offensive?

“The best offense is a great defense.” Trite but true. And especially relevant to us. We scan the culls. A great range of inspired work. Most push the “comfortable” edge. But wait a second, these actually support the brand. They come straight from its voice but they’re not merely the “brief” at all.They’ve transcended it. And yet they fall right into it. Guess what? Now we’re not presenting ideas with callous bravado,we’re tenable.


The client’s a bit nervous, these ideas are more than they expected Different from what they usually do. Exxcelleeeent… Remember that umbrella strategy we worked out? The brief bred from it? Look, these all speak to it. You’re uncomfortable, that’s good. It’s different, precisely. But listen to the voice—the positioning’s dead on. Exactly what we need to say but in a way that no one else is, or can. Rifle shot! The perfect offense: everything shown was defensible. And the client provided the defense.


Brilliant insight. Killer execution. Epic result. It couldn’t have gone any other way. We laid the foundation and build the specs with the client, which ensured we’d exceed their expectations. Creative, on strategy, impregnable, and quantifiable. Congratulations!

What comes before the creative brief?

In the ideal world, no creative brief would be written without one very important piece of information.

The strategy.

In fact, most creative-brief templates include a box that asks, in varying ways, “What is the strategy?”

But let’s be real. I’ve seen my share of creative briefs without this key piece of information.

Let me go on record here and now and say,

This is just not acceptable.

While you can write a brief without knowing the strategy behind your communication efforts, you shouldn’t do it.

I’m also going to say that anyone who claims, as I’ve heard many times over my career, that one person’s strategy is another’s tactic, ought to find a new line of work. Because that, too, is not only unacceptable thinking, it’s simply moronic.

Allow me to make it simple for those of you who subscribe to this faulty logic.

Let’s say I’m the CMO of Coca Cola. I’m not satisfied with the Coke’s ranking among colas worldwide. I want to return Coke to its former status as the #1 cola on the planet (I know nothing about Coke’s relative ranking among colas or its market share; I’m just making this up to prove a point. Humor me.)

So I communicate my new marketing objective to Coke’s advertising agencies: We need to make Coke #1 on the planet.

Come up with a marketing big idea to accomplish this goal: a strategy.

Time passes.

My lead agency delivers the following as its proposed strategy to achieve my objective:

Launch a new website and a huge new television campaign, supported by print, online & viral campaigns, plus a PR effort and word of mouth. This will put Coke back on top.

Ta-da! A grand strategy. Right?

Okay, be honest. How many of you agreed, even applauded?

Please administer ten lashes to your backside.

That was not a strategy.

Those, my friends, are tactics. I’m not sure they were good or even appropriate tactics, but they are indeed tactics.

Put another way, they are empty vehicles for delivering a yet-to-be-articulated message that one hopes will do their job of…what?

Changing minds, persuading people to do or feel something they didn’t want to do or feel before, or just engaging them in a conversation about something new.

Strategy means a plan: How you’re going to achieve your objective.

A tactic, like building a new website or producing a direct-mail or television campaign, is the method by which you deliver the message that will achieve your objective.

You need a plan, a BIG IDEA, to fill up your tactical delivery devices with CONTENT that will persuade the people whom you hope will buy your product to do what you want them to do. Or in today’s new world, to engage them in a two-way conversation with you about your product.

Here’s what constitutes a strategy to put Coke back on top as the #1 cola on the planet.


Engage as many people as possible on every continent, in every country, in as many cities — large and small — in the most comprehensive taste test ever conducted in the history of taste tests.

Now that’s a strategy. That’s a plan.

Is it original?

Who cares? If it achieves my objective to make Coke #1 again, I don’t give a hoot! But it might be original in the sense that this strategy seems to be incredibly ambitious. I don’t know if any company has attempted to do a planet-wide taste test before.

Is it a good strategy?

Yeah, sure it is. It’s a no-brainer. It satisfies the direct-response geek in me that wants something measurable and also gives me testimonial fodder. One of the best methods of selling anything is to get regular Joes and Janes to tell you how much they love something.

Is this strategy going to deliver break-through creative?

I doubt it. But maybe. Depends on how inspired the creative brief is.

The point is, this is a plan. A real, honest-to-goodness plan. You may not like it. You may roll your eyes and say it’s been done a thousand times.

But you can’t argue with this: you can develop a host of tactics to put the plan into effect. And you can write very clear creative briefs from this strategy.

Here’s just one tactic:

Create a new website that challenges Coke lovers to conduct their own taste tests. Ask them to video tape these tests and post them YouTube-style on this website. The more unusual, creative and interesting, the better.

Reward the quirkiest taste-test creator with a year’s supply of free Coke.

Okay, you get the idea.

Strategy is the marketing big idea.

Once you have a strategy, you can write a communications plan, which is essentially a list of tactics you’ll use to put your strategy into effect.

And then you can write creative briefs to put content — the creative big idea — into the tactical delivery devices (web, TV, DM, print, PR, word of mouth) you want to employ to get your message out or start your conversation with consumers.

If you don’t know the strategy to sell your product or service, it’s pretty hard to write a creative brief.

And I guarantee this: even if you tried to write such a brief, it will never be inspired.