Who is the real culprit behind bad creative briefs?

The people who screw up the creative brief are not likely to read this essay. That’s too bad. They need a serious talking to.

The thing is, I don’t know who they are by name, but I do know their identities by title or role within a client’s organization. Notice I don’t mention ad agencies. While everyone, everywhere, struggles with getting this document right, agencies know its value and take it seriously. At least the agencies I’ve worked for, and the people I know who work for them.

Client-side marketers, on the other hand, still display a dangerous ignorance about the creative brief. An ignorance bordering on insanity. No, I take that back. They are insane. Crazy insane.

The document designed to transform brands—and to make these insane people look good—is routinely ignored, undervalued, sabotaged, or all of the above.

Why? I wish I knew.

But I know who is to blame. They commit the same error for the same reason:

Egoego

Which means my ranting will likely solve nothing.

Yet rant I will. I must. I have been called the “lone voice” on behalf of the creative brief. This is what a lone voice does.

The troglodytes come in three flavors, but share the same title: Senior Management.

1. They sabotage the creative brief process.

They sabotage because they can. They work like this:

Before the project has an official “kick off,” these saboteurs are either invited to review the creative brief, or asked to help compose it. They refuse. They ignore the request. They make excuses. They might beg forgiveness. But the result is the same. Their voice is not heard.

Then the creative brief emerges, and the next step occurs: the project kick-off.

The brief is discussed, or more likely debated for its lack of clarity and direction, but the driving force is always The Deadline. Usually yesterday. The work commences.

Then the work is presented, but not to the decision maker. Instead, to a less senior group. Some good idea rises to the top. Then it hits its first big hurdle. Senior Management (SM), who refused to participate in the opening stages, now steps in.

This is often when SM sees both the creative brief, as well as the creative work, for the first time. SM objects. The reason hardly matters. SM doesn’t like something. They revise the brief in some way, and that always means the creative work misses the mark. The process starts over.

Lost time. Lost enthusiasm. And what the SM should be most attuned to, but is not, lost $$$.

When a stake holder fails to get involved in the beginning, everyone pays…in the middle and especially in the end.shootinfoot

When there are multiple stake holders, it’s not unusual for no one to claim “final authority.” Worse, no one cares. Multiple turfs, silo-ed responsibilities, no collaboration. Everyone pays.

This is willful sabotage.

2. They don’t understand the creative brief.

All I have to write is: The Telephone Game. This is a simple visual.

You immediately picture a group of children…er…Senior Management. The one on the farthest left whispers something into the ear of the SM next to him. By the time the last in line hears the whispered message and announces what she has heard, the joke is on everyone. You know how this works.

But for reasons passing understanding, SM fails to grasp the concept. SM is convinced that a creative brief is not necessary. That everyone knows what the task is.

Even some veteran creatives buy into this nonsense. The rationale: We creatives often go without a brief and we manage to figure out what’s needed, and always deliver.

Bless you. My response: Why do you put up with it? Why do you become enablers?

No ad agency I know of works without a creative brief. Once in my past, I worked for a small B-to-B shop that did not use a creative brief. After months of pestering, SM relented, and instructed me to write the briefs.

Me, the copywriter.

Look what they have wrought.

3. They don’t believe in the creative brief.

I know, this is so close to #2 it may not deserve its own rant. But it’s a disease all its own. These troglodytes use the creative brief, but put so little stock in it that you might as well not have one at all. They are closer to #1 than #2 because this group of SM is likely to sabotage the process.

The primary difference between the saboteurs and the non-believers is: Influence.

Saboteurs dent morale, but the believers in the creative brief who work for them never lose faith.

Non-believers infect the entire organization.

I know this is flirting dangerously with religion, but the analogy fits. You have to put your faith in something that provides a rallying point. The creative brief is the logical and emotional center for the brand and of the creative process. These are its purposes. troglodyte

When you encounter troglodytes, you have to work especially hard to immunize yourself and your organization from their disease.

I have the feeling that you’re nodding in agreement with much, perhaps most, of what I’ve written.

“Alas,” you say, “what can I do?”

Here’s a thought: Print this out and leave it on the desk of your favorite troglodyte.

Complaints about the creative brief that have nothing to do with the creative brief.

Small Fish With Ambitions Of A Big Shark - Business Concept

Complaints are often disguises. Each one is meant to hide a central truth, a truth that emerges only after you listen carefully to the rant. When the blame for some marketing shortfall lands on the creative brief, an easy target, the real culprit lies elsewhere.

Here are three of my favorites:

1. The creative brief is no longer relevant.

2. There’s something wrong with our creative brief.

3. If the brief isn’t great, the creatives will figure out the Big Idea.

I’ve heard versions of these whinings in conversations, in articles, and online. They’re all full of shittake mushrooms.

You don’t have to be a psychologist to understand what the real issue is. But I’ll play psychologist today and shed some light on these laments.

First: The creative brief is no longer relevant.

I hear this one the most. When I ask for elaboration, the line of thinking goes like this: There are too many platforms today (meaning social media and mobile) requiring different messages to reach our target consumer. The old models of advertising, like feature/benefit or information-based messages, don’t work in these settings. We have to change our approach…blah, blah, blah.

So look carefully. The complaint starts with the brief, but veers rapidly into the message, the communication. The bickering has nothing to do, in the end, with the brief itself. If you’re present enough in this conversation to stop and point this out to your interlocutor, the funny thing is: They agree with you!

It’s not about the creative brief. The complaint is about the work that arises from the creative brief!

Second: There’s something wrong with our creative brief.

I hear this one quite often. It always makes me laugh. I typically respond with this story:

Imagine you had the opportunity to visit the home of your favorite clothes designer, say Yves St. Laurent or Giorgio Armani. You walk into his personal clothes closet and look around. Even if it were empty, you have to believe the space itself would be impressive. walk in closet

But you don’t care about the closet, do you? No! You want to see what’s in it! You want to see the suits, the jackets, the material they’re made of. The shoes, the sweaters, the hand-made shirts. You want to see and feel and smell the quality around you. If you like clothes even just a little bit, you want to be surrounded by this genius’ creations.

So the creative brief is like a closet. It means nothing when it’s empty. It’s just a piece of paper with boxes or questions.

What we care about is the contents! The answers to those difficult questions. The clothes, baby! The clothes!

Stop worrying about the creative brief template. Even the worst template can dazzle if the answers to its questions are inspiring and thoughtful and engaging.

If you blame the template, you’re making an excuse for an ill-prepared creative brief writer. Please stop!

Third: If the brief isn’t great, the creatives will figure out the Big Idea.

This one hurts. This one clearly misses the point of the creative brief. It’s just plain wrong.

The brief, after all, is the first step of the creative process. It’s the first swing at solving the problem.

In other words, the creative brief is the Big Idea.

The creatives assigned to read it, work from it and be inspired by it deliver executions of the Big Idea. They translate the Big Idea into communications that sell. If the writers of the creative brief have stepped up, the heavy lifting has been done.

Abstract illustration concept for design

You know instantly when you’re reading a stellar creative brief. You can see how others are reacting. Look at their body language. Their wheels are turning. They’re asking questions. Talking about executions. They’re already working on the problem. They’re excited!

The opposite is equally visible. If the brief is uninspiring, everyone feels it. Or doesn’t feel it to be more accurate. Garbage in, garbage out.

Handing over an unfocused document filled with unfiltered thinking, lacking a compelling claim (the single-minded proposition), and passing the buck to the creative department to fill in missing information, disrespects the brand, the client, the agency, and all the people involved with making and selling the product.

We like to blame the creative brief for many ills, but we can’t blame it when the problem has nothing to do with the creative brief itself.

If old models of advertising fail, fix the models. We’re seeing this happen everyday. Brands talk about storytelling.

If you’re not getting the right information from you brief, remember: It’s a blank piece of paper until you fill it with questions. Change the questions if you must! But don’t blame the questions. Blame the answers!

If you don’t believe the creative brief is the repository of the Big Idea…well, maybe it’s time you found a different line of work.

No wonder you blame the creative brief.

 

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.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Know It’s Broke When:

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

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

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

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

These questions tend to look like this:

“I thought you said we couldn’t…”

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

“Why is this okay now? Last month…”

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

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

2: The parties do not agree on content.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What all good single-minded propositions have in common.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is some thinking from other advertising practitioners:

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

Matt Hunt, European Head of Planning, Grey Healthcare Group

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

The Denver Egoist

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

Toro (circa 2010):

Toro makes the tools. You make the yard.

H&R Block (circa 2008):

Now you can have an expert on your side.

Izuzu Rodeo SUV (circa 1994):

The normal rules don’t apply.

AARP (circa unknown):

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

Lexus GS300 relaunch (circa 1998):

The GS300 is the kick-ass Lexus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. The best ones are fearless.

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

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

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

 

A trap every brief writer must avoid.

Perhaps you’ve read this line:

“Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.”

With apologies to its author (or authors), allow me to amend it:

“Eternal vigilance is the price of an inspired creative brief.”

While every question on a creative brief presents opportunities for missteps, one in particular routinely gets the best of brief writers. In other words, the answer to this question often leaves the readers of a brief scratching their heads, wondering why the answer is either fuzzy, incomplete or both.

The moral to this story is clear: Brief writers, stay vigilant!

Bullets kill, they don’t enlighten

Bullet points, that is. I cringe every time I read a creative brief that uses bullet points in the box reserved for describing the target audience of your product or service. Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 5.40.42 PM

Never use bullet points. Ever. This is the lazy brief-writer’s answer. It does no service to the creative team, the client, least of all the product.

Creatives require a rounded, three-dimensional picture of the person, or people, who is the potential user of the product. You can’t accomplish this with a list of bullet points. Which typically look like this (creatives, avert your eyes):

  • HHI: $75-100K
  • 45% male; 50% female; 5% politicians
  • 30% HS education; 40% AA degree; 15% BA

A word picture, by contrast, breathes air and puts flesh and emotion into the air-breathing, fleshy, emoting human being who actually uses the product.

Remember this Indian proverb:

Tell me a fact, and I will learn. Tell me a truth, and I will believe. But tell me a story, and it will live forever in my heart.

Building a brand is about telling a story and triggering an emotional connection to the brand. It is not about pouring facts in a receptacle. This can only happen when you create a real portrait of the “target audience” for your creative team, which requires honesty and genuineness. And sometimes a sense of humor.

Dart on Target and  People

I’ve cited this example many times, including in my book. Take a look, and enjoy a great read. It is from a brief written by a Leo Burnett planner for a familiar Proctor & Gamble cold remedy, Vicks:

Cold sufferers. You know how you feel when you’ve got a cold—that pathetic little inner-child of yours suddenly wakes up and, before you know it, you’re moaning & whining, you’ve gone all whiney & wimpy, all snivel, snot & slovenly; red raw puffy eyes, pale skin, lank hair—everything seems to be sagging! You feel like something from a Salvador Dali painting; you want to snuggle up in bed and dammit—you want your Mummy! But it’s not fair, is it, because no one else takes your suffering seriously—”Good God, pull yourself together, man, we’re not talking leprosy here! Don’t be such a baby, get on with it, stop moaning!”

Yes, your instincts tell you to be a child, but you’re not allowed to because you’ve “only” (only!) got a cold. And worse still—oh, the cruel irony!—even your attempts to retain your adulthood in the midst of your suffering betrays that sniveling little inner–child of yours: “oh don’t worry about me, I’ll be all right…”, “…no, no, please, I don’t want to sound like a martyr…”, “…well, I’m feeling a little better now, thank you…”

I’m sorry, but when you’ve got a cold you’re doomed to be a Child–Adult.

Entertaining, yes? Of course it is. But put yourself in the shoes of a creative who has to conceive a message to someone who either doesn’t yet have a cold, but will certainly get one some day, or who in fact is already on death’s door and wants relief.

You instantly shove a creative’s work to a new level by this word-picture. You are now in the head (and snivel-ly nose) of the ideal customer for Vicks. You are inspired.

It’s your job, brief writer, to give your creative team a significant push in the right direction. Why not have fun in the process? Get them in the mood!

You can’t afford to give creatives a fast-food version of a haute-cuisine delectable like this Vicks brief writer’s piece of art. This brief raises the bar and communicates to the creative team what is expected of them.

When the bar gets raised at the creative-brief stage, where it should be set, expectations will (or should) be equally raised. That’s how it’s supposed to work. The brief becomes the measure for the work produced from it.

Eternal vigilance is the price a brief writer must pay to create a killer brief. Don’t get lazy. Your creative team depends on you.

Blame the Brief: A limp ad from Viagra.

CLl6Nc5WcAMx_UA.jpg-large

Pfizer’s Agency Pulls A Boner In Its Ad For ED Medication.

Even professionals make mistakes. This one, um, stands head and shoulders above its competition.

Is it just me, or do you, too, see the classic error?

Break it down: Viagra is the brand name for a prescription medication designed to treat erectile dysfunction. Its generic name is sildenafil. Viagra is but one of a number of brand name medications to treat ED.

So what does this medication do? It relaxes the tiny blood vessels in and around your junk and allows the blood to flow. Et voila, an erection. In other words, the key feature of this product is that it can produce a woody. My research tells me that unless you have a serious case of diabetes, this drug works on all guys. Every adult male who takes it as prescribed will get a hard on. It works.

Which is why this ad sucks. It’s an advertisement for the category, not Viagra. It does nothing to distinguish the brand from any other brand.

The mistake Pfizer’s agency made was to confuse the product’s feature for its benefit.

In fact, this billboard ignores the product benefit completely, in favor of a cheap, sophomoric joke.

How did this happen? I blame the creative brief, and by implication, the brief writer.

As the first step in the creative process, the brief sets up the project with parameters and the means to measure them.

Somewhere on the Viagra brief the creative team likely found words to this effect:

Viagra is safe and efficacious (meaning it works).

But it’s the brief writer’s job to identify the benefit derived from the feature.

Ergo, the main, and almost singular, feature of Viagra is that it does, in fact, do what it promises: It produces erections in men with ED.

And that means the benefit is….?

It makes a man feel like a man again.

It gives him back his life.

It revitalizes his confidence.

The ad below, produced by a UK agency for Viagra, is much closer to addressing the true benefit of the product. It makes an emotional connection with guys. It talks directly to a human need: the freedom to be yourself without fear. It appeals to the…shall we be honest? The horny devil in all guys.F_200408_august19ed_125383a

I loved this approach when I first saw these ads. I was happily surprised that Pfizer would sign off on this tack. Whoever thought of using the “V” as devil horns deserves a Clio in the category of visual solution (if there is such a category).

I was also not surprised when I noticed it went away, rather quickly too.

Sadly, too many of the early ads for Viagra fell victim to the “show the feature” creative solution. If the creative brief had been clear about the true benefit of the product, the creative solutions would have been more benefit oriented. That would have been the measuring stick…er…rod…er…you know what I mean.

Instead, the agency and the client chose the joke.

No matter how you look at it, the creative solution you see in the billboard ad at the top ignores the benefit.

Which is why, as a communication designed to connect the brand to its user with an emotional bond, it fails.

“Get back to mischief” addresses a human emotion. That makes it a convincing piece of communication.

 

How to fix a bad creative brief, Part 2: The single-minded proposition

The single-minded proposition is like a magnet: When you brief your creative team, it’s the first thing that draws their attention. They go right to this box/question and they are not afraid to judge the writer of the creative brief based solely on the answer they find.

It’s a harsh truth. It may not be fair, but it’s reality.

So here are three of the most common errors I’ve encountered in my 30 years of reading creative briefs, and some practical suggestions for fixing them.

1. Your single-minded proposition is too vague or uninspiring.

As the focal point of the creative brief, the single-minded proposition (SMP) carries a lot of weight. Perhaps too much so. It’s a very difficult little bugger to write. It’s like writing a headline. In fact, John Hegarty, founding partner of Bartle Boogle Hegarty in London, says that crafting a single-minded proposition is like writing the first ad for the project at hand. So the pressure is on you to do it well.

Fortunately, Hegarty relieves the pressure a bit by adding that your “first ad” doesn’t have to be great, but it has to be good.

My first suggestion is to partner with someone from the creative department. Don’t try to answer this question without an ally to help you. Choose a copywriter, but even an art director can write a good line. Use each other as sounding boards, or as creatives prefer to call their partners, as BS detectors. You won’t land on a great SMP on your first try. You’ll need to go through iterations until you arrive at something inspired.

Next, be brave. Step up and take a creative risk. With your creative partner ready to react, you’ll arrive at a shortish sentence that aspires to “first ad” status. Listen carefully to how your creative partner fashions an idea for the SMP. You’ll start to get a sense for what creatives everywhere look for in an inspiring line. Then practice with your own ideas. 18833aefdcb1882007aacee5b7042bf9

The point is, say things out loud. Write them in your notebook. Share them. Get feedback. You won’t get good at a focused, inspired SMP without getting the clunkers out first.

2. Your SMP is a laundry list of benefits.

This is the “better safe than sorry” version of the SMP. Include everything and hope something is valuable.

The result is the resigned eye-roll from your creatives.

Again, collaborating with a creative department partner should prevent this. Also, remember that your single-minded proposition has earned its name for a reason.

Put another way, think of the SMP as a popularity contest. Among the short list of product benefits that are the most important, only one can be the winner. One benefit stands out among all the others as the most desirable, around which you can build a piece of communication.

That’s your single-minded proposition. Focus on the word “single” and you will never end up with a dual or even a triple-minded proposition. It’s not about how many cool benefits your product has. It’s about finding the one that touches the most hearts.

I like this analogy: In India, there are guys who can fall asleep on a bed of nails. You’ve heard about this, right? Hundreds of nails lined up just so and the sharp points don’t break the skin. You don’t have to be from India either. maxresdefault

But can you imagine falling asleep on a bed with a single nail where your pillow is? Or where you rest your derriere (that’s French for your bum by the way)? I don’t think so.

That’s your guide when you write the SMP: Keep it focused. Make it about one especially relevant, resonating, compelling idea. One point gets through. Too many points and you lose your audience.

3. Your SMP is a paragraph.

This isn’t quite the same thing as #2, where you list all the benefits. It might be focused on a single benefit, but it has not been edited. It’s a first draft of an SMP. It reveals a lack of confidence in your own ability to be clear. 231

I may sound like a broken record, but this is where you need to have a creative brief-writing partner, preferably someone from the creative department. Collaboration leads to editing and revising. Between the two of you, you’ll reduce that paragraph to a single sentence. Perhaps a phrase.

Better yet, try to make it sound like a tagline. Many a great tagline started as a killer single-minded proposition. That “first ad” inspired what became an iconic word or phrase.

The single-minded proposition is the hardest “line” to write on a creative brief. It won’t happen on your first try. Give it its due, and work with a partner to hone it.

Follow these tips and you’ll avoid having a broken or clunky SMP in the first place.

How to fix a bad creative brief, Part 1

The best way to fix a bad brief is to not write one in the first place. But stuff happens. Your first draft may be a clunker. That’s why it’s called a “first draft.”

So here is a checklist. Whether you look at it before you write a creative brief or after, keep these ideas in mind and you’ll put yourself on a path toward an inspired document for your creative team(s).

1. Always collaborate. Never write alone.

It’s a simple truth: two minds are better than one. Two is my ideal number, too. I like the idea of partnering with a colleague to write the creative brief. My first choice is to partner with a creative. If no one volunteers, it may be time to go recruiting. alone_teddy_by_hombre_cz

A word of caution: Just because you partner with someone doesn’t guarantee your creative brief will always be inspired. Even art director/copywriter creative teams produce less than stellar advertising concepts. The work is only as good as the thinking that goes into it. Ditto for a creative brief.

Give yourself a head start by working with a colleague. You’ll have a sounding board. If you work with a creative, you’ll buy yourself a little extra credibility when you brief the creative team(s) with your brief because the creative department now has a bigger stake in the outcome. The upsides are numerous. The downsides are negligible.

Together, you and your collaborator have a much better chance of producing an inspired creative brief. And when creatives like a brief, they deliver better work. That helps everyone.

2. If your communication objectives aren’t clear, neither is the brief. Start your fix here.

There are lots of places where a creative brief can go wrong. While creatives tend to look first at the Single-Minded Proposition, you as the non-creative member of the creative brief-writing team should start by looking closely at the box labeled “Communications Objectives.” It may have a different label on your brief, such as “Reasons why we’re advertising” or “Purpose of the advertisement.” Whatever it’s called, this box is where everything begins, especially the Single-Minded Proposition (more on that next week).

Objectives are the facts of the creative brief. They tell the creative team what has to be accomplished by the communications they are creating. They don’t tell them the “why,” however.

Still, lack of clarity here produces impenetrable fog later.

3. How many objectives are listed?

If you have four or more, chances are you have too many.  I think three is ideal, but you could have four if one of your objectives is “Reinforce the brand.” This is a foundational objective, meaning it always drives home the core message of the brand.

4. Are the objectives jargon free?

It is remarkably easy to slip in business lingo, marketing-ese, or insider-speak when you write a brief. It’s almost like a default language and you have to be on the look-out. You must be ever vigilant. Jargon kills an inspired creative brief. Always use clear, direct language, the kind you’d expect to read on your brand’s website or in an ad. Keep it simple! jargon

5. Does each objective create a specific expectation?

For example, if one of your objectives is to “tell your best customer about how your brand cleans better…,” ask yourself if the word “tell” gives your creatives clear direction. Is that the strongest verb you can think of to accomplish this task?

The stronger your verbs in this box, the clearer the objective becomes. Could you say “excite your best customer…” or “persuade your best customer…” or “motivate your best customer…”? The right verb in the right place changes things dramatically. It’s a small thing with a big impact.

6. Have you chosen the right product benefits?

Most brands have a host of benefits, the reasons why a buyer could make an emotional connection to the brand. But only a select few benefits stand out as essential reasons to buy.

One example I like to use to illustrate this point is the brand of chewing gum I buy: Eclipse Winterfrost. I buy it because I like the taste. That would be it’s #1 feature. So what is the benefit of great taste? The obvious answer is: My breath is always fresh when I chew it so I feel confident.

But I also like the convenient size of each piece of gum and the handy dual 9-piece holders. The size of each piece of gum is a product feature. The benefit might be that the gum is easy to chew and doesn’t overwhelm my mouth. The two 9-piece holders are another product feature. Their benefit might be that I can easily carry them in my pocket.

WEB-eclipse-Is either one, or both, truly a reason to buy this brand of gum? Perhaps, but I don’t think I’d want to create an entire ad around either of them. The benefits aren’t compelling enough. The feeling of confidence I get because I don’t have bad breath is more important.

So make sure the product features and their respective benefits correspond to a meaningful reason to buy. If you’re using the wrong benefits, or not the strongest benefits, your creative brief may not have credibility.

NEXT WEEK: How to fix a bad creative brief, Part 2—The Single-Minded Proposition

8 things that do not belong on a creative brief. Ever.

A question I hear often is, “How do I know if I’m including enough information for the creative team?”

It’s the wrong question.

I’d prefer it re-phrased: “How do I know if I’m including the right information for the creative team?”

The creative brief is an exercise in reduction, so judicious editing and conciseness are the order of the day. The list below is probably not definitive. I’m sure I’ll think of something else. But follow these guidelines to keep your brief focused.

1. Business, marketing or insider jargon

There is no place for any of it on a creative brief.

Yet I see phrases like, “Boost quarterly sales” and “Retail stores need to move XX units per day to meet target goals” and “Margins are slipping so….” and “OEM silo yields are off by 12%” and….yadda yadda yadda. I’m sure you’ve read worse.  jargon

It’s enough to make a creative cry. How does any of this relate to the task before the creative team? How does it provide any inspiration for creative ideas? They don’t.

Instead, these phrases, and so many others like them, indicate disengagement with writing an inspired creative brief. It’s laziness. Creative brief writers who collaborate with someone on the creative team would not make this mistake.

Remember who your audience is: The creative team. They know they have to increase sales. It’s your job to give them the relevant information to accomplish that goal.

2. Bullet points

Never. Never. Never. Bullet points are another sign of disengagement from writing an inspired creative brief. And laziness.

6a00d8341c761a53ef016762419ae1970b-piYet this is a sin repeated over and over. Especially in the box that describes the target audience. It’s usually a list of bullet points with silly acronyms (HHI is my favorite) that do nothing to inform or inspire the creative team.

Here is one of my favorite word pictures describing a cold sufferer for a creative brief for Vicks, a product made by Proctor and Gamble.

Who are we talking to?

Cold sufferers. You know how you feel when you’ve got a cold—that pathetic little inner-child of yours suddenly wakes up and, before you know it, you’re moaning & whining, you’ve gone all whiney & wimpy, all snivel, snot & slovenly; red raw puffy eyes, pale skin, lank hair—everything seems to be sagging! You feel like something from a Salvador Dali painting; you want to snuggle up in bed and dammit—you want your Mummy! But it’s not fair, is it, because no one else takes your suffering seriously—”Good God, pull yourself together, man, we’re not talking leprosy here! Don’t be such a baby, get on with it, stop moaning!”

Yes, your instincts tell you to be a child, but you’re not allowed to because you’ve “only” (only!) got a cold. And worse still—oh, the cruel irony!—even your attempts to retain your adulthood in the midst of your suffering betrays that sniveling little inner–child of yours: “oh don’t worry about me, I’ll be all right…”, “…no, no, please, I don’t want to sound like a martyr…”, “…well, I’m feeling a little better now, thank you…”

I’m sorry, but when you’ve got a cold you’re doomed to be a Child–Adult.

This is over-the-top fun and inspiring. And nary a bullet point in sight. Go to school on this approach. Show your creative team you brought your A game.

3. “See below”

I know it’s hard to believe, but I used to see this one. Often. Sometimes in the Single-Minded Proposition box of all places. Scary. Or in the Communication Objectives box. As if the brief writer did not understand the purpose of the box they were filling in. It was either a sign of complete laziness or simple incompetence. Or both.

Every box on a creative brief is there for a reason. It is not an easy thing to write an inspired brief, so give it the due diligence it deserves.

4. Anything cut and pasted from the previous creative brief

There might be exceptions, but I can’t think of any. Every project deserves fresh thinking, a fresh creative brief.

Put it another way: Would you accept from your creative team creative concepts that were cut and pasted from a previous campaign? No, I didn’t think so. Case closed. cut-n-paste_x

5. Anything cut and pasted from the client brief

This is almost worse than cutting and pasting from a previous agency-generated creative brief. The creative brief’s entire purpose is to “respond” to the client brief, to clarify the assignment and communicate to the client that the agency or creative department has understood its marching orders. (Yes, a creative brief has two audiences: the creatives, of course, but also the client, who should sign off on the brief.)

Were I the client and saw my own words on my agency’s creative brief, I’d be pissed. I’ve been on the client side, too. Fortunately, I never witnessed such laziness. Unfortunately, I saw it all too often in my role as a creative director.

6. A Single-Minded Proposition more than two typed lines

More laziness. The SMP should be short and to the point. It should read like a great headline on a billboard. It is the first ad as described by John Hegarty, which you’ve read here many times.

Be concise. Be sharp. Be witty if you can. And keep it short.

7. A third page

Somewhere in my book I wrote that I’d actually seen a well-written brief that was five pages in length. Not sure what I was thinking when I wrote that. I might have seen such a thing, but it’s a rarity.

The best briefs live up to their names. They are ideally one page, at most two pages. Again, remember that a brief is an act of strategic reduction. It is an exercise in lighting a fire beneath the creative team.

Do it in as few words as possible, but make those words heavy-weight champs: They float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

8. The kitchen sink

This is an all-purpose “does not belong” catch-all. This is when you see the third, fourth and fifth page on a creative brief. It results when the brief writer is unsure and just decides to throw in everything to cover his behind.gleamingkitchensink

The rationale? “More is better than less.” It’s the opposite of “inspired creative brief” thinking.

Can you think of other things that should never show up on a creative brief? Send me your ideas.