To tell an authentic brand story, write an inspired creative brief.

In 1989, I was a copywriter for a small business-to-business advertising agency in Milwaukee.

Two facts stand out about this job. The first is that the shop did not use a creative brief. The document was not part of its day-to-day operations. I fixed that.

The second relates to one of its bigger clients, an American manufacturer of turf equipment, one of whose marketing executives I met on many occasions. This executive used to repeat a phrase I never forgot. He used it every time I, or one of my colleagues, asked this question when we started a new project:

“What’s the one, most important thing we need to say about your product?”

His answer still startles me, almost 30 years later.

“We don’t have just one thing,” he said. “We have a unique package of features.”

Except that no one tells a story about a unique package of features. That’s not how it works.

Storytelling as a tool for advertisers was not on many people’s minds in the late 1980s. A handful of brilliant thinkers, like Steve Jobs, knew better.

The history of storytelling dates to at least cave dwellers who left us drawings on walls that told visual stories. Let’s just say that storytelling is old. lascauxhorsesaurochshd

The creative brief isn’t. But chances are, few people working in advertising today were in the business when the creative brief came into existence. Account planning was born in 1965, and with it the creative brief.

The purpose of the creative brief has remained unchanged since its inception: to give succinct and inspired instructions to an advertiser’s creative partners with the expectation that a sales-driving idea emerges.

In the last 50+ years, the creative brief’s template has changed, but its purpose has not. It remains debatable whether the brief’s credibility and respect match its designed purpose, but that’s another story.

At least three questions that should be on every creative brief provide the impetus for a memorable brand story.

But first, a word of advice:

No brand story can unfold without internal buy-in. An authentic brand story is not manufactured. It does not arise from external (meaning outside the company) sources. It does not answer the questions What? or How? about a brand. It answers Why? Why does the brand exist?

Think about the best brand storytellers and you’ll see why this advice is true. And why it matters.

Here’s my short list:


I’ll let the founders speak. (By the way, I own two pairs. I LOVE ’em!!)

Blue Apron.

I’ve used this product, too, but not currently. This isn’t an endorsement. It’s high praise for the story they tell. Here’s a highlight from their website:

“Our mission is to make incredible home cooking accessible to everyone.”


Every piece of communication from the company reflects this singularly focused message.


I use an electric shaver, but if I didn’t, I’d probably buy Harry’s razors. Why? I’ll let their website speak:

The shaving company that’s fixing shaving
We created Harry’s to be different from the other shaving brands. Unlike the big brands that overdesign and overcharge, we make a high-quality shave that’s made by real guys for real guys.


Each brand’s core message answers the question: Why does this product exist? That’s what the story is built around.

So which questions on the creative brief help creatives arrive at a brand story?

1. What is the Single-Minded Proposition? No matter what you might call it, and it has many names (Unique Selling Proposition, The One Thing, Key Message), this is the heart of any great story.

You’ll know your story is right when you can end it with this line: “And that’s the reason why (single-minded proposition here)…”

Try it with the three brands on my list of brilliant storytellers above. It works.

2. What is an authentic customer insight? If you’re focused on meeting company goals, you can’t successfully address what your customer needs. They come first. Always. A believable story begins and ends with your customer. Your insight should reflect this essential truth.

Arriving at an authentic customer insight does not require gobs of research money. If you know what the Socratic Method is, you have the tools to dive deep into your customers’ thinking to discover and address your their emotional wants and needs.

3. What is the company/product/service background? If you don’t ask this question, you will never understand why the company or product or service came into being. You need to be the equivalent of a brand archeologist. Move beyond features and benefits.

We advertising folk are storytellers. It’s in our DNA to fashion a story on behalf of the brands we are tasked to sell.

The details—the essential elements of your story—are embedded in the creative brief.

Storytelling is about basics. So is the creative brief. It’s the first step in developing your authentic brand story.

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 Creative Brief Manifesto

manifesto11For almost seven years, I have toiled as the “one lone voice speaking out” on behalf of the Creative Brief, in the opinion of my esteemed colleague Sean Duffy, a man of wisdom and impeccable taste.

It has been a labor of love. The Creative Brief represents the best of the analytical side and the imaginative side of the advertising business, a combination that I revel in as a former direct-response creative.

I cherish any opportunity to dissect, explain, advocate for, instruct on, and simply talk about this under-appreciated, abused and too often poorly written document.

But it is more than a document. It is the best-kept secret for any one or any organization in search of a simple, direct method for establishing a value proposition.

I suggest that the Creative Brief escape its advertising-industry handcuffs and fulfill its promise as a purposeful roadmap for any business, any entrepreneur, anyone with a vision to market a product or service and who also struggles with arriving at the unique selling proposition. The one thing.

This struggle is common. It is universal: Everyone experiences it. There is a solution.

In trained hands the Creative Brief has the power to exquisitely distill anything—an ad campaign, a brand, a philanthropic foundation, your life’s ambition.

At its best, the Creative Brief promises gravitas by means of the Socratic Method. It is not, and should not be, limited to the advertising and creative businesses, where, quite frankly, it has languished as the poor step-child of the creative process in spite of its role as the creative kick-starter. Socrates_Louvre

So allow me to present a treatise on behalf of everyone who believes the best is possible even when the best is too often a mere hope.

This Creative Brief Manifesto is a set of prescriptions for businesses to adopt to clarify their message, to hone their value proposition. Critically, the brief is about content, not format. Adapt the five points below into provocative questions. The answers provide the imaginative shove that gets you—or your designated team—to your objective.

Remember, this is the starting point, not the ending. All great endings require an inspired beginning. Otherwise, as Euripides said, “A bad beginning makes a bad ending.” Which is a fancy way of saying, “Garbage in, garbage out.”

1. Start with feelings, not facts.

Social scientists, marketing researchers, creatives and many others all have ample evidence to demonstrate that you and I may rely on facts to help us make decisions, but if our hearts are not moved, if we do not have a strong feeling, we are not truly committed to the thing, whatever it might be.

This truth has nothing to do with what the client or the business owner wants the feeling to be. It’s all about discovering what the customer feels…and why. emotion

2. You’ll never grasp the emotion without first discovering an insight.

If you don’t know Socrates, you don’t know Jack. Think you need a ginormous research budget to unearth this so-called “insight”? You don’t. If you know how the Socratic Method works, you have the basic tools you need to discover an insight.

3. What’s in it for me?

The single-minded proposition (SMP) has fans and detractors, but one fact remains unchallenged: Customers remember what resonates with them. Keep it simple. Make it  memorable.

The point is no longer to merely intrude and be pervasive. You must engage. It’s not about one-way communication in the age of social media. It’s about a conversation.

But whether you support or abhor the SMP, clarity (i.e. distillation, conciseness, laser focus) is the mandatory exercise.

4. Prove it!

You will never fall in love if there is no trust.

There is always a role for facts, and to seal the deal for the love affair, offer evidence that the emotional claim is believable. The best evidence has not changed: Testimonials, awards for reliability and quality, #1 best-seller.

Or, as Rod Tidwell says to Jerry McGuire, “Show me the money!”

5. Begin the story here.

Remember the Native American proverb: “Tell me a fact and I will learn. Tell me a truth and I will believe. Tell me a story and it will live forever in my heart.” The Creative Brief is the moral to the as-yet untold brand story.

It is a kind of “here’s where we want to end up” without knowing the path to that ending. The brief suggests a path, it points in the right direction, and trusts that those who execute from the brief will get there. Who knows how many left or right turns might be necessary, many or all of which appear to be leading you astray.

This is the great unknown, the mystery that arises from every brief: The writers put their trust in those who execute from the brief, and those team members trust the writers to have done their jobs in refining—distilling—the brief to its clarifying finest. Here is what you need to know, the brief tells them, and what is here will inspire you. Go, now, and perform alchemy.

How many practitioners believe it is possible? It’s just a piece of paper, they say. Don’t expect too much.

It’s time to stop thinking that way. What’s on that piece of paper is a product of human inspiration.

Invest in the outcome. Trustworthiness

Make sure you have skin in the game.

The Creative Brief is the best-kept secret for anyone or any business that wants a clearly marked path to an effective and believable value proposition.




The proposition is dead. Long live the proposition.

Thanks to relatively new research in the effectiveness of advertising, which pits fact-based information messages against emotion-based non-propositional messages, I see a unique opportunity to strengthen the creative brief in general, and the proposition in particular.

No matter which side of this debate wins, and there’s a decent chance that both will end up playing equal parts, the creative brief is not going away.

All communication projects require a roadmap, a set of directions, some kind of objectives document that sets the standard by which we can assess the work.

My passion is the brief. In particular, it is about bringing clarity to the brief. Clarity that drives inspired work.

So here is what I have learned. It’s heady stuff, filled with academic jargon. I will summarize in clear English:

About eight years ago, two advertising researchers, Paul Feldwick, a veteran account planner and author of the book, The Anatomy of Humbug: How To Think Differently About Advertising, and Dr. Robert Heath from the University of Bath School of Management, published a scholarly article in the International Journal of Marketing Research in which they argued that the existing model for advertising does not work. They titled their piece, “50 years using the wrong model of advertising.” 24802652

This model, called Information Processing (IP), is premised on the idea that people make decisions based on reason and information, and that effective advertising conveys facts about a brand.

In other words, good information equals good advertising. Consumers, who act rationally, will respond to this advertising, or so the argument goes.

Feldwick and Heath disagree and offered an alternative. They argued that emotion, rather than facts or reason, drives consumer decision making and is therefore a more effective tool for building brands. They believe that consumers make decision based on their emotions, not reason. They called this model Critical Realism.

In one enlightening example, Professor Heath and colleagues tested 43 TV spots (23 aired in the US, 20 aired in the UK) for their emotional and rational content. The authors presented impressive, empirical, statistically significant evidence to support their position in 2006. Even with different advertising styles in the US and the UK, their results were consistent:

…the experimental results show clearly that it is the emotional ‘creative’ content in advertising that builds (brand) favourability, not the rational message. This again contradicts the idea in the information processing model that it is the communication of the factual message that gives advertising its power.

What is the implication for the creative brief?

Here is what the authors say:

…creative departments will have to abandon their obsession with simple, functional briefs and creating ‘impact’ , in favour of creativity that influences emotions and brand relationships — which in truth is what the best creative work has always done, normally in spite of prevailing theory rather than because of it.

From the day I began writing about the creative brief in 2008, I repeated one thing over and over: the brief is only a template and must adapt to circumstances. That remains true today. In spite of Feldwick and Heath’s recommendation, there is still an important role for the creative brief in this (not so) new world of advertising.

And I can’t help but think that the unique-selling proposition, or single-minded proposition, also still has a role on the brief and in sparking the advertising that arises from it. Except that it, too, must adapt to be effective.

Ergo, I submit that the proposition is dead.

Long live the proposition.

An updated proposition, that is.

Call it the unique emotional proposition—UEP.

This should be music to creatives’ ears. Let me explain my thinking, which, admittedly, contradicts some of what I wrote in last week’s post.

What Feldwich and Heath are proposing is a reliance on a message-less advertisement. Or to use their words, a communication without a proposition. One that can be taken in subconsciously, below the level of awareness.

If you’re too young to remember cigarette commercials on television, here is a classic example: The Marlboro Man. This spot has no proposition, yet it communicates quite clearly.

This idea may strike fear in the hearts of analytical corporate America, but Feldwick and Heath have strong evidence that ads that function on this level are effective. More effective than ads grounded on information.

Their research, along with that of many others, offers a strong argument for a new kind of proposition. A proposition based far more on an emotional relationship between brand and consumer. Perhaps entirely on this emotional relationship. emotions

But if you are a creative, this is simply the day-to-day reality in a typical creative department. Creatives understand the nature of the emotional relationship between a brand and a loyal user.

The creative brief is still the vital first step in the creative process. It must provide the framework within which creatives can operate and establish a standard against which the creative work is assessed.

So the proposition, whether it’s information based or emotion based, must set up this framework. That is the job of the brief.

Here, then, is my three-step prescription for strengthening the proposition—the Unique Emotional Proposition—so that it can function on the higher level of an emotional relationship.

1. The proposition must evoke a feeling.

This may sound obvious, but it must be stated clearly and up front.

We know that consumers make decisions based on how they feel about a product, not based on what they think about it. The proposition should reflect this truth.

2. The proposition must provoke behavior.

Typically, a brief would ask these questions: What do we want the target to think? What do we want the target to feel? What do we want the target to do? studia-psychologiczne

Strike the first question. Only the second and third questions are relevant.

When consumers have a positive emotional reaction to the product or service, only then does brand loyalty emerge.

3. An emotion-based proposition requires the right VERB.

I have written on this subject before. Verbs are the John Wayne of words. They describe action. Consumers act when they feel a connection to a product: They like it. They love it. The product makes them feel something the did not feel before. This is the power of brands.

The proposition sparks creative ideas when you choose the right verb to express the desired action and the desired emotion.

Assure your brand’s power by writing a proposition with a strong call to action.

Whether you fall into the camp that believes in information-based advertising that assumes a rational consumer or emotion-based advertising that assumes a consumer driven by her feelings, one thing is certain: Your creative brief must be clear. And your proposition must compel the creatives toward solutions that drive action.

I am convinced that infusing the proposition with emotions and emotional sparks will result in better creative solutions.

Long live the Unique Emotional Proposition.



The creative brief embraces both the emotional and rational support for brands.

When I worked for Team One Advertising back in the late 1990s, I learned something fascinating about the material created by a group devoted exclusively to designing, writing and producing the expensive, glossy collateral for the Lexus Automobile account. These folks spent weeks and months on each brochure and I envied the copywriters. I was trained as a long-form direct-response writer, so the chance to sink my teeth into a brochure-length piece about one automobile was tantalizing.

Alas, they guarded their turf and never gave me a shot.

But what I learned taught me a valuable lesson about advertising in general and about the creative brief in particular.

What I learned from my colleagues in the Lexus collateral department at first startled me: Research told them that their beautiful brochures did not drive sales as might have been expected. Instead, Lexus collateral reinforced purchase decisions.

Translated, that means these expensive perfect-bound booklets were often acquired by someone after they had purchased or leased a new Lexus. Why? To provide the buyer with empirical evidence to support a purely emotional buying decision. emotion

It’s not an oddity at all. It makes perfect sense. My experience bears this out after 30 years as a creative. I just couldn’t prove it. Then in 2005, the Harvard Business Review published a study that offered quantifiable evidence to support the notion that the only way to achieve brand loyalty is when a consumer establishes an emotional connection to that brand. No emotional connection? No loyalty.

Ask any creative in the advertising/design/communication business and they would tell you this is a truth. They know this from experience. But until 2005, there was no empirical evidence to back it up. Psychology, on the other hand, understood these connections earlier and some advertising academics have picked up on it.

So what does this have to do with the creative brief?

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “Whenever the head and heart do battle, one side wins while the other loses.” Or something like that. heart-vs-mind

In other words, when emotions and reason confront each other, it’s a zero-sum game.

But not so with a creative brief. Emotions and reason share equal billing, although creatives believe, and now have the evidence, that to spark the best creative solutions, a truly inspired creative brief must, by definition, tap into the emotions of the consumer if the connection is to take root.

Let’s not forget that the creative brief is only a shell with questions. It is how those questions are answered, and ultimately, how those answers incite the full monty of a creative solution that determines whether or not the brand lives or dies in the hearts of consumers.

Ah…but let’s also not forget this opprobrium: Garbage in, garbage out.

The creative brief is your starting point. Get it wrong there, and everything that follows falls apart.

So the creative brief must contain both facts and emotions.

There are many boxes (or questions) on the brief where facts reside.The-Facts-2

There is, however, one question on a creative brief designed to inspired an emotion: the proposition.

This is where some in the academic world might raise an eyebrow. They might argue that few, if any, propositions do this work. They may be right. A close look at the emotional content of ads today or in the last decades, is stultifyingly void. Whether this is the result of an emotion-less proposition or just uninspired creative, or both, is open for debate.

The fact remains that the creative brief is organic and malleable. It is also a shell waiting for inspiration. How it is filled in and by whom determine how compelling the spark is.

There is no argument that we humans make decisions with our emotions, not our reason. Reason is sometimes used after the fact, as the example of the Lexus collateral material testifies. Advertising creatives have known this for a very long time, and now there is plenty of evidence to back it up.

Which means that the creative brief must reflect this reality. To engage a consumer in behavior that results in brand loyalty, they must be inspired by an emotional connection to the brand. The creative brief is the first step of the creative process. If the spark is weak, the emotion will be, too.

Sharpen your brief writing with this two-step brain teaser

If you were a journalist, what would you read to become a better journalist? News stories. By people recognized as good journalists.tumblr_l3ffdyoMRR1qav9ywo1_1280

If you were a writer of fiction or poetry, what would you read to become a better novelist or poet? Other novelists and poets, of course.

So if you write creative briefs at your ad agency, marketing company or corporation, what do you read to become a better creative brief writer? Great creative briefs? Yes. If you can get your hands on them.

If you can’t, then what?

I recommend that you “read” great ads and do a simple, two-step brain teaser.

In the study of literature, it’s called “close reading.” The principle is the same in “reading” an advertisement. But to make this process work for you, I suggest that you take a passive approach. In fact, I urge you to be as passive as you can be.

Why? You’ll see.

This exercise works with any kind of ad, but I recommend you start with a television spot. Since I’ve asked you to take the passive approach, watching tv instantly puts you in the right frame of mind. Find your fave lounge chair or sofa or pillow, get comfy and wait.

When a tv spot airs, don’t move. Just let it happen. Exert as little energy as possible. Think “passive.”

You may have to practice this a few times to get it right. You’ll have to resist the urge to get up and hit the kitchen. Just veg while the :30 rolls past your brain.

So when you’ve got this form mastered, and you’re ready to engage the television spot as passively as you can, watch another commercial and answer two questions.

1. What is the point?

Try to figure this out by exerting as few neutrons of brain activity as possible. Don’t get all ad-fixated and ask, “What is the single-minded proposition?” get-to-the-point

React like a consumer: ironically uncaring, daring the advertiser to break your casual efforts at being disengaged.

You are an ad professional with insights into the process of connecting to a viewer. You have to actively turn off this knowledge. It won’t be easy. But in achieving the task, you will be opening a part of your brain to receiving information on an intuitive level. You are deconstructing the ad and looking for its most basic element: the key message.

But don’t work for it. The idea here is to test the spot’s effectiveness by allowing you brain to absorb the message below the conscious level.

That’s why it’s important to remain passive. If you can figure out what the point of the spot is, two things are apparent.

First, the spot communicated. Second, it was probably clear. If your answer forms a statement, you may have the draft of a single-minded proposition.

If your viewing results in no clear or obvious answer, chances are the spot did not communicate. Or was poorly executed. Or was just bad. Or all of the above.

2. Who are they talking to?

Don’t think, “Are they talking to me?” You’re taking a test here. If you can figure out the point of the spot, you should be able to figure out who might be interested. It could be you, but that’s not important.

If the spot were done well and you can figure out the point and who it is engaging, you’re lucky. It’s probably a good spot.

How does all this help you write a better brief?

First, it forces you to think differently. You’re receiving a piece of creative and your critiquing it at a point when it can’t be corrected or rejected, unlike how you might react if your creative team were presenting a rough to you for approval. It’s finished. You are a reviewer, not a consultant/team player.

Ask yourself: If I get the point and it’s clear, does it translate easily into a single-minded proposition? Do you like this SMP? Does the SMP lead you back to the spot you just viewed?

It’s one big circle. Everything has to fit.

You can do this simple, passive exercise with any television spot. Or radio spot. Just remember: You have to turn off your professional insights about advertising and be passive.

It works with a print ad, too, but you can’t be passive. Reading is not a passive activity. If you want a more difficult challenge, open up a glossy magazine and give it a go.

As a creative brief writer, you have to engage your brain everyday, even in a passive activity  I’ve suggested here.writers-block

Rookie or veteran, keep your brief writing muscles honed.


The creative brief is like a letter to an audience of one.

Creatives tend to zoom in on the single-minded proposition when the creative brief is handed out. It’s our natural tendency to ask, “What’s the key message?”

But who we speak to is equally important. When we know who we are addressing, knowing how to craft the right message becomes easier.

It falls on your shoulders as the brief writer to provide not only the right information about the who and the how, but also to remember that our job as communicators is to rely on fundamentals: by talking clearly, directly and passionately. You can’t achieve these goals by speaking to an audience of millions or even thousands. Your brief must be a kind of letter directed to an audience of one.

The movie director Steven Spielberg is reported to have said, Steven-Spielberg

My success comes from making movies for the masses, but I talk to them one at a time.

This thought neatly sums up an inspired creative brief. Or put another way, if a brief is assembled well, its content offers the creative team unique insights into the individual who would purchase the product or service being sold by the advertiser.

If a creative brief speaks clearly, directly and passionately to the individual, it speaks to the masses.

How? Stop thinking of the creative brief as a document and start thinking of it as a letter. A personal letter from the advertiser to one person who, based on your knowledge of the product, seems most likely to value the advertiser’s product.

Talk to her. Find common ground. Flesh her out with hard-earned research, common sense, your insights into her thinking and the life she leads. Draw a word picture of who she is and let that inspire you to infuse the creative brief with a real conversation.

Don’t talk to the masses. Engage with an individual.

Don’t fill your brief with bullet points. Embody it with living, breathing details, the details that are the stuff of real life.


A creative brief is too often the captive of institutionalized thinking. You must not allow this to happen. The brief is too often filled with business jargon and product-ese. It’s your job to prevent this.

Jon Steel, author of Truth, Lies and Advertising, said, “Engage your consumers, don’t target them. Make them willing accomplices.”

It’s the difference between sitting on opposite sides of a table and looking across at one another. Or sitting next to each other, able to connect by physical touch.

The creative brief that engages with a single individual as if it were a personal letter is perhaps the single most important insight the creative team could ask for.

How deconstructing any ad can help you polish your brief-writing skills

When was the last time you even saw the word, “deconstruct”? Unless you were an English major in college you likely never came across it at all.

There’s nothing mysterious or complicated about the process. Deconstruct simply means to take something apart and analyze the pieces. In this case, I’m talking about an ad.

The easiest ads to work with, of course, are television commercials. Anyone who spends the average amount of time in front of the TV sees plenty of examples.

When you see a TV spot that you like, one that causes you to react with a smile, a laugh, perhaps a double take, you know automatically that the message worked. You got it. You don’t need to belabor the details.

On the other hand, you’ve no doubt seen plenty of stinkers. Ads that you either don’t connect with because you don’t get it or they just don’t make sense. Or because the ad wasn’t intended for you. But even ads not intended for you (jock itch cream if you’re a woman, or feminine hygiene products if you’re a guy) can still resonate if they’re done well.

So if you begin from the premise that any well-done advertisement will make sense from a selling proposition, how can you use the concept of deconstruction to become a better creative brief writer?

I was wondering when you’d ask me that.

Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy. Next time you’re watching Mad Men, pay attention to the first ad that comes on rather than head for the kitchen. You can do all this in your head without breaking into a sweat.

So, after the ad runs, ask yourself these questions:

Who is this product or service for? Is it me or someone else? Can you actually figure it out? The more detailed the answer you give, based on your powers of deduction, the better the spot was.

What’s the Single-Minded Proposition? Was the central message clear? Was the spot focused? If not, you will probably have a hard time answering this one.

Can you make a list of product benefits from watching just once? How many are there? Probably not many. Not more than two. Maybe three tops.

Can you Sherlock-Holmes one or more consumer insights from the spot? Now we’re getting into serious deconstruction. You’re doing some heavy lifting, putting your brain synapses into overdrive. If you can answer this from a 30-second television commercial after one viewing I’m going out on a limb and say it was a damn fine concept.

Finally, what was the call to action? Did the spot ask you, the viewer, to do something?

Make mental notes of the answers and ask yourself: Do they add up to a reasonably well-written creative brief? Would you sign your name to it? Would you ask your creative team to work from it?

This is a simple exercise you can do anytime you’re watching TV. I call it doing the creative brief backwards. Watch the creative and see if you can figure out the brief from it.

If you can’t it’s not necessarily a reflection on your lack of skills. It may very well be because the spot was poorly conceived, which is a likely clue that the creative brief was…a stinker.

Emotion, reason and the unique selling proposition

How do people make decisions?

I’m not asking about the sequence of steps someone takes to arrive at a choice between, say, two options when she goes shopping for new jeans.

I’m asking, rhetorically, what part of the brain fires on all cylinders when mulling that range of options?

We know that the right lobe is, in overly simplistic terms, the center of one’s emotions. The left lobe governs reason and language, where analysis is imperative.

Given this understanding, which lobe plays the dominant role when our make-believe shopper decides between Levis or Lucky Brand jeans?

The answer to this question, in my opinion, tells you how to arrive at the most important, and most difficult, part of the creative brief: the single-minded proposition.

I’m not a neurologist. I’m an advertising creative. But I know this: we form attachment to a product we like, even love (oops, there’s a dead giveaway) by means of our emotional connection to it. If there is no emotional connection, there is no allegiance or loyalty to that product. I’ve known this to be true for the entire tenure of my advertising career, more than 25 years.

Thankfully, it’s not just my opinion.

The Harvard Business Review published a study in 2005 that proved this connection.

To my delight, I found a writer who is asking a similar question, this time in the arena of politics and public policy. On the Facebook page for my book, I recommended a column in the New York Times by the conservative intellectual David Brooks, entitled “The New Humanism.” His premise is remarkably similar to the point I’m making here. I’ll quote from his column:

We have a prevailing view in our society—not only in the policy world, but in many spheres—that we are divided creatures. Reason, which is trustworthy, is separate from the emotions, which are suspect. Society progresses to the extent that reason can suppress the passions.

This has created a distortion in our culture. We emphasize things that are rational and conscious and are inarticulate about the processes down below. We are really good at talking about material things but bad at talking about emotion.

I found a smile creeping onto my face when I first read David Brooks’s column. It seems silly because any of us who practice advertising and brand development understand this relationship intuitively.

Without his saying so, David Brooks seems to suggest that advertising professionals know something about human nature that policy experts don’t. Well, then…Lee Clow for president!

We shoot ourselves in the foot when we fail to take seriously our already ingrained understanding of the emotional connection to a product when we prepare to create new advertising for that product.

In other words, we know about the strong play of emotions that help us decide between Levis and Lucky Brand. Or put another way, when it’s time to discard our favorite pair of jeans, that’s when we really feel a strong tug on our emotions.

This is precisely what the unique selling proposition on a creative brief is designed to focus on like a laser. If we give it its due.

When an advertiser fails to pay heed to the emotional core of a brand—because he doesn’t trust the acuity of emotion—he’s ignoring huge brand equity.

A U.S.P. that fails to favor the emotions people feel for the product will end up driving advertising that leaves business on the table.

The Harvard Business Review says so. And even a policy wonk is agreeing.