How many “practice” creative briefs have you written?

kobe-bryant-practices-in-nike-kobe-9-elite-02-570x570Basketball legend Kobe Bryant has made countless jump shots and layups in his practice sessions.

“As a kid growing up, I never skipped steps. I always worked on fundamentals because I know athleticism is fleeting.”  Kobe Bryant

Tennis star Serena Williams has likely hit uncountable numbers of volleys in practice since she was a young girl. Someone asked if her success were due to luck.

“Luck has nothing to do with it, because I have spent many, many hours, countless hours, on the court working for my one moment in time, not knowing when it would come.”14SERENA1-master768

The legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus has said that he played fewer tournaments than his fellow competitors because he chose to spend that time practicing his game at home.

“Nobody—but nobody—has ever become really proficient at golf without practice, without a lot of thinking and then hitting a lot of shots.” Jack Nicklaus

Seinfeld has told tens of thousands of jokes on stages across the country. Ballet star Misty Copeland has spent thousands of hours in the classroom, working at the ballet barre, all in preparation for her performances. Speaking legend Tony Robbins has rehearsed hours and hours for his presentations.

The same is true for ministers, gymnasts, coaches, courtroom lawyers…you name the profession, and you can imagine the almost unimaginable hours of preparation these dedicated individuals have devoted to their craft, all to be ready to display their skills when they matter most: on the job.

So I ask you: How much preparation have you put in to write a creative brief?

Here’s my guess: Exactly none.

There is no preparation. You just write one when you have to write one.

And therein lies a major missed opportunity. No one practices the skills required to write a creative brief well. There is no “creative brief boot camp” to make you sweat your tail off learning the fundamentals of writing this document. There should be.

Sounds absurd, right? Not from where I sat, which was on the receiving end of one of those too often poorly written documents that landed on my desk.

As a point of comparison, creatives constantly practice their concepting skills. Young creatives especially. Sometimes they don’t know when to stop practicing. They do “spec” work, whether it’s for their own professional portfolio or some pro-bono client or even a friend’s dog-sitting service. They’re like little “Energizer bunnies”: they keep concepting and concepting until their brains cramp. This is how they get really good.

When I was younger, I used to flip through the Yellow Pages (remember that?) until I’d find an interesting business, the more obscure the better. Then I’d create a spec ad for that business. Back in the 1980s, when I was just getting started, I wrote a spec-ad for a music teacher who taught the accordion: “I can teach anyone to carry a tune.” Groaner, yes, but the fact is, I practiced my craft even when no one was looking.

If you write creative briefs for a living, can you say the same? If the answer is no, my next question is: Why not?

I’ve said it over and over: the creative brief is the first step in the creative process. Get it wrong here and everything that follows suffers proportionately. It’s the principle of “garbage in, garbage out” at work.garbage-in-garbage-out

Practice is vital.

But who has time to practice?

Professionals do. If you’re a professional, you must practice.

Here are three techniques you can adopt right away.

1. Practice in your head.

One of the more important questions on a creative brief is, “What is the Single-Minded Proposition?” This is something you can practice formulating as you commute to and from work. You don’t even need pen and paper.

Imagine the product or service, conjure its key benefit and translate that benefit into a “What’s in it for me?” proposition that directly addresses the product’s best customer. Think of that short phrase or sentence. Don’t stop there. Think of alternatives. Come up with many SMPs. Which one is the best? Why?

Turn this into a brain-game and repeat it often. It’s called practice. It’s what professionals do.

2. Follow your creatives’ lead: Do spec work for a favorite cause or a pro-bono client. Now you have a reason to practice.

If you don’t do this already, it’s time to start. Most agencies and brands dedicate time and resources to charitable causes. Volunteer. Even pro-bono projects need creative briefs.

3. Start an in-house creative-brief writing workshop whose purpose is honing brief-writing skills. Volunteer to lead it.

The first time I was asked by a dean of student affairs at one of the community colleges where I now teach whether I’d ever taught grammar, I hesitated for just a second before saying yes and accepting the assignment.

In truth, I’d never taught grammar before. But it turned out to be the best and most fun experience I’ve had in the classroom. And I mastered the fundamentals of grammar because…

…I had to teach them!

Whether you’re a 20-year veteran or a newbie, you, too, can teach someone how to write a better brief. When you teach, you become a better practitioner. If you do even rudimentary research online, you’ll find source material that will help you teach brief writing, and my book is only one of them (although I happen to think it’s the best source).

The point is, every brief writer needs practice. No professional doesn’t need practice.

Take the initiative. Start now. Because you’re a professional.

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.

 

10 ideas to polish your creative briefs.

As we enter the Dog Days of Summer, I offer 10 thoughts and observations as you toil on your briefs. dog days

1. Get out of the office! Live!

There is nothing more stifling to creativity than routine. Break old habits and make new scenery part of your routine.

If you ever watched spy movies, remember the advice: “If you think you’re being followed, take a new route to work.” Maybe it was paranoia, but the rule fits.

This is the ideal rationale to visit your new client’s showroom, factory, event or go on a sales call with a representative. Live the product or service, and learn by getting down in the product dirt.

Creatives often visit art museums, galleries, concerts, film, performing arts and other forms of stimulation to get inspired. Take a page from their book and try it yourself. The idea is to change up your thinking to see things in a new light.

2. Where do you get your best ideas? Build that space into your day.

Okay, so maybe taking a shower after the 10 AM staff meeting isn’t convenient, even though that’s your favorite “idea generating” space. But if taking a walk, sitting in a crowded bus station, or browsing the aisles of your favorite book store are reliable kick-starters, they are legitimate places to visit from time to time.

Creatives hijack routine and monotony on a regular basis by acknowledging their need for different sources of stimulation. Creative brief writers must do the same thing.

3. When you collaborate with a colleague on writing the brief, get accustomed to sharing credit.

This idea is central to the success of the copywriter/art director collaboration model, which is the basis for my recommendation for a brief-writing team. Two minds, which often view the world from different perspectives, solve a problem from different angles. Sometimes, one plays the role of idea generator to the second’s BS detector. Sometimes, both generate ideas and both have finely tuned BS detectors.

The truly successful partnerships find the balance, work off the other’s strengths, and share the glory (and the occasional mis-hit).

If you are in account management, learning how to team up with a creative to write a brief may take some practice and accommodation. Creatives may face the same challenges.

It’s good practice. The results will be well worth the effort.

4. Never forget the basics.

Writing basics: Keep your vocabulary accessible, clear, direct, friendly. Remember that the creative brief is designed to be an idea spark. It’s the first step in the creative process. Focus on keeping things simple. basics-alphabet-blocks-web

Partnership basics: If you are a new team, learn how to listen. Silence may be uncomfortable, but it is a necessary part of the brain-storming process. Figure out how both of you process information. Respect each other’s ideas and approaches.

If you’re a veteran brief writer, but still relatively new to working in a team setting to write a brief, bring your A-game, but be generous. Let the less experienced member of the team do the actual writing. This is an invaluable teachable moment.

5. A creative brief is essential to good storytelling.

Think of the creative brief as the opening chapter of the story that leads to the finished work. It’s the “once upon a time” set up for the creative team to follow.

The best brands tell stories. These stories are about us, ordinary people who live and use and rely on products and services.

If you can’t imagine where your brief is headed based on how you assemble it, how can the creative team ever figure it out? storytelling1

6. Never submit a first-draft creative brief.

As an English instructor who works with college students, I learned quickly that if I don’t require multiple drafts of an essay assignment, I’ll end up reading first drafts that were written the night before, and sometimes the morning of.

You must approach the creative brief from the same mindset. You cannot allow yourself to submit a first draft.

How many drafts should it take? There’s no rule, but I’d recommend at least three drafts before the final draft.

The first draft is your creative starter. You don’t need to share this draft except with your partner. The second draft should be submitted to multiple eyeballs. The third draft can return to a select group for a final review. Now it’s ready for final editing and then the briefing.

I’ve read thousands of briefs in my career. Believe me when I say that I can tell a first draft when I see one. keep-calm-it-s-only-a-first-draft-2

7. Always have a point of view.

It always strikes me as odd when I read a creative brief without a clear “position.” It’s almost as if the writer were afraid of offending someone.

You can tell when you read a brief without a point of view: The proposition is weak, or tries to include too much information. There’s no clear consumer insight.

Another way to look at a creative brief: It’s a review of the product, but always a positive, thumbs-up rave!

Pretend you’re channeling the late Roger Ebert. His passion for movies was infectious. Your passion must be evident, obvious, palpable.

8. Who says you can’t have more than one brief on a project?

This one perplexes me. Most products have more than one selling point, more than one emotional connecting point. If this is true for the product or service you’ve been assigned to (and it should be), there is by definition more than one brief at your fingertips.

It comes down to writing more than one proposition. The rest of the brief can be the same. If you have more than one creative team on a project, why not give a different brief to each team?

It’s not a waste of time. It’s an investment of time into a different approach. Why not?

9. Seek feedback. Always.

I love Flannery O’Connor. Perhaps my favorite line from one of her essays is something I use on my English composition syllabi: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I’ve written.”

This is her way of saying she needs the feedback of her eyes on the words that came from her pen to make sure they align with her true self.

You need feedback too, but before your brief is even written. This idea is different than #6 above. When I say feedback, I mean input, up front input. Before you put a single word on paper.

If your client has provided a client brief, use it to interview product managers, marketing folks, sales reps. Talk to your agency colleagues, too. Get their ideas.

This is a way to give everyone a stake in the outcome. They will have some buy-in before the brief is even written. Don’t underestimate the value of this kind of team building.

10. Go back and re-read the first briefs you ever wrote. What did you learn?

This can be a cringe-inducing experience, but that’s why it’s a teachable moment. We learn by making mistakes, by figuring out what went wrong and fixing it.

When I look at my earliest creative solutions, I often laugh. The same happens when I read early writing. This is the mark of maturation and…am I allowed to say it? The onset of wisdom.

The only way to understand your progress is to return to your beginnings.

A few nuggets to polish your brief writing.

5 questions transform the creative brief into a roadmap for entrepreneurs, SBOs and sole proprietors.

Typically, a creative brief is a document that advertisers and ad agencies use for a specific purpose. It has a set of questions whose answers guide ad agency creatives in creating communications, from single emails to multi-media advertising campaigns, and variations in between.

But this same document, slightly adjusted, has another role.

Consider these scenarios: You’re an entrepreneur with only a product idea or a new product idea. You have a small business with a minuscule communications budget. You’re a sole proprietor who wears every hat in the day-to-day operations of your business. Maybe you’re a combination of these situations.

A creative brief is not just an objectives document that a business hands over to an advertising agency or a group of freelance creatives to produce branded communications. Viewed from a broader perspective and with a bit of fine tuning, the creative brief can easily become your marketing purpose statement.

Think of the creative brief as an organizing platform for your thinking about:

  • Who you are as a business;
  • What you want to accomplish;
  • Who you need to speak to, and
  • How you go about conducting that conversation

A creative brief, in short, can be your business playbook, your roadmap, your brand rationale, your aspirational mantra. skewed-roadmap

This blank document, filled with insightful, perceptive thinking, can direct you and keep you on your path. It can be tested and updated as circumstances change. It is limited only by the breadth of your expectations.

So to help you see the creative brief’s possibilities beyond the traditional role it plays between advertiser and advertising agency, consider five questions.

The answers to these five questions open thinking and actions for entrepreneurs, Small Business Owners (SBOs) and sole proprietors (including freelancers, something I did with much success for half my career as a copywriter and creative director).

Let the answers to the following five questions serve your business. Write out these questions and answer them with honesty. Find a partner to help you craft thoughtful, insightful answers.

It won’t be easy. It shouldn’t be easy. The process deserves your focused energy and time.

1. Can you create a word picture of the person or group of people who would be the likely buyer of your product or service?

I’ve discussed this idea in previous posts, but using slightly different language. The idea is the same. You must know who you are speaking to before you can engage in a conversation that results in a sale. The more details you know about this person, or more likely this group of people, the easier it will be to speak to them.

Don’t use a list of bullet points. Let your inner creative writer emerge as you describe each unique kind of user or buyer in intimate detail. Is she your mother? Your best friend? Are you the ideal user? Why?

You must be able to look deep into the heart of your potential customer and understand what motivates this person to want your product or service. This is how you will find a unique insight. Make an emotional connection with your customer and you have a loyal customer. You will have achieved brand loyalty.

You know more than you think you know about the people who are, or will become, your best customers. But you have to make the effort to examine carefully what you know before you actually understand what you know.

2. Answer the question your customers ask: “What’s in it for me?”

If you can successfully answer question #1 above, you have one, perhaps more, customer insight, some golden nugget about behavior or motivation. This information allows you, requires you, to answer question #2. You have to think like the customer. It’s about their experience, not yours.

Put another way, it forces you to think about product benefits, not product features. In the course of uncovering a consumer insight, you are likely to confirm that a product feature results in a benefit for the reason you thought. Or you’ll discover what the true benefit is, which may be something unexpected.

Here’s an example: When I was creative director for the loyalty programs of a major global airline, we introduced a concierge service for its most elite flyers. The service itself was free, although patrons paid for what the concierge provided for them. We discovered that, while the concierge service itself was rarely used by the airline’s best customers, customer perception of the value of this service was high. It produced additional loyalty to the airline via increased fare purchases. This was measurable. It was a surprising insight, but it opened a window into how we communicated the concierge service to these airline customers.

When you can answer the “WIIFM?” question, you are thinking about why your customer buys and buys again. And again. It takes you out of your reverie about how great the product is, and gets up in your grille about why it’s important to the people who count: paying customers.

3. Can you keep your message single-minded?

As I remind everyone in my college composition classes, K.I.S.S.: Keep it simple, students!

Especially in an era of nano-attention spans, the simpler, more focused and concise the message, the better.

Think of a bed of nails: People can fall asleep on a platform made of hundreds of sharp points. Why? Combined, they do not hurt. Their sharpness is blunted by sheer quantity. Too many points and there is no point. bed-of-nails

But a single, direct, needle-like point always penetrates. Always gets through. Is impossible to ignore.

Your message must have the same attributes. In the ad world, we call it the single-minded proposition: The one key idea that your customer (potential or existing) will find irresistible.

What do I mean by “message”? It’s not just a paid communication like an email or an ad. It could be a speech to a group of investors. A pitch to your banker, a vendor, a potential employee. Heck, to yourself when you find it a challenge to face a tough day (hey, we all have them…)

The most memorable message is short and sweet. That’s one idea worth stealing.

4. Can you prove your message is true?

This isn’t about proving truth in a court of law. It’s about proving reliability or quality or effectiveness in the court of public opinion.

What evidence do you possess about your product that people who buy it love it? The possibilities include:

  • Testimonials
  • Research
  • Awards
  • Reviews (customer and professional)
  • Media coverage
  • Institutional (contracts with big companies or government agencies)

Any one of these pieces of “evidence” to support your product add up quickly into brand equity. Take advantage of them in every way you can. “Leverage” the heck out of them. j.d.-power

Use ’em or lose ’em.

5. Can you show some attitude?

Students of literature and writing understand this to mean, What is your voice? Every writer has one. It’s the distinct way the writer crafts sentences that make the style unique.

So what is the voice of your product? Your brand? What is its attitude? How does it speak to your customer?

Think of your own favorite brands. What are the single words that come to mind when you think about brands you love to own and use? How do you feel about them?

For example, what do you drive? A Ford? BMW? Each brand conjures a mood and a tone of voice. You probably know it. Some brand voices are iconic, part of our culture. You may not know the exact words the brand chose, but you know what you feel when you wear the brand, drive it, eat it or use it.

You need to create your product’s “attitude” and use those individual words or phrases to communicate what that attitude is. Your list should include no more than five words, each one different. No synonyms.

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These attitudes about your product/service/brand also help keep you focused on how you think, believe and act about your product, both within your company and to the world outside.

These five questions, all of which emerge from the core of the creative brief, can play a transformative role for your business even if you never engage the services of an advertising agency. These questions form the heart of your brand.

You need some guideline or roadmap to keep you on track with your business’s aspirations. There is no need to search for some fancy-schmancy instruction manual.

The creative brief contains it all—in one, neat, easy-to-use package.

 

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.

If you can’t explain what a creative brief is, how can you write an inspired one?

What is your definition of a good creative brief? If you work in advertising, marketing, PR or social media, and a variety of other fields, chances are you have a working answer.

Here’s a great answer from a book called What’s a Good Brief? The Leo Burnett Way, written in 1998:

“A good creative brief…

…is brief and single minded
…is logical and rooted in a compelling truth
…incorporates a powerful human insight
…is compatible with the overall brand strategy
…is the result of hard work and team work”

Okay, so that’s what makes a good creative brief. But what is your definition of the document itself? Forget the descriptors. What is this thing?

If you don’t have a definition, how do you know if your brief is good or great or inspired? If you don’t know what each of those five points above is, how do you know if you even have a creative brief?

Let’s take a break this week and define the document itself so we know when a great one lands in front of us.

The simplest definition I have is this:

A creative brief is an objectives document whose sole purpose is to spark relevant ideas for the creative team.

I like it. But does it explain all the points in the Leo Burnett definition, which, by the way, is pretty darn close to being definitive? No.

Remove the word “good” and focus on just “creative brief.” If you look closely at the Leo Burnett criteria, you have a solid working definition:

1. A creative brief is brief and single minded

The document reduces to its most essential elements the purpose of the job being assigned to the creative team. Therefore it must, by definition, be focused. It must get to the point. i_love_single_minded_tshirt-rb60739ffd3fb423785cc26764a500fbd_8nhmp_324

This idea often flies in the face of a product manager’s expectations. She sees her product as a “unique package of features” (a term I heard spoken out loud by a marketing manager some years ago).

No one buys a “unique package of features.” They buy a solution to a problem, real or perceived. A favorite shampoo makes your hair look just so. You feel sexy. Your car makes you feel successful or masculine or trendy.

The creative brief makes tangible what this “feeling” is and communicates it succinctly to the creative team.

2. A creative brief is logical and rooted in a compelling truth

A creative brief must connect the dots for the creative team, starting with the reason why a product is desirable. The brief must show the logic behind the product-as-solution, not just the emotion. In other words, a creative brief must tell a single-minded truth.

For example, the single-minded proposition on one creative brief for the soft drink Tango reads: “Join the Tango resistance.”

spockThe “logic” is the reason to believe the proposition. What facts can you present to the creative team to help them build their creative case? With Tango: “It is no ordinary soft drink; it therefore says something about you when you drink it. It’s controversial, daring and overt,” according to the brief.

3. A creative brief incorporates a powerful human insight

Staying with the soft drink Tango, the brief writer had access to an insight about who would drink this product: teenagers.

Teens, according to the agency creative brief, “take on a brand’s personality as a representation of their own. Therefore, if a brand has no personality, it’s impossible for (teens) to feel an affiliation toward it.”

The brief also makes clear that Tango’s history of being out of the ordinary had not been leveraged. The conclusion? “In order to gain a loyal consumer base, we need to give (teens) something that’s worth being involved with.” 5661_ideas_moderation_permalink-1

Although this product and its television campaign are dated, the brief stands as a towering example of being “inspired.” Go to YouTube and view the spot that arose from this brief. You’ll see a “compelling truth” in 60 seconds.

4. A creative brief is compatible with the overall brand strategy

A simple reminder: If you don’t have a strategy, you cannot write a creative brief. Strategy first, creative brief second.

5. A creative brief is the result of hard work and team work

Even in the late 1990s, Leo Burnett recognized the value of teamwork in writing a creative brief. No one writes ads by themselves. It is a process that involves a team: copywriter and art director.

No one should write a creative brief alone. At least two people should collaborate. I recommend an account planner or account management person plus a senior creative. iFPG9VCwIIohqdefaultBut even junior account people and junior creatives, pairing up, are better than a soloist.

These five criteria, for me, are the definition of both a good creative brief and, simply, the creative brief itself. A creative brief is not a creative brief if it does not accomplish these five objectives.

This was a review of basics. As if you were practicing lay-ups on the basketball court or doing barre-work in a beginning ballet class.

Professionals always return to fundamentals to polish their skills.

5 classic creative brief-writing mistakes

mistakeI’ve read hundreds, perhaps thousands, of creative briefs in my nearly 30 years in the ad business. Certain mistakes always seem to repeat themselves. Follow this simple guide and you can avoid some of the more common ones that creative brief writers make everyday.

1. Don’t forget that a creative brief must wear its passion on its sleeve.

Brief writers sometimes forget that the creative brief is firstly a position paper. It serves as an advocate for the product or service. Ergo, it must be clearly partisan. 1355676754_1347_Cheesehead

Fortunately, I have never read a creative brief that wasn’t partisan. But I have read plenty of briefs that were decidedly unenthusiastic in their partisanship. Which is almost worse.

If you want to fire up your creative team, their fire depends on your fire. You must be fanatical in your advocacy. That fanaticism must come through in the words you choose, the ideas you express, the passion in the document itself.

If you want to inspire, remember that your brand zealotry must be on display from the first word to the last.

2. Don’t forget to make your communication objectives clear and inspiring.

I’ve identified three boxes or questions on the creative brief that serve as the heart of the document. Any one, or more, of these three elements that are weak and the document suffers.

The first of these three questions is, “What are the communication objectives?” There are variations on this question, but this spot on the brief is where the client and the agency have agreed on the main selling points of the product.

Typically, you don’t want more than three messages in any communication. Realistically, you want only two: the most important benefit of the product, and then a reminder of the brand message. I call this a “brand reinforcement.” Sometimes the most important product benefit and the brand reinforcement are the same thing, so you have the perfect storm for a communication: one clear idea.

Whether you have three messages or one, the classic mistake at this spot of the creative brief occurs when they are fuzzy, soft, uninspiring. This situation typically results when the language the writer uses lacks the element of zealotry I mentioned in #1 above. But it also comes about when the writer struggles to simply be clear.

My solution is to focus in on your choice of verbs. Verbs are the John Wayne of words. They’re all about action. The creative team is looking for inspiration they can act on. When you choose the precise verb to describe your objectives, you hone in on specific emotions.

John-Wayne-p15For example, what if one of your communication objectives reads like this: “Describe to the consumer how Brand X will make her feel…”? Is that clear? My answer is, compared to what? It’s an easy enough idea to understand, but where is the brand zealotry? Nowhere, in my opinion.

Now, what if you wrote this instead: “Seduce her with Brand X’s …..”

What’s the difference between “describe” from the first version and “seduce” in the second? An entire world of possibility. Both are verbs, but the second verb, “seduce,” is deliciously specific, entertaining, and far more inspiring.

So what’s in a verb? Plenty. Take the time to think about what action you want the creative team to make and choose your verbs accordingly.

3. Don’t forget to make your single-minded proposition clear and inspiring…and truly single-minded.

Box number two on my all-star list of three boxes is the single-minded proposition (SMP). It’s the hardest question to answer on the brief. And the one that carries the most weight. Rightly so.

The SMP emerges organically from your (short) list of communication objectives. When that list is boring and vague, chances are the SMP will be a chip off the old block.

Bad idea.

Now understand that the SMP isn’t merely a “cut and paste” from the list of communication objectives. It’s not that simple. You need to revise and massage the one communication objective that stands out into something of its own. Sometimes a truly well-written SMP can become a product tag line. Or even a concept.

The temptation for the brief writer to play it safe with the SMP can be irresistible. It can end up reading like either a laundry list of everything in the communication objectives, or a generic statement like this: “There is no other product on the market like Brand Y.”

Which may be true. But so what? No one cares that it’s unique. No one will buy it just because it’s the only one like it. They might buy it if they had a reason!

The SMP must provide that motivation.

4. You don’t need a research budget to find an insight about your product user.

These days, there simply is no excuse for not having some insight into the thinking and/or buying habits of your product’s user. Data is everywhere.

Even if you don’t have a research budget, simple Socratic questioning can lead the average advertising professional to remarkably astute deductions about the product’s users. And, therefore, a usable insight that creatives can employ as a springboard to a winning idea.

My technique is called a Deep Target Dive™. It’s nothing more than a laddering system that asks one pointed question over and over. Begin by asking, “Why would the SMP appeal to Ms. Product User?” When you arrive at the answer, ask this question: “Why would that be important to her?”

With each new answer, ask the question, “Why would that be important to her?” again. Ask it as often as you can. In a matter of minutes, you’ll arrive at an answer that is both credible and unique. This is your educated insight. Brought to you by a dead Greek. Socrates_Louvre

5. Don’t forget that you should not write the creative brief by yourself.

This is a relatively new concept, but one I’ve been advocating for years. Some agencies are adopting the idea of pairing an account person with a creative person to write the creative brief.

If this isn’t happening where you work, step up and suggest it. Better yet, just do it. If you’re the brief writer, find a willing creative and recruit her. If you’re a creative, no matter what level, volunteer to work with someone in the account management department.

Don’t stop with just writing the brief together. Team up and present the brief at the briefing session. You’ll turn heads and the creative and account teams will look at both the document and the briefing itself with new eyes.

The first four points are common mistakes. The last is a mistake only in the sense that writing a creative brief should never have been a solo effort in the first place. The very idea demands a team approach in the same way that the best creative comes from a copywriter/art director collaboration. In time, I hope everyone will see the inevitability of this step.

Happy brief writing!

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

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

It was a eureka moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is about getting to the heart of the matter.

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

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

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

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

1. How many communication objectives have you listed?

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

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

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

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

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

3. Find a consumer insight.

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

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

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

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

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