Navigate the seven C’s to write an inspiring creative brief.

In my travels this year on behalf of the Association of National Advertisers’ School of Marketing, I’ve met hundreds of dedicated marketing and advertising professionals. They shared with me their challenges, frustrations and successes with the creative brief. If I’ve learned only one thing from these remarkable people—and it’s difficult to reduce to one—it’s this:

You must maintain a sense of humor.

The brief is the most important part of the creative process because it’s the first step, and that makes it hard to write. Very hard. As it should be. So you must learn to have fun, laugh and accept that brief writing is a process.

From California to Virginia, from Miami to San Francisco, from Phoenix to Cleveland, I heard the same basic questions repeatedly:

How do you know what to include and what to leave out?

How do you make the brief clearer?

How do you get everyone to buy in?

How do you write a really good single-minded proposition?

The answers to these questions require the seven “Cs” outlined below. They are my gift to you this holiday season (plus a New Year’s Resolution I urge you to consider. It’ll be easy…I promise!).

Courage

Think of the creative brief as an argument. An argument requires evidence to support it. To be a good argument, you must take a stand, a clear position. Preferably, a position that might cause push back.

How can we all find ways to be courageous?

If someone disagrees with you about your argument, you’re in the ball park. If they don’t disagree, you might be in safe territory.

Better to be outside your comfort zone with your brand.

Writing a creative brief requires courage. Ultimately you want everyone to agree with you that you’ve taken the brand assignment in the right direction. Being safe is the wrong pathway. Presenting solid evidence in the form of consumer insights and an authentic emotional reason to believe in the product are better choices. You have to defend your position.

Constraint

Less is more, especially with a creative brief. You can’t say everything in your advertising communication. Don’t even try to.

Constraint is liberating. Put someone in a box and it fires up the imagination. This isn’t my opinion. This is reality. As a creative, I know how it works.

Constraint begins here, with the creative brief. It means you have to decide what is absolutely the most important claim about your brand. So make it. Then stop. You’re done.

Curiosity

If you don’t have it, find another line of work.

Advertising is about ferreting out what your customer wants and triggering that want with a message that demands…action, a response, a purchase.

I wrote a short essay for my college students explaining why I teach. Here’s a sentence from the opening paragraph:

“Curiosity is the engine of inquiry, a catalyst of self-awareness, the train-whistle-in-the-dead-of-night that calls you irresistibly to a new adventure.” cat-art-print-17-x-17-unframed--[2]-33278-p

The creative brief is the natural repository of your curiosity. Feed both!

Collaboration

We tend to forget that advertising changed dramatically in the 1960s when copywriters and art directors were paired to work together. Two brains. Two uniques perspectives. Two sounding boards.

This principle is now considered best practices in writing creative briefs. The collaboration must include a creative. That means asking for at the very least some comments on a draft creative brief before the briefing takes place.

Creatives have a stake in the process. Include them, always. When the actual briefing begins, there will be no surprises.

Craft

I’ve lost track of how many creative briefs I’ve read in my career. The really good ones had something in common:

The are well written. They were composed by someone who understood a sentence. Who could write a narrative, a story with drama and tension. They were composing a concise, cogent argument.

There is no substitute for craft in a creative brief.

Consideration

There’s never time to do it right. There’s always time to do it over.

You can avoid this maddening reinforcing loop by giving yourself enough time to think. Demand thinking time! watch-time

A quantity you do not have, right? I hear this one, too.

One solution I recommend: Not every project requires its own creative brief. One-offs, special promotions, limited-time offers and projects of this nature can be handled with what I’d call a creative brief “addendum.”

In other words, a paragraph or two of new information to supplement an existing creative brief.

In other words, pick your battles.

Clarity

I saved this for last.

Clarity is the starting and end point of every creative brief. You’ll know you’ve achieved it when the creatives start to riff on the project in front of you, and you may not even be done with the briefing.

They’ll have questions, of course. Every brief invokes questions. The best briefs always do that.

Clarity means no wasted words. Your argument is sound. Your rationales produce nods of agreement.

So there you have it. My gifts to you for 2017.

Are you still struggling with your briefs? Please consider my request for your New Year’s Resolution. It will make a world of difference:

Practice!

I’m serious. Professionals always practice. Think LeBron James. Better yet, think Brett Hundley.

Who’s he? The new Green Bay Packers quarterback, the unfortunate guy who had to replace Aaron Rogers when he was injured earlier this season. Boy oh boy does he practice.

Why not you?

Here’s what you can do. Take as little as three minutes a day. No pencil, pen, paper or keyboard required.

On your commute home, identify a brand, any brand. Your car. The phone in your hand. In your head, answer these questions:

What are two brand benefits?

What is the single-minded proposition for this brand?

Who is the ideal consumer? Why?

Do this everyday with any brand. You’re honing a valuable skill. Do this for 30 days in a row, and you’ll have a new habit. Then, the next time you have to write an actual creative brief, you simply click into your muscle memory.

Practice makes creative brief writing easier.

Inspired Creative Brief: The Blog is off in December. I’ll be back in January 2018 with a Sneak Peek of my new book, How To Write A Killer Single-Minded Proposition. Don’t miss it!

Five truths every creative brief writer must face.

I offer these five truths about the creative brief that will help you take a successful first step of the creative process.

1. Collaborate, especially with creatives. Never write this document by yourself.

How many of you remember Steve Jobs’s Parable of Rocks? It bears repeating. This is Jobs speaking: Steve Jobs

“When I was a young kid there was a widowed man that lived up the street. He was in his eighties. He was a little scary looking. And I got to know him a little bit. I think he may have paid me to mow his lawn or something.

“One day he said to me, ‘Come on into my garage I want to show you something.’ And he pulled out this dusty old rock tumbler. It was a motor and a coffee can and a little band between them. And he said, ‘Come with me.’ We went out into the back and we got some rocks… some regular old ugly rocks. And we put them in the can with a little bit of liquid and little bit of grit powder, and we closed the can up and he turned this motor on and he said, ‘Come back tomorrow.’ This can was making a racket as the stones went around.

“And I came back the next day, and we opened the can. And we took out these amazingly beautiful polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other like this (Jobs clapped his hands), creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful polished rocks. river rocks

“That’s always been in my mind, my metaphor for a team working really hard on something they’re passionate about.

 “It’s that through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together they polish each other and they polish the ideas, and what comes out are these really beautiful stones.”

I know you’re thinking that he’s speaking about creative people: art directors, copywriters, digital folks, graphic artists and others. Maybe.

But think about the principle. Put an account planner, a creative and an account management person in a room together, and have them forge a creative brief as a team. Everyone has a stake. It’s not “You write it, I’ll work from it.” No. It’s a team effort.

Creatives have done this for decades. Creative brief writers should be doing it this way, too.

2. You must make choices. Less is definitely more.

The tendency is to cover your butt. You don’t want to accused of forgetting something. So everything is included. Nothing is excluded. Your brief is not brief.

Not everything matters. You must make decisions. The principle of “Liberating constraint” applies here. Box in your creative team with restrictions, rules, walls, the very things they detest. The result is creative freedom. This is the definition of the creative brief.

The creative brief is not a product encyclopedia. It’s the opening line of a brand poem.

3. Take a stand, and stand by it. You must be courageous.

If the Single-Minded Proposition (or the Core Idea, or the One Thing, or whatever you call it on your brief) does not spark a debate, go back to the drawing board and try again.

When it does spark a debate, relax. You done good. Now defend it.

4. If you’re really a professional, practice.

Gary Player, the South African golf legend, told this story some years ago.

Player was practicing sand shots out of a green-side bunker when a fan stopped by to watch. Player hit shot after shot after shot, each one landing softly on the green and rolling into the cup. After each shot, he heard his fan say the same thing, “That’s just luck!”

Player, clearly annoyed, turned to the man and with a smile on his face, said, “That’s right! The more I practice, the luckier I get!” Gary Player

If the only time you write a creative brief is when you actually have to write a creative brief, you’re doing yourself a disservice. And everyone else on the team.

Imagine if Gary Player hit a sand shot only when his ball actually landed in a bunker. Or if LeBron James shot a free throw only when he was fouled. Imagine if these two sports giants never practiced. You know what would happen. We would never have heard of them. They’d have been failures.

It’s your job to practice writing a brief even when no brief is required. You can do this anytime: On your commute. Waiting in line for coffee. In the dentist’s chair. Think about a product, an everyday item, anything. What is its Single-Minded Proposition? Who would truly use it? What insights can you conjure about this consumer? What are the obstacles to overcome?

These are simple mind exercises you can do at any time. You don’t have to put fingers to a keyboard. But you do have to engage your brain. It’s a muscle like your bicep or hamstring. Use it. Practice.

The point is to develop muscle memory. Do this for 30 days and you have a habit. A professional habit.

5. You have permission to be creative!

The creative brief is the first step in the creative process. I like to quote Sir John Hegarty here: The brief is the first ad. It doesn’t have to be great, but it must be good.

So don’t be shy. You are allowed, encouraged, to offer up creative ideas. I have seen them called “creative starters” on some briefs. They may lead nowhere, but if you leave them out, we’ll never know, will we?

Remember these five truths and you will write better, clearer, more inspiring creative briefs.

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

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

Can’t you see the obvious?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider this analogy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is current best practices.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

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.

How to convince your agency or in-house creative department to use a creative brief.

There’s never time to do it right, but there’s always time to do it over.

Imagine that I hand you two identical boxes that contain identical contents.

One of the two boxes comes with a set of instructions to assemble the contents. The second box comes with no instructions. Suppose I told you that you had exactly one hour to complete the assembly.

Which box would you choose?

If you’re sane, you’d choose the box that comes with instructions. Why make your like difficult, right? keep-calm-and-follow-directions-35

But that’s exactly what it’s like for the creative department when you give them a project without a creative brief. You handicap them from the start.

Why on Earth would any professional communications firm even contemplate handing over a communications project to its creative team without a set of instructions? Why? Would someone please explain this concept to me? Because I just don’t get it.

Yet it happens. Every week or so I get an email from a reader or fellow creative bemoaning his or her situation where the creative brief (ad-speak for “set of instructions”) either does not exist, is ignored or is given lip service at best.

There is more truth to the cliche that the worst communicators are people in the communications business. They’re outstanding at talking to everyone on the planet…except themselves. They know every trick in the book to reach this audience or that, but when it comes to commiserating with each other, they are mute. They think the rules don’t apply to them.

This is a sad state of affairs.

If the decision makers where you work wouldn’t try to assemble the contents of a box without instructions, and that stark fact doesn’t convince them to use a creative brief, what can you do?

I have some advice that could change their minds.

I have witnessed more spinning wheels when a creative brief is ignored or underutilized. Meaning that creative work is rejected internally or by the client, or both, because something was missing, something was overlooked. More often, something was simply not clear.

The result is predictable: The creative team is forced to go back to the drawing board, but not necessarily with any clearer direction. Sometimes this happens repeatedly. I have painful memories of one project early in my career where I revised copy 17 times before it was finally approved. I learned quickly not to take it personally.

There is another route. The creatives will actually figure out the project, deliver some good (maybe even great) work and everyone is happy. This happens more often than you might imagine.

The question is: Why must it be this way when there is an alternative?

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Here’s how you can fix the problem: Try an A–B split. ff_abtesting_f

If you’re not versed in direct response, this means that you conduct a test with two approaches to the same project: one team gets a creative brief, the other doesn’t. If the creative brief isn’t part of your agency’s culture, you’ll have to do your best to create a template and fill in the boxes yourself. You must acquire evidence to show tangibly what happens when a brief is a part of the project from the beginning.

My experience shows that a creative team working from an inspired creative brief delivers better work the first time with fewer re-dos and miss hits.

You may have to try this experiment without buy-in from your bosses. You may also have to do it on the sly. You absolutely must find a creative (or an account exec) so there is collaboration between the two groups. Creatives will leap at the chance to work from a creative brief if none is currently available. Account folks should too, but may need persuading.

If your agency is too small for multiple teams on the same project, then choose two projects with similar objectives, similar target audiences or similar creative tone.

The point is, build your case for the creative brief with experience using a creative brief. Specifically, you should be able to answer the following questions in the affirmative before the work is submitted for review:

1. Is the direction from a creative brief clear, resulting in focused creative solutions?

2. Does the single-minded proposition inspire good thinking?

3. Is there an insight about the product or the target consumer that also inspires good thinking?

4. Does the creative brief establish a yardstick against which creative solutions can be assessed? In other words, can you say for certain whether or not a creative solution is “on brief” or “off brief”?

5. Does the brief establish clear expectations regarding the tone of voice for your product or service?

You’ll notice that these five questions are variations of those you would find on a creative brief itself.

So how do you measure the results of creative solutions arrived at “with” a creative brief versus those “without” a creative brief? A degree of subjectivity is inevitable, but if the creative solutions (meaning the ad ideas or concepts) address these questions successfully, you have demonstrated that the set of instructions you wrote (the brief) delivered creative that followed those instructions. Sometimes, that’s proof enough of the creative brief’s value.

Essentially, you have shown that #4 is achievable: You’ve proven that creative can be assessed, and your brief is the yardstick. high-jump-bar

This is the most important criteria for any brief: You set the bar at a certain height and ask whether or not the work at least achieves it. If it exceeds that height, wow. What a benefit. If it underachieves, you have a way of discerning why (the standards established by the brief) and a way to fix what doesn’t measure up.

Without a brief, how can you know if the work is good enough? Even if everyone in the room agrees that the work is good, even great, can they say why?

Since no one created a check list in advance (another way to describe a creative brief), no one can say with assurance that the work they see fulfills any criteria.

Your creative brief becomes the check list. The road map. The yardstick. The standard to which you can point and ask, “Did we get it right?” yardstick-measure-ruler-inch

Don’t let another day slip by if your creative work place does not use a creative brief. Don’t deny yourself the opportunity to work with a set of instructions. It’s very possible to assemble a piece of furniture from Ikea without any, but why would you want to even try?

The creative brief doesn’t make producing ideas easy. Hard work takes care of that. But it certainly makes everyone’s life easier…if you put it to the test for which it was designed.

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!

Clients should take these 5 steps to assure an inspired creative brief.

generate_creative_inspiration2.844vrjth2ww00sowog0wgwgg8.26qeyncemmo0w4w4sgokogcgw.thThe creative brief may be the domain of the advertising agency, but the power of its inspiration begins with the client, the company doing the advertising.

The creative brief, after all, is a response to the input the ad agency receives from its client.

If you, as the representative of your company’s branding efforts, choose to spend a serious chunk of your annual budget on advertising, it is in your best interest to make the relationship work. That relationship should start with clearly defined objectives and active participation in the process that leads up to the ad agency’s creative brief.

Follow these five steps and you can assure a firm foundation for every creative brief you ad agency writes.

1. Submit a client brief.

Believe it or not, many clients do not engage in this practice. This is a huge mistake.

I have worked on both the ad agency side and the client side. Some ad agencies in my past did not utilize creative briefs. One client where I worked as the senior executive in charge of advertising also did not have a brief. In both instances, I initiated the practice, sometimes with serious resistance. Resist-Change_0

Sometimes it’s called a client brief. I’ve also seen something called a marketing-communications brief (marcom brief for short). If you don’t have either, choose one and institute it right away as part of your best practices.

The client brief is your first opportunity to define expectations in writing. It is your way of saying to your ad agency/creative consultants what, exactly, you expect them to produce. It is very much a contract, a document that sets the tone and the direction. Take it seriously.

Have you heard the phrase, “Garbage in, garbage out”? You know that any effort is worth only as much as you put into it. This is not merely excellent advice. It’s a cautionary tale.

2. Brief your agency partners with this document, and ask both account and creative staff to attend.

Every good relationship depends on communication. This means both clear direction giving and attentive listening. When you ask to brief your agency partners with your client brief on every new project, you are setting not only an example, but also expectations.

Every creative brief you read from your agency is a direct answer to your client brief. It is the agency’s way of saying, “We understand your directions and this is how we have interpreted them.”

If you don’t use a client brief and if you don’t brief your partners with this document, you are leaving yourself wide open for the worst possible outcomes: misinterpretation, misunderstanding, wasted time and wasted money.

3. Insist on being part of the discussion with your agency partners when they begin drafting your creative brief.

Some agency execs may see this as heresy. I say it is vital. It is part of the building blocks of a good, and long-lasting, relationship.

You want to see how your ad agency people interact with each other. You want to hear how they think. They will want to know the same things about you and your team. You have your unique perspective on the products or services you are advertising. If you are honest with yourself, you admit to a skewed and biased point of view. Of course! In the competitive marketplace, you are a partisan.

Your agency people are partisans too, in your corner to help you sell more goods and services.

When you join in this discussion on the first draft of a creative brief, you solidify the place of the brief (yours and the ad agency’s) in the process.

But don’t overstay your welcome. Contribute in the initial phase, and then let your agency people do their jobs. You will see the final outcome in due course, at which time you will have a say.

4. An inspired creative brief may scare you. Remember who the real target is.

The box on the brief that creatives tend to read first is the Single-Minded Proposition (SMP). An inspired SMP is supposed to be very ad-like in its phrasing. It can often sound headline-y. Like a concept or an idea by itself.

I’ve written in this space before that the legendary creative director John Hegarty has often described this line as the first ad for the product. He would write out this line on a blank piece of paper above or below a picture of the product and then tape it to his wall. If it did its job, it was this first ad, the one that ideally would inspire the creatives to create better and better ideas.

Be prepared for something unexpected and often not meant for public consumption. Remember who it is written for: the creative team(s). Not you.

A piece of advice: If the SMP does in fact scare you or make you feel uncomfortable, it’s likely a very good first ad.

This is your cue to smile and sign off on the brief.

5. Participate in the briefing of the creatives.

When you have read and approved the creative brief from you ad agency, ask to be part of the briefing of the creative team or teams assigned to this project. Creatives will have many questions. If you are a veteran of such briefings, you know. If you are new, you will discover both creatives’ curiosity and skepticism as they grapple with realities and challenges on their journey to the idea that becomes the new campaign. Polar Bears Curiosity

This is another step in your bonding process with the people who come up with the ideas. Ask them questions! Encourage them to think aloud during this meeting. Ferret out their thinking, their concerns, their ingenuity…their uninhibited joy in the creative process.

The creative brief, as I have said many times, is the first step in the creative process. It is the document bemoaned and disdained and, when it is done well, heralded.

But we forget that the creative brief does not exist in a vacuum. It is a response to whatever input the agency received from its client.

If you end up not liking the ideas your agency presents, ask yourself if you did your job up front with a clear client brief.

garbage-in-garbage-out

What creatives can contribute to writing a creative brief

Writing a creative brief should never be a solo practice. It must be a collaborative process. This is not the same as creative-brief-by-committee, but it should be a team-assembled creation.

I confess that when I was a practicing copywriter, even a young creative director, I rarely worked with the account management or account planning teams to chisel out a draft of a creative brief. Only later, after I’d written an early draft of my book, did I offer to work with those lonely souls who wrote briefs.

If I were starting my career today, knowing what I know about the challenges of writing a great creative brief, I would do things differently.

That’s why I have compiled this list of what advertising creatives can contribute to the process of writing an inspired creative brief.

Whether you—copywriter, art director, graphic designer, creative director, web content manager….the list is long—are a novice or the senior player, you have something at stake in the outcome of the creative brief.

1. Step up. Don’t wait to be asked.

If you are a senior-level creative (creative director or higher), you probably already collaborate with your account brethren on the brief. If you don’t, shame on you. Start today. Volunteer-Hands-Large

If you are anywhere else on the ladder of experience/responsibility, from novice to mid-career and you do not work with your account team on the brief, start now. This is not only a great team-building exercise, it is a career-enhancing practice.

Take ownership with your account person of the brief-writing process together. Volunteer to help, even if it starts out as just proofreading the first draft. I guarantee that any offer to help will be accepted with enthusiasm. The more sincere the offer, the more likely you are to learn and play an influencing role.

You, the ad creative, already know the value of working with a partner (your art director or copywriter) to produce better work. The principle holds true with the writing of a creative brief. You might just use this idea if your account team member resists.

Art directors, don’t shy away because you’re not a writer. If you’re a good thinker and conceptor, you have honed your BS detectors and can see faulty thinking when you read it. My best art director partners over the years played this role with me. They admitted that they couldn’t write a headline, but they knew a bogus idea when they saw it.

2. Ask questions first.

I have little doubt that an account person whose responsibility includes writing creative briefs will turn down your offer to help. But there might be some skepticism, especially if there is any tension between the account and creative departments. You’ll know whether this is true or not in your agency or place of employment.

If there is some tension, start your collaboration from a place of honest inquiry. Ask questions about how your account co-worker approaches the creative brief. Use the Socratic approach: each question can be followed by another question as you figure out the process.

0318_sb_readerQuestions_630x420

I suggest this as a way to gauge the reaction of your co-worker and especially as a preventive measure. The last thing you want to do is make pronouncements and sweeping statements, or worse, accusations about weak past creative briefs.

Your job here is to turn your expressed interest in collaborating into a workable and successful team effort to produce killer creative briefs. Rome, as they say, was not built in a day. Take it slow and easy.

3. Brief the creative team with your account co-worker/brief-writing partner

Trod new ground. Typically, it is the account team that briefs the creatives. Why not break the mold and brief together? You worked on the process with your partner. Ergo, you have insights from the experience of sculpting the finished draft.

l-Together-forever

Not only does this adaptation of the briefing process communicate a common stake-holding position, it demonstrates to both teams—account and creative alike—that the partnership is serious and sustainable.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received on how to shake up my thinking when I get into a creative corner was to stop and turn everything around 180 degrees. Look at your challenge from a completely fresh perspective.

Briefing the creative team as a creative representative of the creative-brief writing team will make everyone see the process differently.

4. Reciprocate

Invite your new creative-brief collaborating account co-worker into your creative space and show her early drafts of your ideas. Talk about how your thinking, based on this brief you worked on together, sparked the ideas you’re experimenting with. Ask for feedback. Talk. Question. Listen.

Most importantly, collaborate. Or rather, continue the collaboration you started when you were writing the creative brief.

The idea here is not so much to blur the lines between account and creative. That’s not truly going to happen. It’s to synchronize the thinking process between the key players.

If you literally start on the same page on the same day of a new task—writing a creative  brief together—you are far less likely, it seems to me, to get off track later on.

 

4 steps to writing an inspiring Single-Minded Proposition.

When I was a kid back in my hometown of Milwaukee, I loved basketball. Around the age of 13 I attended a week-long basketball camp hosted by the legendary coach of the 4641939331_0fee32dc15Marquette Warriors, Al McGuire. Coach McGuire put us through drills morning and afternoon before we had scrimmages after dinner.

It was grueling work, but when you’re a kid, it was just plain fun. Non-stop basketball. I loved it.

Looking back on that experience, I understand why we spent so much time practicing fundamentals: dribbling, layups, free-throws, jump shots. And running. Back and forth. Back and forth. I can still hear the sounds of pounding feet and squeaky sneakers on the polished hardwood courts.

These days, I teach Freshman English at community college in Los Angeles, which means I teach students about how to write an essay. If you think back to your days as a student, you might recall that the hardest part of an essay was the thesis statement. After more than 25 years as an ad copywriter and creative director, reading and working from creative briefs, the first thing I discovered about teaching students how to write a thesis statement was the remarkable similarity between it and the creative brief’s most challenging box:

The Single-Minded Proposition.

The essay’s thesis statement and the creative brief’s Single-Minded Proposition (or One Important Thing or Key Message or whatever you call it on your brief template) essentially work the same kind of magic: They tell the reader the point.

In an essay, the point is, What is your argument?

In a creative brief, the point is, What is the compelling reason why anyone wants this thing we’re selling?

It’s the hardest part of the creative brief to write because it carries so much weight. It’s typically the first thing a creative looks at when the briefing process begins. It is, as John Hegarty says, the first ad.

So what can be done to make this impossibly vital and important little sentence just a bit easier to write?

Go back to fundamentals.

Always, always, always: Go back to fundamentals. Whether it’s in sports or college writing, when you return to basics, you return to the things that help you develop mastery. layup-00

The reason why the Single-Minded Proposition is so difficult to write is that, like a thesis statement, it is entirely subjective.

It is an opinion.

Which means it has to express some point of view. And someone may disagree with it.

Don’t be intimidated. The Single-Minded Proposition springs from the product itself, so your opinion will be based on fact.

Here, then, are four basic steps on how to arrive at a good Single-Minded Proposition. Remember, as the first ad, in Hegarty’s words, the Single-Minded Proposition does not have to be great.

1. Identify the product’s most important features.

Every product (or service) has a feature. It is one of the aspects of the product that makes the product what it is. One feature of any Apple product, for example, is the intuitive nature of the software. It is easy to use. It’s why a toddler can pick up an iPhone or iPad and start using it without a manual.

2. When you identify the important features, figure out each feature’s benefits.

In other words, why does anyone care about this particular aspect of the product? Why, for example, does Apple’s intuitive software matter? Who cares? What’s in it for me, the user?

Yes, this is very basic stuff. When you figure out the product benefit, you’re halfway to figuring out a Single-Minded Proposition.

I say halfway because the leap from product benefit to Single-Minded Proposition is not direct. It is not literal.

The product feature talks to your head. The product benefit talks to your heart.

3. One of those feature/benefits will be the compelling reason to make a purchase.

Focus on the word “Single” in the Single-Minded Proposition. No matter what the product manager or senior marketing executive at your client says, the product you’re selling is not a “unique package of features,” a term I have heard repeatedly. The best communications are focused messages telling a story about one thing.

This may require some discussion, but you must agree on only one of the items on the short list of feature/benefits. This one will be your candidate for Single-Minded Proposition.

Like all good writing, a Single-Minded Proposition will probably not appear on your first try. Write many drafts. Be more daring with each try. Which leads to the final step:

4. Try the Times Square Test

When you have a draft of a Single-Minded Proposition, give it this test: Imagine you’re standing in the middle of Times Square at 11 PM on a Saturday night. If you’ve ever been there, you know it’s a sea of people, mostly tourists. timessquare

Now imagine you are standing on one side of Broadway and the person you think is the ideal purchaser of your client’s product is standing on the other side of Broadway. If you yelled your Single-Minded Proposition at the top of your lungs and your ideal purchaser heard you, would she get it? Would she understand the reason to buy this product?

You get only one shot at this test. And you have to be honest—with yourself. If you think the line communicates the compelling reason to make the purchase, you probably have a good Single-Minded Proposition.

There’s one caveat: The Single-Minded Proposition can be off-the-wall and outrageously over the top. It’s not meant for public consumption, but rather to inspire your creative team.

As the creative brief writer, your task is to deliver the most inspired and inspiring document you can to your creative team or teams.

That job is hard. Stick with fundamentals. This is how you develop mastery.