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

Small Fish With Ambitions Of A Big Shark - Business Concept

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

Here are three of my favorites:

1. The creative brief is no longer relevant.

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

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

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

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

First: The creative brief is no longer relevant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abstract illustration concept for design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No wonder you blame the creative brief.

 

How to break the first rule of advertising

On July 19, the folks at Faktory, an ad agency in Utah, published a thought-piece on Medium.com. I liked it so much, I posted a link to my LinkedIn page. I still like it. A lot.

The premise is elegant and simple: If you want people to not only remember your communication, but to break what the writer described as the first rule of advertising (“No one looks for your ad”), you must connect with your audience in three ways:

  1. With a truth
  2. With an emotion
  3. With a story

Brilliant!

A truth is what I’d call an “insight”: something unique or previously unknown about your consumer, the marketplace, the product category, sometimes a combination of two or more.

An emotion is the deliberate evocation of an authentic feeling. This is what the best of advertising does so well. And so rarely.

And story. This is a narrative, they wrote, that rewards you at the end. They claimed it did not need to be linear. But they added a fourth point that I think was redundant:

Don’t mess [your audience] up by trying to say or do too much.

This is correct. But the good folks at Faktory veer off course just a bit. I think they should stick to three ideas, but enhance one of them. Specifically, point #3: a story with a message.

The definition of “story” after all, is: a narrative that arrives at a point, a resolution, a message. A story without a message isn’t a story at all.

The ads they liked so much—Old Spice #SmellLegendary—are in fact linear stories. Each has a beginning, a middle and an end. They may be absurd, but they are linear, and they have a point. I know this is what Faktory’s writer meant. smell

I have a name for this reward: The single-minded proposition.

Your ad (story) will not resonate if you have too many things to say. But one clear message, driven home within a compelling narrative, makes a memorable, and therefore effective, communication.

That’s why I would argue that the “rule of three” applies: A truth, an emotion, and a story (with a clear message). Do these three things, and you can negate Faktory’s astute “first rule of advertising”: No one goes out of their way to look at advertising.

Because some well-told stories have accomplished the seeming impossible: they’ve gone viral. People not only look for them, they even ask for them by name.

All I’ve done here is nit-pick. I’ve added succinctness to an otherwise strong argument. A story without a point is no story at all. It’s an example of your drunken Uncle Fred at the family dinner rambling on about…well, whatever. He has no point. But he loves the sound of his voice.

Here’s an example in :30. It’s a TV spot for Lexus, called, I’m sad to say, “Turning the Page.” There is no truth. No emotion. No single-minded story. It’s a spoken cliche reinforced with a visual cliche. What we used to derisively call “See–Say” advertising: see it, and because the advertiser believes the audience is stupid, say it, too.

Where do you find the elusive truth? The authentic emotion? The single-minded story?

If you’ve read my essays before, you know the answer: the creative brief.

This is where creatives find the inspiration for Big Ideas like #SmellLegendary and the other examples Faktory’s article highlighted. If you haven’t read the article, read it now. Re-read it. Talk about it. Make certain your creative briefs address each point.

Well done Faktory.

 

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

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

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

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

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

His answer still startles me, almost 30 years later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But first, a word of advice:

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

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

Here’s my short list:

Greats.

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

Blue Apron.

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

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

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

Harry’s.

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

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

Harrys-Hero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s better to think inside the box.

A killer creative brief is hard to write. It should be hard. It’s supposed to be hard. If it were easy, no one would complain about the dearth of good creative briefs. And creatives love to complain about bad creative briefs. complainer-657x360

Ergo, writing a good one is not easy.

Is that why so many are poorly written? Because expectations are so low?

Perfect, at least some of us have come to know, is the enemy of the good.

Many authors have been attributed to this line: “I would have made this letter shorter, but I didn’t have enough time.” Some credit Mark Twain. Others Cicero.

Constraints force us to make choices. The best of us respond to the challenge. Too often, the creative brief writer throws up his hands and gives in to the temptation to include everything for fear of missing something. As Oscar Wilde would say in response, “I can resist anything, except temptation.”

To write a killer creative brief requires courage, confidence and brevity.

Next time someone (your boss, the client, a weak-minded account type) encourages you to add more to your creative brief, make them talk to the hand. Then recite these three reasons:

1. Liberating Constraint.

Force yourself to keep your brief to one page. That doesn’t mean a two-page brief is automatically bad or wrong. It simply means you are conscious of the need to find the essence of a product’s message.

The concept is called “Liberating Constraint.” When you force yourself to be reductive, you open creative doors. When you agree to reside inside a self-imposed “box,” the experience frees you. There’s a ton of research to back this up. prison-bars-image

You are not writing a user guide. You are writing explicit instructions to the creative team. The brief is designed to give them a push, point them in one possible direction, spark their thinking.

The brief is the first step in the creative process. Get the creatives started, then step back and let them do their jobs.

Ultimately, this means you must make choices. You must edit. You must be selective. You must be, well, brief.

Your goal, always: One page.

2. Two pages: No! Two minds: Yes!

Whomever writes a creative brief is not weak of heart. You got game. You strut. Even if inside you’re quaking in your boots, you don’t show it. You gotta exude confidence.

This is precisely why writing the brief is never a solo project. You must collaborate. It’s not the work of a committee, but rather of a dedicated team.

Compare this process to what creatives do: an art director/graphic designer pairs with a writer, and the two of them play a kind of creative ping pong. Ideas bounce back and forth between them. Some are rejected, others are kept to explore further.

The creative brief demands the same dual-minded attention. You share responsibility for the document. You both take credit. Which means you also must accept blame for a poorly written effort.

Hey, creatives routinely present lame ideas. It happens. Truth be told, they are often the ones who know their best from their worst ideas. The difference between creative teams and brief-writing teams: Brief writers create a single creative brief. Creatives always present multiple ideas. Oh well. Get used to it.

3. When the brief-writing team includes a creative, creatives now have a clear stake in the process.

When account or planning folks were the sole proprietor of creative briefs, that essentially set up a “them vs us” mentality. It was a lot easier for creatives to diss an even moderately bad brief. Why not? They had no skin in the game.

Make a creative part of the brief-writing process, and all that changes. As it should be. Creatives now own a piece of the effort. And when a creative assists the account or planning colleague in the briefing process, fellow creatives quickly realize their brethren is on board.

It makes a huge difference.

Liberating Constraint is my main message here, which clearly covers points 1 and 2.  But point 3 is a benefit, and creatives by nature will help keep the brief-writing process focused and concise. Creative always exist inside a box of one kind or another: a :30 spot, a one-page ad, any communication with a time or space limit. These are all examples of constraints. how-to-expand-your-comfort-zone

Thinking “outside the box” has become a horrible cliche that means, well, I have no idea what it means any more.

Thinking “inside the box” means self-imposed limits. That’s a great definition of a creative brief. It’s no guarantee that the document will be well written, much less inspired. But at least it won’t take very long to discover that fact.

Practice Liberating Constraint whenever you write a creative brief. Force yourself to make enlightened, insightful choices based on your brand story. Your brief will be more inspired. And so will your creative teams’ work.

What “Finding Dory” can teach us about brand insights

Two disparate worlds collided this weekend that produced an insight. This is supposed to happen to people like me who use insights for a living.

First, I read contributing Atlantic editor David H. Freedman’s thoughtful piece, “The War on Stupid People” in the July/August issue. He tells us that the lack of intellectual chops, otherwise known as being stupid, has become the new acceptable put down. “Those who consider themselves bright,” he writes, “openly mock others for being less so.”

This practice is reinforced in corporate America. Many companies, Freedman tells us, are implementing new intelligence tests for potential hires. If you don’t measure up, it becomes a mark against you, and a reason not to make an offer of employment.

This in spite of the emerging evidence that smart people do not necessarily make the best employees. Something about having little experience with failure and thin skins. Interpersonal skills, self-awareness and emotional qualities, Freedman writes, can be better job performance predictors.

Perhaps his most astute observation is this: “Among other things, the less brainy are, according to studies and some business experts, less likely to be oblivious of their own biases and flaws, to mistakenly assume that recent trends will continue into the future, to be anxiety-ridden, and to be arrogant.”

The sad fact is, the minority of Americans who are in this intellectual elite influence the world for the rest of us.

Then I went to see the Disney/Pixar blockbuster, “Finding Dory.” It was not on my “must see” list, but after reading so many positive reviews, I relented. It is that rare combination of laugh-out-loud entertainment and serious message vehicle. As a college educator, I was reminded to take its message into my classroom everyday. Finding-Dory-Disney-pixar-2016

But as a brand strategist and storyteller as well as a creative brief educator, I saw another message. Advertising professionals take data and research seriously, as we should. What we learn from the things consumers tell us as well as what we discern from their unconscious (i.e. body language) behavior, lead us, or so we hope, to a valuable insight, maybe even more than one. The kind of insight that makes tailoring communication to persuade them to try and/or remain loyal to a brand.

That’s the theory, anyway.

I left the theatre while the credits to “Finding Dory” were still rolling, and I couldn’t help but laugh to myself. The central question posed in the movie is the very question we brand guardians must ask to guide us in finding the insights we covet.

Before I get to that question, here’s a brief synopsis for those of you who have not yet seen this charming, heart-warming and outrageously funny tale, which incidentally also made me cry.

“Finding Dory” is a sequel to the popular “Finding Nemo” that came out in 2003. Its premise is that a year after Dory, a fish with short-term memory problems, helps Marlin find his son, Nemo, she remembers she has parents and sets out to find them. Marlin and Nemo go along to help. Thoroughly engaging mayhem unfolds, and it is no “spoiler” to tell you that in spite of her clear deficiencies, Dory finds mom and dad. It’s how she manages this feat, and what she learns that make this adventure so memorable.

Back to the question: At one point in the movie, when Marlin and Nemo get separated from Dory, the two struggle, momentarily paralyzed with inaction. Nemo poses the question, “What would Dory do?” to help his dad figure out the next move.

At first, papa Marlin assumes the intellectual approach and begins to analyze and synthesize the situation in order to ascertain a strategy. Until he realizes that’s not how Dory operates. Dory’s lack of conventional intelligence, which might be classified these days as a developmental disability, gives the lie to her abilities.

Marlin has his “Ah-ha!” moment and decides to take a leap of faith, Dory-like, to keep the search for Dory, and the story line, moving.

It is both this question and its answer, combined with Freedman’s observations about so-called intelligence, that produced my own “Ah-ha!” moment.

Finding a brand insight is a hard thing to do. There are no guarantees that intrepid digging will uncover anything remotely insightful. But this guarantee is, well, guaranteed if you stop at data and research.

A brand insight comes, not from brainy application of intelligence, but rather from what I’ll call the “Dory effect”: trusting your instincts and allowing intuition to rule.

By this I do not mean to ignore data and research. On the contrary. Remember the advice of James Webb Young in his 1948 masterpiece, “A Technique for Producing Ideas.”  When you are in the creative zone of the five steps Webb outlines, you eventually arrive at step 3: information overload requires you to walk away and clear your head. By this moment the seeds have been planted. But only at this moment can they bloom into an idea. techforproducingideas1

This is the answer to the question, “What would Dory do?” It is the leap of faith Dory took from the moment she decided to go on her parent quest. It is the foundation on which rested every decision she made along the way.

It is the foundation on which insights arrive, too. I say “arrive” because I believe the intuitive, creative mind is more likely to be receptive to an idea than one grounded only in data- and research-based analysis.

No one “uncovers” an insight. An insight emerges after information is processed and left to settle, and then sparked by the intuitive brain.

Date and research are the nutrients. Intuition is the blender.

The next time you are in the hunt for a brand insight, don’t forget to ask:

What would Dory do?

A Creative Brief Manifesto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Start with feelings, not facts.

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

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

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

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

3. What’s in it for me?

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

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

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

4. Prove it!

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

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

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

5. Begin the story here.

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

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

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

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

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

Invest in the outcome. Trustworthiness

Make sure you have skin in the game.

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

 

 

 

50 years after its invention, the creative brief needs some fixes.

The creative brief dates to the early 1960s when account planning was introduced to the advertising world by a Brit named Stanley Pollitt. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the creative brief. Its role in developing great advertising deserves recognition and, no disrespect intended, a review. All good things can be improved.

As both an admirer and advocate of the creative brief, I offer a small gift to this document’s long history: Some ideas to make the creative brief better.

1. Consumers make decisions about brands based on their feelings, not their brains. The Single-Minded Proposition must reflect this truth.

This is an insight that is not new, but is slow to be embraced. Some account planners and academics have been writing about this topic, and I have written about it without being fully aware of the research. Professional experience, however, is hard to ignore.

Too often, we accept single-minded propositions that focus on rationality, on a mistaken belief that people make decisions based on facts and evidence, that we act reasonably. The process humans follow to arrive at a buying decision is sloppy, filled with irrational thinking, often contrary to our own best interests. Branding would not exist as we recognize it today if it were not because of this odd path we take before we open our wallets.

We must, therefore, change the way we view the core of the creative brief—the single-minded proposition. Some argue that the “single” nature of this idea is a relic, and there may be some truth in that, but I believe the most important argument here is the missing, or under-representation of, emotion. faces-small

It’s a scary thing to place so much weight on a hard-to-measure part of human psychology. The good news is, measuring emotional responses is actually getting easier, and more social scientists are exploring it, with fascinating results.

Advertising driven by direct appeals to emotion also works better. It is often more engaging, more humorous and more memorable. Refer to the link above for evidence and its nearly five pages of references.

The single-minded proposition is dead, as I suggested in a recent post. It must be replaced by an updated single-minded proposition that embraces the human nature of decision making: The messy, dynamic, more trustworthy emotions that make us who we are.

Just ask any creative. She knows from experience.

2. Creative brief writers must become better writers.

We must all become better writers, but this is especially true for communications professionals.

Please don’t mistake this as a plea for better headline writers. Anyone can write a headline. For proof, visit a parking lot and see how many clever personal license tags you can find. writer-1-300x300

Good, clear writing is a direct result of good, clear thinking. The creative brief is the first step in the creative process. It is the first ad written for any new communications project. It is the inspiration for the creative team. It must carry this weight with grace.

A poorly written creative brief is uninspiring for one reason and one reason only: Lack of clarity.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, lack of clarity is not, repeat not, because the brief fails to offer “outside the box” thinking, a term that has become meaningless; worse, it is simply dumb and wrong.

Lack of clarity means incoherent, unintelligible, not particular. It means fuzzy, blurred, unsharp. Good writing makes ideas coherent, intelligible, particular. Good brief writing makes coherent ideas sizzle.

Creative brief writers must be dedicated practitioners of the art of clear writing, first and foremost.

3. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate.

Less is more does not work in this space. Creative teams are called teams for a reason. Isn’t it about time we initiate creative brief teams?

If you have a stake in the outcome, you vest yourself. It’s time for creatives to take an equity stake in the document they love to loathe.

4. Re-new your vows to the creative brief.

I came across a blog post from a thoughtful account planner who suggested that the creative brief had outlived its usefulness and that in its place, clients, agencies and creatives should substitute a freer, uninhibited approach to producing creative solutions: A kind of “divergent thinking meets convergent thinking” informal brainstorming session.

I found myself shaking my head for the nth time. Someone is always trashing the document when the problem, in fact, is the content and the content’s originators.

No matter who complains about the creative brief, the complaint is rarely different: It doesn’t inspire enough. It doesn’t propel good thinking enough. It doesn’t work hard enough. It doesn’t do something quite enough.

To my thinking, this misses the point. The document is simply a place holder. It is ultimately only as good as the answers its questions provoke. Asking better questions might help, but that is the easy part. Producing better answers is my response, and it is definitely the hardest part.

Don’t blame a poorly imagined story on the document in which it resides. Look at yourself, the story teller.

transmutation_circle_part_1_by_orbita2k2-d5mkp26Renew your vows to this instrument of inspiration. Believe it can perform alchemy and it will. It is a blank space awaiting…

 

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.

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.

The problem with the creative brief is…

iStock_AnswersMedium3

Lately, I have read a number of articles about the sorry state of the creative brief in the post digital age.

In one particular online post, I came across this list of reasons why the creative brief may no longer be an effective tool:

“1. The world has gotten faster

2. Technology has fundamentally transformed communication

3. Breakthrough matters more than anything

4. Conversations are often a brand goal

5. Powerful insights aren’t always easy to find

6. Creatives often don’t want to have the most pointed and sharpest brief

7. The internet has empowered every creative to challenge the brief and perhaps even come up with a better one on their own

8. Communication has now fragmented to such a point—how can there be one brief for everything?

9. No one reads anything anymore” (The Creative Brief project, influxinsights.com)

On another blog, I saw this slide:

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And on still another blog, I saw this slide:

Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 5.00.06 PM

Are they kidding? Would someone please tell me the difference between asking new questions and creating a new template?

Better still, would someone please tell these folks that it’s not the questions, it’s the answers? And that this fundamental requirement has never, ever changed?

I get that the creative brief is, and must remain, an organic document that evolves as the nature of projects change.

But let’s also understand that no matter how brilliant the questions are, the answers have to be equally brilliant, even more so. They have to be focused, relevant, insightful. And if you don’t have insights, there are ways around that, tools that you can employ to help you divine insights from common sense and experience (see specifically the chapter that discusses the Deep Target Dive in my book How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief).

The best creative talents on the planet, from architects Frank Gehry and David Rockwell to advertising creatives like John Jay and John Boiler to authors such as Maira Kalman universally agree that the best briefs present, in the words of John Boiler, “…the most audacious and seemingly the impossible” (Briefly, Basset & Partners).

An excellent test of the well written brief, and they do exist, can be summarized by Howard Margulies:

It’s been suggested that you’ll know you’re onto something big when you can pitch the story in under 30 seconds. Can you deliver an elevator speech for your product? Are you writing it to be read?

Is this truly about new templates or better questions? Perhaps, but I think the key remains content. Whether you’re trying to break through the clutter or trying to engage your ideal buyer in a brand conversation, you still need insights to start the process. That means you need the intrepid brief writer who takes the time, in collaboration with creatives, to uncover those insights.

The result will be a brief that inspires. An inspirational brief doesn’t have to be as good as the creative it inspires. But it has to be good enough to get the creative team thinking…and doodling.

Ah, doodling and writing. Two more indicators that your brief has done its job.