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.

Book Excerpt: Where does the Single-Minded Proposition spring from?

I’ve been writing about the Single-Minded Proposition in recent posts, so I thought I’d continue with an excerpt from the second edition of my book, How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief2nd edition art. The following is from Chapter 12:

No two creative briefs are exactly alike, but most contain a box that asks for “communication objectives” or “reasons why we’re creating this advertisement.” These two mean the same thing.

A brief also asks for the Single-Minded Proposition (SMP). Sometimes it’s called the key proposition or the One Unique Thing. Whatever you call it in your brief, it must list the one overriding reason why people will or should want to buy your product or service.

So where do you find the SMP? In the short list in Communication Objectives. It starts as a product feature for which you, the brief writer, must assign a product benefit (assuming your client hasn’t done that already).

From there, the Single-Minded Proposition emerges from the product benefits. A product can have hundreds of benefits, ranging from the core benefit that gives the product its singular appeal, all the way to very tenuous benefits that may in fact be valuable but aren’t going to have a significant impact on sales.

For example, it’s hard to argue with the unique design appeal of an Apple iPad. That’s central to its huge popularity. You just want to reach out and hold one. And play with it.

That could be the benefit that turns into the SMP.

On the other hand, my favorite chewing gum comes in a sleeve of 12 pieces. Why not 15? Or 9? Is this particular sleeve size a benefit? Well, yeah, but it’s not terribly significant. And it won’t necessarily effect my purchase decision.

So all product features translate into some kind of product benefit.

They also have the potential to translate into communication objectives, or reasons why we are asked, as creatives, to come up with an ad. However, we’re not given a list of eight or nine or 15 communication objectives.

It should be only three, four tops.

But…

The path from product feature to product benefit to Single-Minded Proposition isn’t direct. It’s not literal.

This spot on the brief is exactly where I think brief writers stumble and over-think things. That’s why I’m a big advocate of using a common vocabulary when you write a brief. It’s a matter of eliminating confusion and inexactness, and finding the right words to describe what you really mean.

I suggest that you use verbs to write communication objectives. (Review Chapter 12 on page 74)

Why verbs? They’re the John Wayne of words. They’re about action. About doing something. And we want our targets to do something: Buy the product we’re selling. John-Wayne-p15

Let’s use Apple again. We know that Apple stands apart in the tablet business because of its clean, intuitive design. I’d argue it’s at or near the top of the list of product benefits.

But I wouldn’t list “cool design” as a communication objective. It’s too vague. It doesn’t tell the creative team what to do about this…coolness.

Instead, I’d rather use a verb to guide the creatives in their thinking. I say “guide” rather than “instruct” or “direct” because as a brief writer it’s not my job to write the ad. I’m the first step in the creative process.

So, what might I say? Romance…excite…thrill (the verb, not the noun)…energize…

You get the idea, right? Keep it simple. Use direct verbs to describe the reasons why the creative team has been asked to write the ad.

The progression looks like this if we’re using the Apple iPad as our example:

Product feature: Uncomplicated, simple design (what the product is)

Product benefit: iPad’s cool makes you cool too (what the product gives you)

Remember: The feature talks to your head. The benefit talks to your heart.

Communication objective: Jolt the target into falling in love (again) with the latest Apple device (what we want the creative team to do)

Single-Minded Proposition: “________________________________” (how to communicate the product benefit that achieves the communication objectives)

(Hey, I know how to do this. You’re the one who needs practice. So practice!)

One tip: the SMP can be off the wall and outrageously over the top. How so? It’s not meant for public consumption. Its purpose is to inspire the creative team. Get their juices flowing. As the brief writer, you get to take the first crack at writing a headline.

So brief writers, arise and be daring. But don’t confuse the product benefit with the SMP itself!

 Do them in your head.

You can write a brief in three simple steps. It’ll take you less then five minutes. Do this once a day, say during your commute to or from work, and you’ll discover your brain will add creative-brief-writing muscle before you know it.

Now let’s try something harder: the object on which you’re sitting right now. A chair.

Step one: identify the features of your chair. As I type this, I’m sitting on a counter stool in my kitchen. My stainless steel and leather stool is comfortable. It’s attractive. It was inexpensive. That’s three features. stool

Next, identify what the benefit is for each feature.

Comfort: I gravitate toward this chair because it’s comfortable, so I like it. A lot.

Attractive: I feel proud of my excellent taste in design.

Inexpensive: My, aren’t I the clever chap for finding something so wonderful and at such a bargain.

Three features, three benefits.

Oh, and guess what. We’ve already found the hardest thing to write on a creative brief: the Single-Minded Proposition. It’s always one of the benefits. Always. The question is, which one?

For your practice exercise, it doesn’t matter. Write (in your head) an SMP for each benefit. I sometimes provide my creative teams with multiple SMPs. When you did as much creative testing as I did, you often need different creative approaches.

For comfort, try this:

 You’d give this chair a standing ovation except you’re too comfortable to get up.

For design, try this:

 You keep a photograph of this chair in your wallet and show it off any chance you get.

For inexpensive, try this:

 If they gave out Nobel Prizes bargain hunters, you’d get one.

Notice that each SMP could be a headline. They don’t have to be good headlines, however. You’re the pioneer headline writer on the assignment. Your job is to write the first one to inspire something better from your creative team.

Now, you try it. Pick everyday objects—a pencil, your bedroom slippers,  your cereal bowl, a coffee mug, your reading lamp. Keep them simple and unremarkable. It takes the pressure off.

Remember: three features, three benefits, three SMPs.

Also remember John Hegarty’s rule that the proposition is the first ad for the creative team. So don’t be lazy. This is a test.

Be pithy. Be clever. Be succinct.

Before you know it, SMPs will become second nature to you.

Write a killer single-minded proposition in 4 steps.

(Re-posted from April 6, 2015: This essay is by far my most popular, most read, most Googled blog post to date. I bring it back to give you another opportunity to read it. I’ve made some minor updates, but it is otherwise the same content as the original four months ago.)

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 (SMP).

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.

A word of caution: The stronger the “emotion” that your SMP provokes, the more compelling the idea, and your creative team will have more substance to work with. People respond to brands with their hearts, not their brains.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Can you keep your message single-minded?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Can you prove your message is true?

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

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

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

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

Use ’em or lose ’em.

5. Can you show some attitude?

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

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

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

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

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

faces

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Your SMP is a laundry list of benefits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Your SMP is a paragraph.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was wondering when you’d ask me that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if branding isn’t the primary focus of your brand?

As much as I hate to admit it, some companies have more important objectives than being guardians of their own brands. This reality is especially true in the retail world, and I’ve worked for such companies.

But even blue-chip enterprises lose track of the importance of their brand in the day-to-day chase for bottom-line results. I’ve worked for these companies too.

The question I hear looks like this: “My company cares more about low price* than a strong brand. How do I write a Single-Minded Proposition that puts the brand first in this situation?”

(*or competitive price, or everyday low price, or value pricing…you get the idea.)

It’s a conundrum. If your creative brief is all about a new promotion, and that promotion is the latest offer, i.e. 15% off if you order in the next 48 hours; buy one, get one free; new-customer discount…etc, etc, etc, the default SMP ends up being the offer.

The classic response is to say that the SMP is never, ever, ever the offer. The SMP is about the brand. The offer is the incentive to try the brand.

How do you negotiate this situation?

Here’s my suggestion:

In a previous post I discussed how you arrive at the SMP. There’s a direct path from product feature to product benefit to communication objective to SMP.

The most important product benefits become candidates for communication objectives, one of which is first among equals–the SMP. If you’re faced with writing a brief that must focus on the latest offer, make sure that one of the other communication objectives is this:

Reinforce the brand

As long as one of the three or four communication objectives on your creative brief instructs the creative team to reinforce the brand, usually in the form of a copy point but possibly as important as a copy subhead, perhaps even in the advertisement’s headline, you’ve achieved your objective.

The product or brand manager will likely be satisfied with the brief if she sees that the SMP is about the offer. You, the brief writer, will rest easy knowing that you’ve covered all your bases: one communication objective is about the offer, one about the brand and one or two additional objectives focus on additional solid product benefits.

The creative team, by the way, will have clear direction as well. They can’t really gripe because brand direction is prominent on the brief, even if it’s not the SMP. Trust them to figure out a way to arrive at a…well…creative solution.

Believe me when I say that creatives always manage to figure out how to get around imprecisely written briefs—in cases like this because the brief writer has no option—and still deliver good, sometimes great, and on occasion outstanding, creative. I’ve done it for years. Ask any creative and he or she will probably agree.

We all know that people develop loyalty to brands. Not offers. Not low prices. Not freebees.

Find a way to build in brand attributes in every creative brief you write, even if one isn’t the Single-Minded Proposition.

Where does the Single-Minded Proposition spring from?

No two creative briefs are exactly alike, but most contain a box that asks for “communication objectives” or “reasons why we’re creating this advertisement.” These two mean the same thing.

A brief also asks for the Single-Minded Proposition. Sometimes it’s called the key proposition or the One Unique Thing. Whatever you call it in your brief, it must list the one overriding reason why people will or should want to buy your product or service.

A question was put to me: In a recent post I said that every SMP starts as a product benefit. I also wrote in my book, How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief, that the SMP is found among the short list in Communication Objectives.

It looked like I’d created a bit of confusion.

Allow me to address a very pertinent question.

Yes, the Single-Minded Proposition emerges from the product benefits. A product can have hundreds of benefits, ranging from the core benefit that gives the product its singular appeal, all the way to very tenuous benefits that may in fact be valuable but aren’t going to have a significant impact on sales.

For example, it’s hard to argue with the unique design appeal of an Apple iPad. That’s central to its huge popularity. You just want to reach out and hold one. And play with it. That could be the benefit that turns into the SMP.

On the other hand, my favorite chewing gum comes in a sleeve of 12 pieces. Why not 15? Or 9? Is this particular sleeve size a benefit? Well, yeah, I guess. But it’s not terribly significant. And it won’t necessarily effect my purchase decision.

So all product features translate into some kind of product benefit.

They also translate into communication objectives, or reasons why we are asked, as creatives, to come up with an ad, whether’s it’s a magazine ad, an email, a TV spot or something we put in the mail. We’re not given a list of 8 or 15 communication objectives.

It should be only 3 or 4.

But…

The path from product feature to product benefit to Single-Minded Proposition isn’t direct. It’s not literal.

This spot on the brief is exactly where I think brief writers stumble and over think things. That’s why I’m a big advocate of using a common vocabulary when you write a brief. It’s a matter of eliminating confusion and inexactness and finding the right words to describe what you really mean.

I suggest, here and in my book, that you use verbs to write communication objectives.

Why verbs? They’re action words. They’re all about doing something. And we want our targets to do something: Buy the product we’re selling.

Let’s use Apple again. We know that Apple stands apart in the tablet business because of its clean, intuitive design. I’d argue it’s at or near the top of the list of product benefits.

But I wouldn’t list “cool design” as a communication objective. It’s too vague. It doesn’t tell the creative team what to do about this…coolness.

Instead, I’d rather use a verb to guide the creatives in their thinking. I say “guide” rather than “instruct” or “direct” because as a brief writer it’s not my job to write the ad. I’m the first step in the creative process.

So, what might I say? Romance…excite…thrill (the verb, not the noun)…energize…

You get the idea, right? Keep it simple. Use direct verbs to describe the reasons why the creative team has been asked to write the ad.

The progression looks like this if we’re using the Apple iPad as our example:

Product feature: Uncomplicated, simple design (what the product is)

Product benefit: iPad’s cool makes you cool too (what the product gives you)

Communication objective: Jolt the target into falling in love (again) with the latest Apple device (what we want the creative team to do)

Single-Minded Proposition: “________________________________” (how to communicate the product benefit that achieves the communication objectives)

(Hey, I’m the creative, not the brief writer.)

One tip: the SMP can be off the wall, outrageously over the top. How so? It’s not meant for public consumption. Its purpose is to inspire the creative team. Get their juices flowing.

You, as the brief writer, get to take the first crack at writing a headline. That’s the best definition ever of a Single-Minded Proposition.

So brief writers, arise and be daring. But don’t confuse the product benefit with the SMP itself!