What all good single-minded propositions have in common.

Many years ago, about a week into a new job I’d taken as creative director on a major international brand, I was reviewing a creative brief that had been approved by the client and was the inspiration for a batch of new creative work that would be presented a week hence.

The brief was a disappointment. The single-minded proposition was a disaster. It was, rather than singularly focused, a triple-minded Frankenstein’s monster. I remember sighing audibly, then asking if it were too late to re-visit the SMP. 04

“The client really likes this one,” I was told. “But if you insist, we can set up a conference call.”

It was a battle worth fighting, but the timing was definitely wrong. I acquiesced instead.

It was not the first time I had read such a beast on a creative brief, nor the last. It’s no accident that when I started teaching college freshman English, I encountered the same apprehension and confusion around writing the dreaded “thesis statement” in a college essay.

The “thesis” and the “SMP” are two sides of the same coin: They are the hardest sentence/phrase to write and the most important statements in their respective vehicles. When done well, they are a thing of beauty and the inspiration for the rest of the document. When done poorly, everything else suffers.

Two thoughts can guide you here, with some inspired clarity from writer, philosopher, and painter, Walter Russell:

Mediocrity is self-inflicted. Genius is self-bestowed.

There is no reason for the SMP to be such an intimidating exercise. Like everything else we do as communication professionals, the more we practice a thing, the better we become at it. A few minutes examining what the really good single-minded propositions have in common reveals much for us to absorb and from which we can benefit.

First, let’s set the stage with a solid definition of the single-minded proposition.

My favorite comes from Jon Steel’s book, “Truth, Lies and Advertising,” when he quotes John Hegarty, the legendary creative leader at BBH in London.

Hegarty suggests that you write the single-minded proposition on a piece of paper, above or below an image of the product. The result becomes, in his words, a “good” ad, but not necessarily a great ad. The SMP, says Hegarty, is the “first ad.” I would amplify that definition by saying it’s the first draft of the first ad. The creatives use it as inspiration for what, everyone hopes, becomes the polished, final draft ad.

In other words, the SMP is the Big Idea. The creatives unearth Big Executions of the Big Idea, what we call creative solutions.

Here is some thinking from other advertising practitioners:

A proposition is the one-liner – usually rounding off the brief – that encapsulates the strategic thought that we’re asking our creatives to dramatise and bring to life as ads. Indeed, it is usually this one-liner that creates the most debate from all parties involved, as reductive thinking is inherently controversial.

Matt Hunt, European Head of Planning, Grey Healthcare Group

I had to think for a while to remember the last time I saw a pure proposition; one free from bullshit and extras, that simply tells you where to start digging…too many account teams and clients no longer understand what a single-minded thought actually is.

The Denver Egoist

Now, let’s examine a few examples of single-minded propositions for real products from real creative briefs. (Notice that all of these SMPs come from dated briefs, some more than 20 years old. It is notoriously difficult to pry a brief from the proprietarily paranoid…er…protective ad agency.) single_minded_1337085

Toro (circa 2010):

Toro makes the tools. You make the yard.

H&R Block (circa 2008):

Now you can have an expert on your side.

Izuzu Rodeo SUV (circa 1994):

The normal rules don’t apply.

AARP (circa unknown):

AARP gives you the power to make up your own rules.

Lexus GS300 relaunch (circa 1998):

The GS300 is the kick-ass Lexus.

These single-minded propositions have much in common, and much from which we can learn. I’m sure you’ve drawn your own conclusions after having glanced at the list above, so compare your list with mine. I have deliberately not presented the creative because I want your focus on the SMP, not the resulting creative.

The point is, unless and until you take the time to really examine these sentences and understand why they work, the SMP will remain an intimidating mystery for the person who has to write it, and an eternal source of ire for the creatives who must work from it.

1. It is often just a phrase, but never longer than a sentence.

Obvious, yes. But when you’ve suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous paragraph long, throw-in-the-kitchen sink SMPs, I hope you’ll see that the good SMP is concise. Obvious, yes, but not so obvious when you have to face your client. gleamingkitchensink

2. Its focus is always singular; it’s about one thing only.

Obvious, yes…again. Its called “single-minded” for a reason. Research repeatedly shows that consumers respond more readily to one, neat idea.

3. The best SMP is modest because it doesn’t need to be any more.

You’re not competing with the creative department. You’re showing them a starting point. Think about Hegarty’s definition: The SMP doesn’t have to be great, just good. The SMPs I’ve shared with you here fit that definition.

4. The best ones are fearless.

Like a college essay’s thesis, the SMP must take a stand. Once you realize that an SMP is not for public consumption, you operate from a place of freedom. Remember your audience: The creative department. They depend on you, the writer, to kick-start their thinking. If you’re not brave, you make it harder for them to be.

The SMP is the first thing creatives look for on a brief. Their body language is impossible to miss after they’ve read one. Obvious…yes?

Don’t settle for the mediocre. Practice combined with confidence creates genius.


What makes a creative brief writer?


Two thousand fifteen marks my 30th year in the advertising business. I put in more than a quarter century at ad agencies and corporations. The last few years I’ve devoted to writing, teaching and waxing philosophic about the creative brief, clear writing and critical thinking.

My job as a creative was to work from a creative brief. I’ve written more than my share of creative briefs, but only because I had to, and because I was the de facto expert. My training in writing briefs comes from the U of Getitdone. That and having read a lot of briefs, and I mean a lot. I’d estimate, conservatively, that I’ve read over 2,000 creative briefs in my career.

So I may not qualify as an “trained” account planner with the necessary background in statistics and analytics, but I think I can hold my own with the best of the best.

Which leads me to two questions: What does it take to be a writer of an inspired creative brief? Who is most likely to possess the necessary qualities?

(By the way, Jon Steel has a wonderful video on YouTube about what he values in a good account planner. I tip my hat to him for inspiring this post.)

My list is short: Courage, curiosity, optimism.

Courage. As I have written elsewhere, the writer of a creative brief has the enormous task of writing the first adCourage_is_contagious

John Hegarty gets credit for this thought. He also says that the first ad doesn’t have to be a great ad, but it must be good enough to spark a conversation. So courage is a requirement because the creative brief writer must take a leap of faith. She must possess the steadfastness of her convictions. It’s an enviable quality. It’s an absolute must.

Curiosity. You can be short of life experience but make up for it by owning an insatiable wonder about the world around you. As a creative for my entire career, I always thought of the ad business of one of the few careers that demands that you be a Renaissance Man/Woman. You must have broad interests and the capacity to learn about new things almost daily. Curiosity fuels this capacity. Your curiosity as a brief writer also fuels the curiosity of the creative team.cat-art-print-17-x-17-unframed--[2]-33278-p

Optimism. This may seem obvious. I don’t think you can succeed in the ad business as anything but an optimist. It is especially true of the creative brief writer. You must have absolute belief in the power of words to shape an outcome. You must believe in yourself to shape those words. You must believe in the process that results in an inspired creative brief: The acquisition of insights about human nature that, when reduced to their most clarifying elements, inspire big thinking. You must believe this.6e520b24c7f2022e3e60feb9b59d15aa

So who possess these attributes? Merlin. Gandhi. Dumbledore.

If you are a risk taker, love a challenge, do not accept anything less than excellence, I’d say you are likely to succeed.

If you view each creative brief writing assignment as an opportunity to push the creative team to break new ground, you have a skill others will covet.

Live long and inspire, with apologies to Mr. Spock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Who writes the first ad?

I was reminded of a few lines from Jon Steel’s book Truth, Lies and Advertising: The Art of Account Planning:

If the creative brief is not itself creative, if it does not suggest solutions to problems, present information in an expansive and interesting way, and interpret that information with imagination and flair, then its authors and presenters have no right to expect anything different from their creative teams.

I think we can agree that Mr. Steel is saying, rather generously, what we all have come to understand as “garbage in, garbage out.”

In other words, if the brief is flat, chances are the creative will be flat too.

Sort of puts pressure on the writer of the brief, yes?

If that job falls on you, how do you go about doing it? Not being flat? Being inspired?

Mr. Steel points the way. He quotes a legendary British creative director, John Hegarty. Mr. Steel wondered what Hegarty looked for in a creative brief.

(Hegarty) replied that he looked for a very simple, single-minded idea, which is usually expressed in the part of the brief that many agencies term the proposition. Hegarty said that it was his habit to take that one sentence and write it on a large piece of paper, above or below a picture of the product, almost as if the line from the brief were a headline. Then he would pin it up above his desk and ask himself first whether the juxtaposition of that line and that product made some rational sense, and second, whether it also started to suggest something interesting on an emotional level.

If the answer was yes?

There’s the first ad in the campaign. It’s my job to create something better.

No matter how many times I talk about the importance of collaborating with creatives when you write a brief, or understanding your target audience or all the other vital aspects of preparing this document, none of them matters more than infusing some life, some sparkle of creativity, some inspiration where it matters most.

In the proposition.

Mr. Steel chose not to say this himself. He turned, instead, to a giant in the field who spoke for all creatives who are tasked with the challenge of translating the brief into brilliant creative to speak for him.

Pressure? Damn straight.

You say you’re not creative? Balderdash!

Hegarty tells us that your “creative brief as first ad” doesn’t have to be a great headline. It doesn’t even have to be good. But…

…it does have to be interesting on both a rational and emotional level.

In other words, he’s saying, please give me at least that much. Break a little sweat on this and give me something interesting! I can take it from there!

As the creative brief writer, you get the first say. You have the chance to play a major roll in what your creative team ultimately delivers. You get to put your stamp, your mark on the document the creative team uses for inspiration.

Make it count.