Five truths every creative brief writer must face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. You have permission to be creative!

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

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

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

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.

 

Why the brief will always be part of the creative process.

Sometimes you have to ask the simple questions because they tend to be the hardest to answer: Why do we use a creative brief at all when so many people seem to question its purpose and doubt its usefulness? Does this document have a role today?

The hardest questions to answer are therefore the most important questions to ask.

So I will go down this road and venture an answer. In my reading about the brief, and in my many discussions, I hear more complaints about this document than direct answers that address its role. But my answer is clear and unequivocal: Yes, the creative brief is as important today as it was when it was first introduced in the 1960s.

Here is my rationale for the creative brief:

1. The creative brief is a set of instructions.

Two thoughts come to mind here. The first is a recollection of something my 7th grade science teacher, Mr. Bredeson, posted on the wall of his classroom. It was a hand-lettered sign that read: “When all else fails, read the directions.” dummies

I’ve never forgotten this simple lesson. I repeat it every semester when my college classes begin anew. Guys tend to be the biggest offenders: They think they know how to put something together and dive in. I’m sure there are some who succeed without a hitch. But the important question is, “Why?” Unless you have time to kill, why would any sane, educated person attempt to assemble something without reading the instructions?

Which leads me to my second thought: If you’ve ever purchased something from Ikea, you know it requires assembly. The directions that all Ikea products come with are illustrations, not written instructions. They are generally clear and easy to follow. Could you assemble one of Ikea’s products without following those instructions? Maybe. But why would you even think about doing such a foolish thing? Unless you have time to kill and are incredibly stubborn, those instructions are designed to get you from a pile of pieces to a usable product in the least amount of time. They are designed to make your life easier.

ikeaYou simply can’t get to point B from point A quickly and efficiently without those instructions.

2.  Unlike Ikea instructions, a creative brief must also inspire.

Ikea instructions are designed to build a useable piece of furniture. A creative brief is designed to inspire the creative team to produce sales-generating creative. It must offer insights into the product, the consumer’s thinking and it must also kick-start the creative team with ideas, what John Hegarty called the “first ad.”

This is where I think the complaints arise. There are pedestrian briefs and inspiring briefs. Too many of the former, too few of the latter. So the call to junk the brief arises from a dearth of well-written sets of instructions. In other words, the typical brief may tell you what to do, but it gives the creative team no spark.

3. The creative brief is a measuring stick to judge the work.

There are many analogies here. One of my favorites is the “Telephone Game” (or Chinese whispers if you live somewhere else). It’s a kid’s game.

One person begins by whispering a word or phrase to the person next to him. That person then whispers what she thinks she heard to the next person. And so on. The typical result is usually unrecognizable once five or six people have passed on the word and it reaches the end of the line. WordofMouth

This is a remarkably clear rationale for a creative brief, and it stands up to scrutiny when the work is presented for review. If you don’t have clear directions in the beginning, you end up with unclear and usually off-message work at the end.

Another way of saying this is, “Garbage in, garbage out.”

The point here is simple: The creative brief is not going anywhere. It has a permanent role in the creative process. It is the first step in the creative process. It exists to fulfill the three, basic functions discussed above.

In my reading, I have come across nothing that challenges the validity of these three points, perhaps because no one even thinks about that.

Instead, I read frustrated complaints about poorly written briefs; creative processes that are missing briefs entirely; briefs that don’t address the realities of today’s mobile environment; briefs that fail to address the emotional rationale of consumers’ behavior; briefs that are not flexible.

But nowhere have I read that anyone proposes scrapping the brief. At its best, a brief is merely an organic placeholder, flexible enough to adapt to any circumstances. With this important caveat:

It’s not about the questions. It’s about the answers.

 

 

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 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.

8 things that do not belong on a creative brief. Ever.

A question I hear often is, “How do I know if I’m including enough information for the creative team?”

It’s the wrong question.

I’d prefer it re-phrased: “How do I know if I’m including the right information for the creative team?”

The creative brief is an exercise in reduction, so judicious editing and conciseness are the order of the day. The list below is probably not definitive. I’m sure I’ll think of something else. But follow these guidelines to keep your brief focused.

1. Business, marketing or insider jargon

There is no place for any of it on a creative brief.

Yet I see phrases like, “Boost quarterly sales” and “Retail stores need to move XX units per day to meet target goals” and “Margins are slipping so….” and “OEM silo yields are off by 12%” and….yadda yadda yadda. I’m sure you’ve read worse.  jargon

It’s enough to make a creative cry. How does any of this relate to the task before the creative team? How does it provide any inspiration for creative ideas? They don’t.

Instead, these phrases, and so many others like them, indicate disengagement with writing an inspired creative brief. It’s laziness. Creative brief writers who collaborate with someone on the creative team would not make this mistake.

Remember who your audience is: The creative team. They know they have to increase sales. It’s your job to give them the relevant information to accomplish that goal.

2. Bullet points

Never. Never. Never. Bullet points are another sign of disengagement from writing an inspired creative brief. And laziness.

6a00d8341c761a53ef016762419ae1970b-piYet this is a sin repeated over and over. Especially in the box that describes the target audience. It’s usually a list of bullet points with silly acronyms (HHI is my favorite) that do nothing to inform or inspire the creative team.

Here is one of my favorite word pictures describing a cold sufferer for a creative brief for Vicks, a product made by Proctor and Gamble.

Who are we talking to?

Cold sufferers. You know how you feel when you’ve got a cold—that pathetic little inner-child of yours suddenly wakes up and, before you know it, you’re moaning & whining, you’ve gone all whiney & wimpy, all snivel, snot & slovenly; red raw puffy eyes, pale skin, lank hair—everything seems to be sagging! You feel like something from a Salvador Dali painting; you want to snuggle up in bed and dammit—you want your Mummy! But it’s not fair, is it, because no one else takes your suffering seriously—”Good God, pull yourself together, man, we’re not talking leprosy here! Don’t be such a baby, get on with it, stop moaning!”

Yes, your instincts tell you to be a child, but you’re not allowed to because you’ve “only” (only!) got a cold. And worse still—oh, the cruel irony!—even your attempts to retain your adulthood in the midst of your suffering betrays that sniveling little inner–child of yours: “oh don’t worry about me, I’ll be all right…”, “…no, no, please, I don’t want to sound like a martyr…”, “…well, I’m feeling a little better now, thank you…”

I’m sorry, but when you’ve got a cold you’re doomed to be a Child–Adult.

This is over-the-top fun and inspiring. And nary a bullet point in sight. Go to school on this approach. Show your creative team you brought your A game.

3. “See below”

I know it’s hard to believe, but I used to see this one. Often. Sometimes in the Single-Minded Proposition box of all places. Scary. Or in the Communication Objectives box. As if the brief writer did not understand the purpose of the box they were filling in. It was either a sign of complete laziness or simple incompetence. Or both.

Every box on a creative brief is there for a reason. It is not an easy thing to write an inspired brief, so give it the due diligence it deserves.

4. Anything cut and pasted from the previous creative brief

There might be exceptions, but I can’t think of any. Every project deserves fresh thinking, a fresh creative brief.

Put it another way: Would you accept from your creative team creative concepts that were cut and pasted from a previous campaign? No, I didn’t think so. Case closed. cut-n-paste_x

5. Anything cut and pasted from the client brief

This is almost worse than cutting and pasting from a previous agency-generated creative brief. The creative brief’s entire purpose is to “respond” to the client brief, to clarify the assignment and communicate to the client that the agency or creative department has understood its marching orders. (Yes, a creative brief has two audiences: the creatives, of course, but also the client, who should sign off on the brief.)

Were I the client and saw my own words on my agency’s creative brief, I’d be pissed. I’ve been on the client side, too. Fortunately, I never witnessed such laziness. Unfortunately, I saw it all too often in my role as a creative director.

6. A Single-Minded Proposition more than two typed lines

More laziness. The SMP should be short and to the point. It should read like a great headline on a billboard. It is the first ad as described by John Hegarty, which you’ve read here many times.

Be concise. Be sharp. Be witty if you can. And keep it short.

7. A third page

Somewhere in my book I wrote that I’d actually seen a well-written brief that was five pages in length. Not sure what I was thinking when I wrote that. I might have seen such a thing, but it’s a rarity.

The best briefs live up to their names. They are ideally one page, at most two pages. Again, remember that a brief is an act of strategic reduction. It is an exercise in lighting a fire beneath the creative team.

Do it in as few words as possible, but make those words heavy-weight champs: They float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

8. The kitchen sink

This is an all-purpose “does not belong” catch-all. This is when you see the third, fourth and fifth page on a creative brief. It results when the brief writer is unsure and just decides to throw in everything to cover his behind.gleamingkitchensink

The rationale? “More is better than less.” It’s the opposite of “inspired creative brief” thinking.

Can you think of other things that should never show up on a creative brief? Send me your ideas.

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

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

It was a eureka moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is about getting to the heart of the matter.

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

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

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

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

1. How many communication objectives have you listed?

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

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

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

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

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

3. Find a consumer insight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Submit a client brief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Participate in the briefing of the creatives.

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

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

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

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

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

garbage-in-garbage-out

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.