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.

What creatives can contribute to writing a creative brief

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

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

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

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

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

1. Step up. Don’t wait to be asked.

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

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

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

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

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

2. Ask questions first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Reciprocate

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

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

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

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

 

The problem with the creative brief is…

iStock_AnswersMedium3

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

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

“1. The world has gotten faster

2. Technology has fundamentally transformed communication

3. Breakthrough matters more than anything

4. Conversations are often a brand goal

5. Powerful insights aren’t always easy to find

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

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

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

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

On another blog, I saw this slide:

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And on still another blog, I saw this slide:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five reasons why you don’t need a creative brief.

(Adapted from the second edition of How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief by Howard Ibach. Published by Juju Books, due in June 2015)

I have heard these rationale spoken out loud by real, flesh-and-blood, breathing people who claimed to be alive. I suspect you have heard them too. EPSON scanner imagePerhaps you have spoken them. You don’t need to raise your hand. You know who you are.

5. “The creative team is brilliant. They’ll figure it out.”

Maybe. If you’re lucky.

But experience tells me that very few people can just “figure out” a creative brief that inspires the desired results.

And even if you are lucky, that’s still no guarantee.

Your creative team may be very good at what they do in terms of divining creative ideas that sell. But passing the buck on the creative brief sets you up for huge problems.

4. “Everyone knows what we want to do.”

Yeah, your people are all clairvoyant, too.

Your company consists of good people and they’ll have disagreements. You’ll discover this as soon as you write a draft of a creative brief.

The time to learn about those disagreements is before you assign the project. Not after the ideas get presented and someone says, “Yeah, but we never show photos of club members with their shirts off. Didn’t someone tell you that?” (This actually happened to me when I presented work to a client in the health club business that showed a chiseled bodybuilder sans tee-shirt. Nowhere in the creative brief was this little tidbit mentioned, and it could have saved everyone the embarrassment.)

3. “We don’t do anything briefly around here.”

You must be the people with the thousand-page Website.

Brief doesn’t necessarily mean fewest possible words. Some well-written briefs can be five pages.

As I have written in a previous post, David Ogilvy is famous for having said, “Give me the freedom of a tightly written creative brief.”

There is no time like the present to hone new skills. The creative brief deserves your attention.

2. “We always just have a meeting and everyone takes good notes.”

When was the last time you played the child’s game called “Telephone”?

piclemmingThe creative brief is the repository of collective wisdom. Everyone may take good notes, but as anyone who has watched a trial with eyewitness testimony, different people have different takes on the same events. A creative brief documents your objectives.

1. “The deadline is yesterday.”

Ah, yes. You have no time to write a creative brief.

I saw a poster in the office of a print production colleague that read, “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”

I also remember this one: “There’s never time to do it right, but there’s always time to do it over.”

When you operate without a creative brief, you’re flying by the seat of your pants. Worse, you’re flying blind. That translates into wasted time, wasted money, waster opportunities.

Have you heard other excuses for not writing a creative brief? Or for accepting a poorly written creative brief? I’d love to hear from you.

What brief writers can learn from the U.S. Coast Guard

I’m a huge fan of Kevin Costner. A few years ago he made a film called The Guardian, a fun action romp that also happens to pay tribute to Coast Guard rescue swimmers.

I was watching the film again recently when a scene about Coast Guard training put a thought in my head regarding the creative brief.

A senior Coast Guard officer was addressing younger Coast Guard officers about his experiences in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. What he said struck me as a solution to a problem faced by creative brief writers.

I know this sounds like a stretch, so bear with me.

In the movie, the actor playing the Coast Guard officer said that the training he received as a cadet was the exact same as every other cadet. So no matter where he was assigned and no matter with whom, he knew he could trust his fellow officers to do their jobs and do them well.

Everyone received the same training.

That’s an amazingly prescient idea. An idea that serves as the foundation of my workshop on writing inspired creative briefs. And for the book that followed.

What creative brief writers need most and don’t have is:

A common vocabulary

In other words, call it the creative brief writer’s version of what every U.S. Coast Guard cadet receives at Basic Training.

What do I mean by a common vocabulary?

Generally speaking, all briefs ask a series of questions designed to help the creative team understand the task they’ve been assigned. The hope is that the answers to those questions provides inspiration for outstanding creative.

Everyone knows what those questions are: Who is our target audience? What are some key insights about this product category? What do we want the target to think? Feel? Do?

But we’re all left to scramble when we start writing the answers. The answers, after all, are the heart of the brief. Not the questions.

If every brief writer had at his or her disposal the same sets of words and phrases to answer those questions, imagine how much easier the task would become.

Before you gasp in collective horror at the notion of a cookie-cutter, “one-size-fits-all” creative brief, stop and think for a moment.

What is a brief anyway? It’s an act of reduction. It’s an example of the art of arriving at the essence of a product’s unique point of desirability.

If ever there was a document that demands the principle of K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid), this is it.

Trouble is, far too many creative brief templates look like over-designed ads. They appear to want to show off either their trendiness or their verbosity.

I took a seminar on creative more than 20 years ago by the legendary creative director Stavros Cosmopulos. I still love to quote from one of the little booklets he handed out, which I’ve kept:

“Make your ideas fancy and your layouts rough.”

It’s a notion lost today with the use of computers that make every concept seem like a finished ad.

But it applies to the creative brief.

Forget about the template. Forget about the questions. Focus on the answers!

That might seem mind-numbingly obvious until you read a typical creative brief and get pummeled by insider’s jargon, inane generalizations and cliches. Everything except useful information.

So the idea of having a common vocabulary starts to look appealing.

Think of it this way: The set of words and phrases I’m talking about do not constitute the answers on your creative brief. They are the building blocks to an inspired document, the first step in the creative process.

What are some examples of this common vocabulary?

I’ll save that for a future post.

NOTE: The Inspired Creative Brief blog is taking the month of August to recharge its batteries. Have a great summer. See you again in September.

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!

Communication professionals are lousy communicators

I’ve heard this complaint for my entire advertising career. Anyone in the communications business tends to be tone deaf when it comes to being his or her own best advocate.

It shows.

Even in the age of instant communications and social media, we (and it’s a big group that fits into this we) just suck at it.

Just look at most creative briefs. They suck.

Do you write them where you work? I’m talking to you.

I’ll bet you suck at it. You had no training. Right? You just did what someone else did and copied it. Right?

You know I’m right.

You’d think something as inclusive and basic as a creative brief would be our bread and butter.

Instead, it’s more like our bread and water, a punishment even the best brief writers tend to slog through. Don’t even ask me about the ones who don’t give a damn.

Why is it thus?

I recently began a new gig at a company as the in-house ad guy. It’s a new experience being on the client side. I’m still getting my head around it.

But in the first meeting at which a new project was kicked off, we (the creative team) were handed a document that passes for a creative brief (not really) and the conversation got started. Or rather it got stuck on details completely unrelated to the creative business at hand.

After a few minutes, I just stopped the conversation and asked the only pertinent question worth asking:

“So what, exactly, is the big deal about this product?”

Crickets.

I’m attempting to introduce the creative brief into daily use at this new place. I’m going to succeed. Because they’re hungry for a better way. Until I asked this question, no one would have been able to answer it.

You gotta ask the right question.

And if you can’t answer that question, you might as well stay in bed.

And if you can’t answer that question on the creative brief, you might as well not bother the creative team.

It occurs to me that we, as professional communicators, need to step it up as we face a dramatically changed business environment in general, and an equally re-shaped world in adland. If we can’t justify our ability to engage with our customers on all levels, we’ll be out of business.

Which is why I’m continually puzzled by the dismissive and cynical attitude toward the creative brief that I see on display by fellow adland practitioners.

“It’s so old fashioned. It’s out of date. We need something new and different and better to do the work we do. I’m tired of creative briefs. What good are creative briefs…”

OMG.

The creative brief is like water: it fills the space it’s given. Give it nothing and that’s what you get in return. Fill it with creatively inspired liquids, and you will be richly rewarded.

So, do you suck as a creative brief writer?

Prove it.

Send me an example. How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief

Anything: a well-written SMP. A finely tuned objectives statement. A dazzling excerpt from a customer profile. A probing insight.

Don’t send me anything that’s proprietary and would get you into trouble. Make it at least a year old.

The best 3 submissions that meet my high standards will get a free, signed copy of my new book.

And then at least three people will no longer have an excuse for being lousy communicators.

Welcome to Creative Brief: The Blog

TIGHTBRIEF is now Creative Brief: The Blog.

If you’ve been receiving a weekly email from TIGHTBRIEF, please take a moment to sign up for the same convenient service here. Or rather over there, on the right.

It just made sense to migrate a blog on the creative brief to my website on the same subject. And I’ve added a page on my upcoming book, How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief, which will be out in June. Yeah, it’s the link called “Howard’s book.”

You’ll be able to purchase a copy on amazon.com and the Barnes and Noble website. Stay tuned for an announcement.

To kick off Creative Brief: The Blog, I encourage you to take a poll I’ve created on LinkedIn. I’ll report the results next week in a post.

Thanks to all of you who read and follow my weekly musings.