Why brainstorming doesn’t work and what creative brief writers can learn from it.

Brainstorming does not work.

This is old news. Dating back to the late 1950s, research shows that “all ideas are good ideas” brainstorming produces fewer ideas than if individuals are left to their own private ideations and then share and compare them in groups.

Further, evidence is solid that if you do exactly the opposite of what Alex Osborne, the “O” in B.B.D.O., espoused in his 1948 bestselling book, Your Creative Power — that is, you add the element of debate and disagreement to a typical “keep it positive” brainstorming session — the quality of ideas also increases. Dramatically so. 5661_ideas_moderation_permalink-1

A central problem, according to Rebecca Greenfield in her July 2014 article for Fast Company, is what’s called “conformity pressure.” Here’s what she says:

Because brainstorming favors the first ideas, it also breeds the least creative ideas.” She continues: “People hoping to look smart and productive will blurt out low-hanging fruit first. Everyone else then rallies around that idea both internally and externally.

What she suggests instead comes from a number of thinkers who on their own developed an idea remarkably similar, but now is referred to as “brainwriting.”

It’s simple and obvious. Participants write down their ideas first before a group discussion. They post those ideas on a board anonymously. Everyone in the group reviews those ideas and votes/comments on the best. Only then, according to Greenfield, does discussion commence. writers-block

Greenfield notes that Leigh Thompson, management professor at the Kellogg School, in her book Creative Conspiracy, discovered that “brainwriting groups generated 20% more ideas and 42% more original ideas as compared to traditional brainstorming groups.”

Professor Thompson made this remarkable observation:

I was shocked to find there’s not a single published study in which a face-to-face brainstorming group outperforms a brainwriting group.

So what can creative brief writers learn from this research? Two things.

First, as powerful as the argument is for collaboration—the idea that no single person should write the vital “first-step” document in the creative process—individuals who make up the small team that writes the creative brief must still contribute individually before they collabrate.

Greenfield’s article (“Why brainstorming doesn’t work; try this technique instead”) demonstrates the dangers of “group think.” I think this is less likely to happen in the smaller team (two, at most three) who writes a brief, but it can still happen. One person can dominate. One person can be more senior.

Collaboration helps to eliminate at best, minimize at least, a dominate voice by employing this “brainwriting” technique before the creative brief writing team assembles to discuss and write the document. Key questions on a creative brief are uniquely difficult to answer and require thought.

Consider the way a creative team functions: a copywriter and an art director meet to review the project’s details, acquired from the creative brief. They may spend some time batting ideas around, but typically, in short order, they go off to mull over and meditate on their own.

In a day or two, they regroup and compare notes. That’s when the real work begins. They discuss, debate, edit, revise, shape, form and reform…until they arrive at a concept, or a portfolio of concepts. These ideas may bear some resemblance to their original thinking, or not.

The point is, each creative team has a process: meet, discuss, mull alone, regroup, debate, edit, polish, present. The process may vary with each team, but in 25 years as a creative, I can vouch for the importance of and need for a process.

The same must be true for the collaborative process of writing the creative brief. The team can meet for a general discussion of what the document should include, but time must be set aside for individual ideations before the team meets again to write the brief.

Second, brainwriting research makes it clear that the process of producing the creative brief may need more time to allow participants to nurture the best possible “spark” for the creative team.

I have no evidence to suggest that today’s brief writers are denied sufficient time to produce this document, except to say that the nature of the business world makes it harder and harder to build in “thinking” time for anyone.

We live in a “It’s due yesterday” time crunch. That was true when I started in the ad business in the early 1980s. It’s worse today.

However, the price you pay for a poorly conceived and poorly executed creative brief is measured in both dollars and lost time. watch-time

I am reminded of a poster I saw on the wall of a production department manager, which sums up the dilemma succinctly, and serves as a gentle reproach:

There is never time to do it right, but there is always time to do it over.

Old-school brainstorming is dead.

Brainwriting works. Use its principles to ensure the creative brief writing team has time to do its job well.

How many “practice” creative briefs have you written?

kobe-bryant-practices-in-nike-kobe-9-elite-02-570x570Basketball legend Kobe Bryant has made countless jump shots and layups in his practice sessions.

“As a kid growing up, I never skipped steps. I always worked on fundamentals because I know athleticism is fleeting.”  Kobe Bryant

Tennis star Serena Williams has likely hit uncountable numbers of volleys in practice since she was a young girl. Someone asked if her success were due to luck.

“Luck has nothing to do with it, because I have spent many, many hours, countless hours, on the court working for my one moment in time, not knowing when it would come.”14SERENA1-master768

The legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus has said that he played fewer tournaments than his fellow competitors because he chose to spend that time practicing his game at home.

“Nobody—but nobody—has ever become really proficient at golf without practice, without a lot of thinking and then hitting a lot of shots.” Jack Nicklaus

Seinfeld has told tens of thousands of jokes on stages across the country. Ballet star Misty Copeland has spent thousands of hours in the classroom, working at the ballet barre, all in preparation for her performances. Speaking legend Tony Robbins has rehearsed hours and hours for his presentations.

The same is true for ministers, gymnasts, coaches, courtroom lawyers…you name the profession, and you can imagine the almost unimaginable hours of preparation these dedicated individuals have devoted to their craft, all to be ready to display their skills when they matter most: on the job.

So I ask you: How much preparation have you put in to write a creative brief?

Here’s my guess: Exactly none.

There is no preparation. You just write one when you have to write one.

And therein lies a major missed opportunity. No one practices the skills required to write a creative brief well. There is no “creative brief boot camp” to make you sweat your tail off learning the fundamentals of writing this document. There should be.

Sounds absurd, right? Not from where I sat, which was on the receiving end of one of those too often poorly written documents that landed on my desk.

As a point of comparison, creatives constantly practice their concepting skills. Young creatives especially. Sometimes they don’t know when to stop practicing. They do “spec” work, whether it’s for their own professional portfolio or some pro-bono client or even a friend’s dog-sitting service. They’re like little “Energizer bunnies”: they keep concepting and concepting until their brains cramp. This is how they get really good.

When I was younger, I used to flip through the Yellow Pages (remember that?) until I’d find an interesting business, the more obscure the better. Then I’d create a spec ad for that business. Back in the 1980s, when I was just getting started, I wrote a spec-ad for a music teacher who taught the accordion: “I can teach anyone to carry a tune.” Groaner, yes, but the fact is, I practiced my craft even when no one was looking.

If you write creative briefs for a living, can you say the same? If the answer is no, my next question is: Why not?

I’ve said it over and over: the creative brief is the first step in the creative process. Get it wrong here and everything that follows suffers proportionately. It’s the principle of “garbage in, garbage out” at work.garbage-in-garbage-out

Practice is vital.

But who has time to practice?

Professionals do. If you’re a professional, you must practice.

Here are three techniques you can adopt right away.

1. Practice in your head.

One of the more important questions on a creative brief is, “What is the Single-Minded Proposition?” This is something you can practice formulating as you commute to and from work. You don’t even need pen and paper.

Imagine the product or service, conjure its key benefit and translate that benefit into a “What’s in it for me?” proposition that directly addresses the product’s best customer. Think of that short phrase or sentence. Don’t stop there. Think of alternatives. Come up with many SMPs. Which one is the best? Why?

Turn this into a brain-game and repeat it often. It’s called practice. It’s what professionals do.

2. Follow your creatives’ lead: Do spec work for a favorite cause or a pro-bono client. Now you have a reason to practice.

If you don’t do this already, it’s time to start. Most agencies and brands dedicate time and resources to charitable causes. Volunteer. Even pro-bono projects need creative briefs.

3. Start an in-house creative-brief writing workshop whose purpose is honing brief-writing skills. Volunteer to lead it.

The first time I was asked by a dean of student affairs at one of the community colleges where I now teach whether I’d ever taught grammar, I hesitated for just a second before saying yes and accepting the assignment.

In truth, I’d never taught grammar before. But it turned out to be the best and most fun experience I’ve had in the classroom. And I mastered the fundamentals of grammar because…

…I had to teach them!

Whether you’re a 20-year veteran or a newbie, you, too, can teach someone how to write a better brief. When you teach, you become a better practitioner. If you do even rudimentary research online, you’ll find source material that will help you teach brief writing, and my book is only one of them (although I happen to think it’s the best source).

The point is, every brief writer needs practice. No professional doesn’t need practice.

Take the initiative. Start now. Because you’re a professional.

Every brief writer needs a fishbowl.

peter-steiner-you-can-be-anything-you-want-to-be-no-limits-new-yorker-cartoon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the noted psychologist and TED Talk veteran, Barry Schwartz, has said, “Everyone needs a fishbowl.”

A fishbowl, that is, that provides at least the appearance of limitation and constraint. He argues, in his book, The Paradox of Choice, and his TED Talk, that too many choices do not make us happier or give us more freedom. Instead, too many choices cause paralysis.

Creative brief writers must understand this principle. The brief is designed not to give creative teams unlimited choices, or even abundant choices, but to restrict those choices. The creative brief, by definition, is a reductive document. It must glean the most important information about the product, reduce it to its most essential elements, and present those elements in a compelling fashion to inspire the creative team.

The result is more creative freedom, not less.

Too much information kills the brief. (Which is why the oldest, least-funny joke about the brief is related to its name.)

As the brief is designed to inspire good creative, it’s no mistake that creatives have learned from experience that the best creative ideas arise from restriction. Consider these words from T. S. Elliot: MTIwNjA4NjMzODAzOTMzMTk2

“When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.”

Advertising and marketing professionals live this daily. There is never enough time, never enough budget, never enough people, never enough resources to complete a project in the manner of their choosing. Lucky them. The best such professionals extract the best from the least.

Who has not heard or uttered this complaint:

There’s never enough time to do it right, but always enough time to do it over.

This excuse speaks to a lack of discipline in the face of restraints. Because we all face restraints everyday. The trick is to know how to use them to our benefit. Restrictions are liberating in the hands of someone who understands the nature of the imagination and creativity.

That’s why the creative brief remains such a critical component in the creative process. And why the brief is so damned hard to write. It also explains why the brief remains the target of so much abuse. When it’s hard to get it right, there are relatively few examples of outstanding briefs, and many examples of duds. I know: I’ve read too many of the former and not enough of the latter.

I suspect that brief writers are rather upset with me at this stage. They know the challenge of writing a great brief, and I’ve just made their lives a bit more difficult by emphasizing the importance of saying less, not more. Of saying less with more power and elegance.

I wonder, sometimes, if creative brief writers shouldn’t be schooled in the art of copywriting before they are allowed to write a creative brief.

I know my own education as a copywriter, which was earned by doing, not by attending any paid class, brought me face to face with the task of “copy fitting,” a mundane exercise that every copywriter endures.

Anyone who has ever taken a composition class learned how to cut a piece of writing in half. The challenge is to assure the message remains intact even as the word count dwindles. That’s what copy fitting is: Say what you have to say in only the space your art director allows.

Well, creative brief writers of the world, the creative brief is usually a page in length, which doesn’t mean you have to use the entire page. It can be 10 questions, five or even one astutely worded pick-axe.

Like Sardines in a Can October 12, 2002

To do it right and well, place yourself in a fishbowl. The idea is called liberating constraint. You will reward yourself and your creative team with more imaginative opportunities when you learn the benefits of living like a sardine.

10 ideas to polish your creative briefs.

As we enter the Dog Days of Summer, I offer 10 thoughts and observations as you toil on your briefs. dog days

1. Get out of the office! Live!

There is nothing more stifling to creativity than routine. Break old habits and make new scenery part of your routine.

If you ever watched spy movies, remember the advice: “If you think you’re being followed, take a new route to work.” Maybe it was paranoia, but the rule fits.

This is the ideal rationale to visit your new client’s showroom, factory, event or go on a sales call with a representative. Live the product or service, and learn by getting down in the product dirt.

Creatives often visit art museums, galleries, concerts, film, performing arts and other forms of stimulation to get inspired. Take a page from their book and try it yourself. The idea is to change up your thinking to see things in a new light.

2. Where do you get your best ideas? Build that space into your day.

Okay, so maybe taking a shower after the 10 AM staff meeting isn’t convenient, even though that’s your favorite “idea generating” space. But if taking a walk, sitting in a crowded bus station, or browsing the aisles of your favorite book store are reliable kick-starters, they are legitimate places to visit from time to time.

Creatives hijack routine and monotony on a regular basis by acknowledging their need for different sources of stimulation. Creative brief writers must do the same thing.

3. When you collaborate with a colleague on writing the brief, get accustomed to sharing credit.

This idea is central to the success of the copywriter/art director collaboration model, which is the basis for my recommendation for a brief-writing team. Two minds, which often view the world from different perspectives, solve a problem from different angles. Sometimes, one plays the role of idea generator to the second’s BS detector. Sometimes, both generate ideas and both have finely tuned BS detectors.

The truly successful partnerships find the balance, work off the other’s strengths, and share the glory (and the occasional mis-hit).

If you are in account management, learning how to team up with a creative to write a brief may take some practice and accommodation. Creatives may face the same challenges.

It’s good practice. The results will be well worth the effort.

4. Never forget the basics.

Writing basics: Keep your vocabulary accessible, clear, direct, friendly. Remember that the creative brief is designed to be an idea spark. It’s the first step in the creative process. Focus on keeping things simple. basics-alphabet-blocks-web

Partnership basics: If you are a new team, learn how to listen. Silence may be uncomfortable, but it is a necessary part of the brain-storming process. Figure out how both of you process information. Respect each other’s ideas and approaches.

If you’re a veteran brief writer, but still relatively new to working in a team setting to write a brief, bring your A-game, but be generous. Let the less experienced member of the team do the actual writing. This is an invaluable teachable moment.

5. A creative brief is essential to good storytelling.

Think of the creative brief as the opening chapter of the story that leads to the finished work. It’s the “once upon a time” set up for the creative team to follow.

The best brands tell stories. These stories are about us, ordinary people who live and use and rely on products and services.

If you can’t imagine where your brief is headed based on how you assemble it, how can the creative team ever figure it out? storytelling1

6. Never submit a first-draft creative brief.

As an English instructor who works with college students, I learned quickly that if I don’t require multiple drafts of an essay assignment, I’ll end up reading first drafts that were written the night before, and sometimes the morning of.

You must approach the creative brief from the same mindset. You cannot allow yourself to submit a first draft.

How many drafts should it take? There’s no rule, but I’d recommend at least three drafts before the final draft.

The first draft is your creative starter. You don’t need to share this draft except with your partner. The second draft should be submitted to multiple eyeballs. The third draft can return to a select group for a final review. Now it’s ready for final editing and then the briefing.

I’ve read thousands of briefs in my career. Believe me when I say that I can tell a first draft when I see one. keep-calm-it-s-only-a-first-draft-2

7. Always have a point of view.

It always strikes me as odd when I read a creative brief without a clear “position.” It’s almost as if the writer were afraid of offending someone.

You can tell when you read a brief without a point of view: The proposition is weak, or tries to include too much information. There’s no clear consumer insight.

Another way to look at a creative brief: It’s a review of the product, but always a positive, thumbs-up rave!

Pretend you’re channeling the late Roger Ebert. His passion for movies was infectious. Your passion must be evident, obvious, palpable.

8. Who says you can’t have more than one brief on a project?

This one perplexes me. Most products have more than one selling point, more than one emotional connecting point. If this is true for the product or service you’ve been assigned to (and it should be), there is by definition more than one brief at your fingertips.

It comes down to writing more than one proposition. The rest of the brief can be the same. If you have more than one creative team on a project, why not give a different brief to each team?

It’s not a waste of time. It’s an investment of time into a different approach. Why not?

9. Seek feedback. Always.

I love Flannery O’Connor. Perhaps my favorite line from one of her essays is something I use on my English composition syllabi: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I’ve written.”

This is her way of saying she needs the feedback of her eyes on the words that came from her pen to make sure they align with her true self.

You need feedback too, but before your brief is even written. This idea is different than #6 above. When I say feedback, I mean input, up front input. Before you put a single word on paper.

If your client has provided a client brief, use it to interview product managers, marketing folks, sales reps. Talk to your agency colleagues, too. Get their ideas.

This is a way to give everyone a stake in the outcome. They will have some buy-in before the brief is even written. Don’t underestimate the value of this kind of team building.

10. Go back and re-read the first briefs you ever wrote. What did you learn?

This can be a cringe-inducing experience, but that’s why it’s a teachable moment. We learn by making mistakes, by figuring out what went wrong and fixing it.

When I look at my earliest creative solutions, I often laugh. The same happens when I read early writing. This is the mark of maturation and…am I allowed to say it? The onset of wisdom.

The only way to understand your progress is to return to your beginnings.

A few nuggets to polish your brief writing.

The creative brief embraces both the emotional and rational support for brands.

When I worked for Team One Advertising back in the late 1990s, I learned something fascinating about the material created by a group devoted exclusively to designing, writing and producing the expensive, glossy collateral for the Lexus Automobile account. These folks spent weeks and months on each brochure and I envied the copywriters. I was trained as a long-form direct-response writer, so the chance to sink my teeth into a brochure-length piece about one automobile was tantalizing.

Alas, they guarded their turf and never gave me a shot.

But what I learned taught me a valuable lesson about advertising in general and about the creative brief in particular.

What I learned from my colleagues in the Lexus collateral department at first startled me: Research told them that their beautiful brochures did not drive sales as might have been expected. Instead, Lexus collateral reinforced purchase decisions.

Translated, that means these expensive perfect-bound booklets were often acquired by someone after they had purchased or leased a new Lexus. Why? To provide the buyer with empirical evidence to support a purely emotional buying decision. emotion

It’s not an oddity at all. It makes perfect sense. My experience bears this out after 30 years as a creative. I just couldn’t prove it. Then in 2005, the Harvard Business Review published a study that offered quantifiable evidence to support the notion that the only way to achieve brand loyalty is when a consumer establishes an emotional connection to that brand. No emotional connection? No loyalty.

Ask any creative in the advertising/design/communication business and they would tell you this is a truth. They know this from experience. But until 2005, there was no empirical evidence to back it up. Psychology, on the other hand, understood these connections earlier and some advertising academics have picked up on it.

So what does this have to do with the creative brief?

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “Whenever the head and heart do battle, one side wins while the other loses.” Or something like that. heart-vs-mind

In other words, when emotions and reason confront each other, it’s a zero-sum game.

But not so with a creative brief. Emotions and reason share equal billing, although creatives believe, and now have the evidence, that to spark the best creative solutions, a truly inspired creative brief must, by definition, tap into the emotions of the consumer if the connection is to take root.

Let’s not forget that the creative brief is only a shell with questions. It is how those questions are answered, and ultimately, how those answers incite the full monty of a creative solution that determines whether or not the brand lives or dies in the hearts of consumers.

Ah…but let’s also not forget this opprobrium: Garbage in, garbage out.

The creative brief is your starting point. Get it wrong there, and everything that follows falls apart.

So the creative brief must contain both facts and emotions.

There are many boxes (or questions) on the brief where facts reside.The-Facts-2

There is, however, one question on a creative brief designed to inspired an emotion: the proposition.

This is where some in the academic world might raise an eyebrow. They might argue that few, if any, propositions do this work. They may be right. A close look at the emotional content of ads today or in the last decades, is stultifyingly void. Whether this is the result of an emotion-less proposition or just uninspired creative, or both, is open for debate.

The fact remains that the creative brief is organic and malleable. It is also a shell waiting for inspiration. How it is filled in and by whom determine how compelling the spark is.

There is no argument that we humans make decisions with our emotions, not our reason. Reason is sometimes used after the fact, as the example of the Lexus collateral material testifies. Advertising creatives have known this for a very long time, and now there is plenty of evidence to back it up.

Which means that the creative brief must reflect this reality. To engage a consumer in behavior that results in brand loyalty, they must be inspired by an emotional connection to the brand. The creative brief is the first step of the creative process. If the spark is weak, the emotion will be, too.

How to convince your agency or in-house creative department to use a creative brief.

There’s never time to do it right, but there’s always time to do it over.

Imagine that I hand you two identical boxes that contain identical contents.

One of the two boxes comes with a set of instructions to assemble the contents. The second box comes with no instructions. Suppose I told you that you had exactly one hour to complete the assembly.

Which box would you choose?

If you’re sane, you’d choose the box that comes with instructions. Why make your like difficult, right? keep-calm-and-follow-directions-35

But that’s exactly what it’s like for the creative department when you give them a project without a creative brief. You handicap them from the start.

Why on Earth would any professional communications firm even contemplate handing over a communications project to its creative team without a set of instructions? Why? Would someone please explain this concept to me? Because I just don’t get it.

Yet it happens. Every week or so I get an email from a reader or fellow creative bemoaning his or her situation where the creative brief (ad-speak for “set of instructions”) either does not exist, is ignored or is given lip service at best.

There is more truth to the cliche that the worst communicators are people in the communications business. They’re outstanding at talking to everyone on the planet…except themselves. They know every trick in the book to reach this audience or that, but when it comes to commiserating with each other, they are mute. They think the rules don’t apply to them.

This is a sad state of affairs.

If the decision makers where you work wouldn’t try to assemble the contents of a box without instructions, and that stark fact doesn’t convince them to use a creative brief, what can you do?

I have some advice that could change their minds.

I have witnessed more spinning wheels when a creative brief is ignored or underutilized. Meaning that creative work is rejected internally or by the client, or both, because something was missing, something was overlooked. More often, something was simply not clear.

The result is predictable: The creative team is forced to go back to the drawing board, but not necessarily with any clearer direction. Sometimes this happens repeatedly. I have painful memories of one project early in my career where I revised copy 17 times before it was finally approved. I learned quickly not to take it personally.

There is another route. The creatives will actually figure out the project, deliver some good (maybe even great) work and everyone is happy. This happens more often than you might imagine.

The question is: Why must it be this way when there is an alternative?

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Here’s how you can fix the problem: Try an A–B split. ff_abtesting_f

If you’re not versed in direct response, this means that you conduct a test with two approaches to the same project: one team gets a creative brief, the other doesn’t. If the creative brief isn’t part of your agency’s culture, you’ll have to do your best to create a template and fill in the boxes yourself. You must acquire evidence to show tangibly what happens when a brief is a part of the project from the beginning.

My experience shows that a creative team working from an inspired creative brief delivers better work the first time with fewer re-dos and miss hits.

You may have to try this experiment without buy-in from your bosses. You may also have to do it on the sly. You absolutely must find a creative (or an account exec) so there is collaboration between the two groups. Creatives will leap at the chance to work from a creative brief if none is currently available. Account folks should too, but may need persuading.

If your agency is too small for multiple teams on the same project, then choose two projects with similar objectives, similar target audiences or similar creative tone.

The point is, build your case for the creative brief with experience using a creative brief. Specifically, you should be able to answer the following questions in the affirmative before the work is submitted for review:

1. Is the direction from a creative brief clear, resulting in focused creative solutions?

2. Does the single-minded proposition inspire good thinking?

3. Is there an insight about the product or the target consumer that also inspires good thinking?

4. Does the creative brief establish a yardstick against which creative solutions can be assessed? In other words, can you say for certain whether or not a creative solution is “on brief” or “off brief”?

5. Does the brief establish clear expectations regarding the tone of voice for your product or service?

You’ll notice that these five questions are variations of those you would find on a creative brief itself.

So how do you measure the results of creative solutions arrived at “with” a creative brief versus those “without” a creative brief? A degree of subjectivity is inevitable, but if the creative solutions (meaning the ad ideas or concepts) address these questions successfully, you have demonstrated that the set of instructions you wrote (the brief) delivered creative that followed those instructions. Sometimes, that’s proof enough of the creative brief’s value.

Essentially, you have shown that #4 is achievable: You’ve proven that creative can be assessed, and your brief is the yardstick. high-jump-bar

This is the most important criteria for any brief: You set the bar at a certain height and ask whether or not the work at least achieves it. If it exceeds that height, wow. What a benefit. If it underachieves, you have a way of discerning why (the standards established by the brief) and a way to fix what doesn’t measure up.

Without a brief, how can you know if the work is good enough? Even if everyone in the room agrees that the work is good, even great, can they say why?

Since no one created a check list in advance (another way to describe a creative brief), no one can say with assurance that the work they see fulfills any criteria.

Your creative brief becomes the check list. The road map. The yardstick. The standard to which you can point and ask, “Did we get it right?” yardstick-measure-ruler-inch

Don’t let another day slip by if your creative work place does not use a creative brief. Don’t deny yourself the opportunity to work with a set of instructions. It’s very possible to assemble a piece of furniture from Ikea without any, but why would you want to even try?

The creative brief doesn’t make producing ideas easy. Hard work takes care of that. But it certainly makes everyone’s life easier…if you put it to the test for which it was designed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Can you keep your message single-minded?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Can you prove your message is true?

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

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

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

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

Use ’em or lose ’em.

5. Can you show some attitude?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

If you can’t explain what a creative brief is, how can you write an inspired one?

What is your definition of a good creative brief? If you work in advertising, marketing, PR or social media, and a variety of other fields, chances are you have a working answer.

Here’s a great answer from a book called What’s a Good Brief? The Leo Burnett Way, written in 1998:

“A good creative brief…

…is brief and single minded
…is logical and rooted in a compelling truth
…incorporates a powerful human insight
…is compatible with the overall brand strategy
…is the result of hard work and team work”

Okay, so that’s what makes a good creative brief. But what is your definition of the document itself? Forget the descriptors. What is this thing?

If you don’t have a definition, how do you know if your brief is good or great or inspired? If you don’t know what each of those five points above is, how do you know if you even have a creative brief?

Let’s take a break this week and define the document itself so we know when a great one lands in front of us.

The simplest definition I have is this:

A creative brief is an objectives document whose sole purpose is to spark relevant ideas for the creative team.

I like it. But does it explain all the points in the Leo Burnett definition, which, by the way, is pretty darn close to being definitive? No.

Remove the word “good” and focus on just “creative brief.” If you look closely at the Leo Burnett criteria, you have a solid working definition:

1. A creative brief is brief and single minded

The document reduces to its most essential elements the purpose of the job being assigned to the creative team. Therefore it must, by definition, be focused. It must get to the point. i_love_single_minded_tshirt-rb60739ffd3fb423785cc26764a500fbd_8nhmp_324

This idea often flies in the face of a product manager’s expectations. She sees her product as a “unique package of features” (a term I heard spoken out loud by a marketing manager some years ago).

No one buys a “unique package of features.” They buy a solution to a problem, real or perceived. A favorite shampoo makes your hair look just so. You feel sexy. Your car makes you feel successful or masculine or trendy.

The creative brief makes tangible what this “feeling” is and communicates it succinctly to the creative team.

2. A creative brief is logical and rooted in a compelling truth

A creative brief must connect the dots for the creative team, starting with the reason why a product is desirable. The brief must show the logic behind the product-as-solution, not just the emotion. In other words, a creative brief must tell a single-minded truth.

For example, the single-minded proposition on one creative brief for the soft drink Tango reads: “Join the Tango resistance.”

spockThe “logic” is the reason to believe the proposition. What facts can you present to the creative team to help them build their creative case? With Tango: “It is no ordinary soft drink; it therefore says something about you when you drink it. It’s controversial, daring and overt,” according to the brief.

3. A creative brief incorporates a powerful human insight

Staying with the soft drink Tango, the brief writer had access to an insight about who would drink this product: teenagers.

Teens, according to the agency creative brief, “take on a brand’s personality as a representation of their own. Therefore, if a brand has no personality, it’s impossible for (teens) to feel an affiliation toward it.”

The brief also makes clear that Tango’s history of being out of the ordinary had not been leveraged. The conclusion? “In order to gain a loyal consumer base, we need to give (teens) something that’s worth being involved with.” 5661_ideas_moderation_permalink-1

Although this product and its television campaign are dated, the brief stands as a towering example of being “inspired.” Go to YouTube and view the spot that arose from this brief. You’ll see a “compelling truth” in 60 seconds.

4. A creative brief is compatible with the overall brand strategy

A simple reminder: If you don’t have a strategy, you cannot write a creative brief. Strategy first, creative brief second.

5. A creative brief is the result of hard work and team work

Even in the late 1990s, Leo Burnett recognized the value of teamwork in writing a creative brief. No one writes ads by themselves. It is a process that involves a team: copywriter and art director.

No one should write a creative brief alone. At least two people should collaborate. I recommend an account planner or account management person plus a senior creative. iFPG9VCwIIohqdefaultBut even junior account people and junior creatives, pairing up, are better than a soloist.

These five criteria, for me, are the definition of both a good creative brief and, simply, the creative brief itself. A creative brief is not a creative brief if it does not accomplish these five objectives.

This was a review of basics. As if you were practicing lay-ups on the basketball court or doing barre-work in a beginning ballet class.

Professionals always return to fundamentals to polish their skills.

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.

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.