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.

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.

Sharpen your brief writing with this two-step brain teaser

If you were a journalist, what would you read to become a better journalist? News stories. By people recognized as good journalists.tumblr_l3ffdyoMRR1qav9ywo1_1280

If you were a writer of fiction or poetry, what would you read to become a better novelist or poet? Other novelists and poets, of course.

So if you write creative briefs at your ad agency, marketing company or corporation, what do you read to become a better creative brief writer? Great creative briefs? Yes. If you can get your hands on them.

If you can’t, then what?

I recommend that you “read” great ads and do a simple, two-step brain teaser.

In the study of literature, it’s called “close reading.” The principle is the same in “reading” an advertisement. But to make this process work for you, I suggest that you take a passive approach. In fact, I urge you to be as passive as you can be.

Why? You’ll see.

This exercise works with any kind of ad, but I recommend you start with a television spot. Since I’ve asked you to take the passive approach, watching tv instantly puts you in the right frame of mind. Find your fave lounge chair or sofa or pillow, get comfy and wait.

When a tv spot airs, don’t move. Just let it happen. Exert as little energy as possible. Think “passive.”

You may have to practice this a few times to get it right. You’ll have to resist the urge to get up and hit the kitchen. Just veg while the :30 rolls past your brain.

So when you’ve got this form mastered, and you’re ready to engage the television spot as passively as you can, watch another commercial and answer two questions.

1. What is the point?

Try to figure this out by exerting as few neutrons of brain activity as possible. Don’t get all ad-fixated and ask, “What is the single-minded proposition?” get-to-the-point

React like a consumer: ironically uncaring, daring the advertiser to break your casual efforts at being disengaged.

You are an ad professional with insights into the process of connecting to a viewer. You have to actively turn off this knowledge. It won’t be easy. But in achieving the task, you will be opening a part of your brain to receiving information on an intuitive level. You are deconstructing the ad and looking for its most basic element: the key message.

But don’t work for it. The idea here is to test the spot’s effectiveness by allowing you brain to absorb the message below the conscious level.

That’s why it’s important to remain passive. If you can figure out what the point of the spot is, two things are apparent.

First, the spot communicated. Second, it was probably clear. If your answer forms a statement, you may have the draft of a single-minded proposition.

If your viewing results in no clear or obvious answer, chances are the spot did not communicate. Or was poorly executed. Or was just bad. Or all of the above.

2. Who are they talking to?

Don’t think, “Are they talking to me?” You’re taking a test here. If you can figure out the point of the spot, you should be able to figure out who might be interested. It could be you, but that’s not important.

If the spot were done well and you can figure out the point and who it is engaging, you’re lucky. It’s probably a good spot.

How does all this help you write a better brief?

First, it forces you to think differently. You’re receiving a piece of creative and your critiquing it at a point when it can’t be corrected or rejected, unlike how you might react if your creative team were presenting a rough to you for approval. It’s finished. You are a reviewer, not a consultant/team player.

Ask yourself: If I get the point and it’s clear, does it translate easily into a single-minded proposition? Do you like this SMP? Does the SMP lead you back to the spot you just viewed?

It’s one big circle. Everything has to fit.

You can do this simple, passive exercise with any television spot. Or radio spot. Just remember: You have to turn off your professional insights about advertising and be passive.

It works with a print ad, too, but you can’t be passive. Reading is not a passive activity. If you want a more difficult challenge, open up a glossy magazine and give it a go.

As a creative brief writer, you have to engage your brain everyday, even in a passive activity  I’ve suggested here.writers-block

Rookie or veteran, keep your brief writing muscles honed.


The creative brief as liberating constraint

Over the course of my advertising career, now in its 30th year, I have seen two kinds of creative briefs. The first is the “kitchen sink” version. The writer essentially had no idea what belonged, so everything went into it. The second version I’ll call the “Client Brief 2.0,” a kind of cut-and-pasting from whatever document the client hands over to the ad agency account team.

Either version reveals much about both the writer and the process. When I would receive one of these briefs, it was easy to conclude that the writer was not up to the challenge of what an inspired creative brief should be. The brief, this person seemed to be saying, is beyond me.

I understand. While training around the creative brief is much improved since I began my career in the 1980s, it is still far from acceptable. Evidence the piles of poorly written briefs.

So start thinking about the brief differently.

It is not an invitation to your creative team to do whatever they want. It is not a blank check, or a blank slate, on which they can live out their creative fantasies.

Instead, think of the creative brief as a prison of opportunity. Better yet, it is the ideal liberating constraint.

David Ogilvy is famously quoted as having said, “Give me the freedom of a tight (creative) brief.” david-ogilvy_unpublished This is another way of defining the term liberating constraint. Here is another:

A liberating constraint restricts one’s freedom in one sense (or dimension), where the restriction allows greater freedom in another direction.

As a former working creative (copywriter then creative director), I always reveled in the restrictions of a creative assignment. I preferred to tackle new campaign ideas for a back hoe rather than Coca Cola. A back hoe has definable benefits and a very targeted user. Coke is, well…for everyone, and no matter how hard you dig to find evidence to the contrary, it’s a parity product.

A creative brief, by definition, must wear its liberating constraint elegantly. The writer must first establish clear objectives. The nature of well-defined objectives creates clear constraints for the creative team.

As a brief writer, think of your job as identifying the dragon your creative team must slay. This dragon is your objectives. Give the creatives detailed information and a clear set of objectives, David Ogilvy was saying, and the confines of this information become the catalyst for their ideas.

They will be boxed in by these objectives, and if you’ve presented them reasonably well, the creative team will use them as a springboard for advertising concepts. prison-bars-imageThey will push against your boundaries until the ah-ha moments arrive. Give them structure as well as information, and they will find the room they need to work.

This is your challenge as the brief writer. Or better, as a member of the small brief-writing team. You compel the creative team onward to creative brilliance by providing them with a document that by its very nature holds them back and forces them to accept constraint.

You just don’t want to tell them that. It’ll be our secret.


Are you trustworthy? It’s a must for a creative brief writer.

I used to say that before you can write a single word on a creative brief, you need a strategy. It’s time to amend that. There’s an important precept that straddles the two: trust.

Strategy must be in place before the brief can be written. But before you can begin the creative brief process, you, the writer, must have established a clear, open and honest relationship with the team of people who will work from your brief. This is why collaboration is so important. This is why the very idea of writing a creative brief by yourself is…crazy.

But step back for a moment and ask yourself: Are you trustworthy? Don’t take this question for granted. Even if you’ve been working in your organization for years, you may not know the answer. Worse, you may overestimate the answer. And if you’re brand new, you must take the necessary steps to build that trust.

As Warren Buffet has said, it takes years to build a good reputation and only five minutes to ruin it.

I teach English composition, critical thinking and argumentation at Glendale College in Los Angeles. This semester, I plan to challenge my students with a short writing assignment in which they argue their trustworthiness:

Are you trustworthy? Make your case in a short, well-written paragraph. Show it to your  friends and family. Do they agree?

Whether your task is to write the creative brief or you work from it, knowing the degree of trustworthiness you possess plays a huge role in the success of both the document and the outcome.

TrustworthinessI urge you to try this exercise. Not only is it an exercise in building trust, but it’s also an exercise is learning how others view you. The fact that you’d ask the question and invite others to respond will enhance their respect for you.

The creative brief is the first step in the creative process, and as the first step, its most vital content is unwritten.




Where are the writers?

I wrote my first post on the subject of “words” back in 2009. I’m returning to it now because I had a thought.

Every year, around this time, the trade pubs publish their lists of the best and the worst ads of the year. I pay more attention to the “worst” ads. The critics cite a variety of reasons for why each one fails. I know better.

The culprit was the creative brief.

No matter how talented the creative team might be, no matter how well suited they are at overcoming a bad brief, the brief is what they have. The information contained within is often the entire scope of their knowledge about the product or service, especially if it’s the first campaign.

There’s simply no escaping the adage: Garbage in, garbage out.

The creative that earns a spot on an annual “worst” lists is there because the creative brief was garbage.

You can argue with me on this one, but I submit that because the creative brief is the first step in the creative process, if the information is wrong here, the results (the creative ideas) will be wrong no matter how talented the team is.

I’d love to be in a room with the a team whose work ended up on one of these “worst” lists. I don’t mean the creative team alone. I mean the client/account/creative team, the whole shebang, everyone who had a hand in contributing to, reviewing and writing the creative brief.

Start with the brief and that’s where they’ll find the short circuit.

It’s there, I promise you. Seek and you shall find.

Words matter. They are taken for granted. People assume. People are often inept at writing in the first place, which is why committing words to paper is a scary thing. We now rely too much on short cuts. If you use email, especially texts, you know what I mean.

It gets worse.

I read in a recent opinion piece posted in a Talent Zoo email by a marketing professional who claimed that the advertising industry is in sorry need of writers. Real writers. He said that clients and agencies would rather hand off “writing” assignments to non-writers (sometimes called content creators) or designers and art directors and the industry is paying the price. I believe him. He’s spot on.

David Ogilvy pleaded with copywriters to learn the arts of direct response to hone their skills at writing copy that pushes emotional buttons, that persuades, that closes the deal. In other words, he advocated training in real writing, with nouns, verbs, a few adverbs…substance!

I shudder to contemplate the writing skills of the planners and account people responsible for writing creative briefs. If copywriters–the very people supposedly responsible for brilliant creative–are barely skilled at writing complete sentences, whither brief writers?

C’mon! Joe Citizen can write just as cleverly as some copywriters. Just look at the personalized license plates on the car in front of you!

Words matter. A bad idea comes from the same place as a good idea. Someone’s brain. Or a team’s brain.

There’s brain food and there’s brain junk food. A well-written creative brief demands the best ingredients. Start with well-chosen, well-thought out words.

Because they matter.