A tale of two marketers

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times…

Two marketers, both of whom work for the same reputable national brand, arrived at the office early on a Monday morning. Both had been working for this brand for 10 years. They each managed a different product line within the company. Screen-Shot-2014-03-19-at-8.56.14-PM

And there the similarities ended.

Our first marketer, an intrepid soul, had just returned from a meeting with senior executives of his product line. They asked him for a new advertising campaign to kick off the next quarter. He took copious notes and felt confident that he understood his marching orders. He sat at his desk for a moment, gathering his thoughts, and called his in-house advertising department and spoke with the creative director.

“Good morning, it’s Chuck,” said the CD.

“Hey Chuck,” said our marketer. “Can you get your team assembled in an hour? I want to brief you guys on the new campaign.”

“Sure thing.”

An hour later, our first marketer, brimming with enthusiasm, arrived at the conference room where Chuck accompanied his two teams of copywriters and art directors.

“Morning everyone,” said our marketer. “Here’s the skinny on the new campaign.” And he proceeded to talk for 30 minutes.

“That’s it?” asked the CD. “No creative brief?”

The marketer shook his head. “I gave you everything you need to know. It’s all straight from the executive team. Can I see ideas by Friday?”

The CD assented reluctantly. He and his teams looked crestfallen, but not surprised.54713640

A week later, the creative team returned to the conference room to present their campaign ideas. The marketer looked, listened and frowned.

“You didn’t follow instructions,” he fumed. And he sent them back to the drawing board. This time, they worked over the weekend.

Monday morning, the results were the same. Our marketer didn’t like what he saw.

“You keep changing direction,” said the creative director. “You asked us for one thing last week, and now you want something else.”

The creative team struggled all day and by nightfall, had come up with a third set of ideas. Our marketer felt only marginally better, but decided to present the work to his senior executives the next day.

The meeting with his superiors did not go well.

“This work is off base,” said one.

“You know how we feel about using humor,” said another.

“I thought we agreed that this product feature wasn’t appropriate,” said the third exec.

The list of objections continued.

“It seems that every time we give you direction,” said the first executive, “you return with ideas that don’t meet our objectives. Why does this continue to happen?”

Our intrepid marketer skulked off to regroup.

Meanwhile, our second marketer sat in her office after a meeting with senior executives for her product line. They, too, asked for a new advertising campaign. She sat across from Chuck, the brand’s in-house ad agency creative director. They were deep in discussion about the assignment.

“I took lots of notes at the meeting,” said our second marketer, “and I turned those notes into a client brief. I’ve already run it by the executives and they approved it.”

“This is good,” said Chuck. “Let’s get to work on a creative brief for my team.”

And for the next two hours, Chuck and our second marketer brainstormed to fill out an inspired and inspiring creative brief. When they couldn’t agree on something or got stuck on a point, our second marketer put in a call to one of the senior executives and the three of them discussed the problem in a conference call. It typically took less than five minutes to resolve.

When they had a completed draft, our marketer typed it up, made copies and walked each one to the offices of the three senior executives she’d met that morning.

“Can you take a look at this creative brief and get back to me by the end of the day with your thoughts?”

They all agreed. Each executive made minor changes. Our marketer incorporated the edits into a new draft and emailed a copy to Chuck. He called his marketer to discuss the changes. They both agreed the brief was tight and ready for the creative team.

The next day, our marketer and Chuck briefed his copywriters and art directors with the final creative brief. The team asked a few questions and promised to have ideas ready soon.

When concepts were presented, the marketer smiled. “These are great. They’re on brief. I’m confident the senior execs will approve one of them.”

True to senior executive-dom, they offered some push back, but at the end of the presentation, they approved one of the ideas. They complimented the marketer for shepherding the project so smoothly and praised the creative team for its ingenuity.Kamala-Khan-Ms-Marvel-Comics

Do you recognize one of these scenarios? They are condensed versions of real situations. I’ve worked at brands and ad agencies that did not use creative briefs, or had allowed the creative brief to become a rote exercise. The work always got done, but the truth is, it often took more than one try. The results were often less than satisfactory.

The process was broken.

Ask yourself this question: Would you try to assemble furniture from Ikea without the instructions?

You might say, “Sure, I’m game!” In fact, if you’ve experienced the situation described above for the first marketer, you have assembled Ikea furniture without instructions.

You can do it, but it likely will take longer and the experience will be frustrating. Just ask the creative team.

The more important question to ask: Why would you even try?

Is it the best of times or the worst of times?

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

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

It’s the wrong question.

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

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

1. Business, marketing or insider jargon

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

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

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

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

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

2. Bullet points

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

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

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

Who are we talking to?

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

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

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

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

3. “See below”

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

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

4. Anything cut and pasted from the previous creative brief

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

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

5. Anything cut and pasted from the client brief

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

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

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

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

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

7. A third page

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

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

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

8. The kitchen sink

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

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

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

Ad agencies: Bad client briefs are your fault.


In April, Adweek ran a story titled, “New ANA Survey Shows the Gap Between Clients and Agencies on Issues Like Compensation and Briefs.” ana_logo

The ANA is the Association of National Advertisers, an organization begun in 1910 with more than 650 companies, representing 10,000 brands and annual advertising and marketing expenditures exceeding $250 billion. When this group speaks, ad people listen.

So when I read this line from the ANA’s Executive Summary, I was aghast:

Agencies emphatically believe that clients do not provide clear assignment briefings.

To add salt to this wound, of the 105 agencies surveyed by ANA, not one “strongly agreed” that clients provide clear client briefings. Not one.

I won’t win any friends in the ad agency world when I say this, but it’s your own damn fault.

Nowhere in the Executive Summary did I see a single mention of the creative brief. Only the client brief was pilloried for its weaknesses.

The briefing, from client brief to creative brief, is the beginning of the creative process. Ad agencies own this process. So own it!

Here, then, are three tangible steps that advertising agencies must take to correct this failure.

1. Take the initiative

Don’t complain about a bad client brief. Do something about it. You can’t afford to make excuses.

Whether your relationship with the client is brand new or twenty years old, the first step of the creative process begins with a brief. This is when you, the ad agency, must be prepared to perform in-the-field triage. If past experience tells you to anticipate an unclear brief, address it on the spot.

How? The easiest and most direct step you can take is to make sure both an account person and a creative person review the client brief while it’s still fresh. Build this step into your process and communicate it clearly to your client. Make it non-negotiable.

When I worked for a pharmaceutical ad agency in Chicago 20 years ago, I was startled, at first, by what happened when a new client came to visit for the first time. Agency executives began not by trotting out the creative team, not the account management team, not even research. They began the day-long orientation by introducing the new client to the accounting department: accounts receivable and accounts payable. It’s one of the reasons this agency remained profitable…and open.

goldfish jumping out of the water

The power to set expectations resides with you, the ad agency. So set them. Don’t wait for them to be set for you.

2. Fix a bad client brief with a great creative brief

Never let a bad client brief stop you from delivering a stellar, inspired creative brief.

A client brief is only one-half of the briefing process. It is a statement of the problem the client wants the ad agency to address.

The agency’s creative brief is the response.

That has always been one of its primary functions. The creative brief is a clarifying document. It clarifies not only for the creative team, but also for the client. The agency’s creative brief says to the client: This is what we think you have asked us to do.

Ergo, there is no excuse for a bad client brief. When the client sees the ad agency’s response to its brief, and if anything about the assignment was not clear, it will show up in the creative brief.

Ideally, the creative brief will have overcome the client brief’s impreciseness. fixitBut even if it doesn’t, there is never any reason why an ad agency should complain about missing the mark with its creative product.

The creative brief, well written and appropriately inspiring, is designed to prevent poor creative from happening.

3. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate!

I am constantly amazed that “collaboration” is still such a foreign concept and unfamiliar word in the ad game. That is changing, but slowly.

The model is the copywriter/art director collaboration that has existed at ad agencies for decades. This model should be replicated between creative and account management, and I have written extensively on this topic. It should also be replicated from day one with the parties at the client and the agency who are responsible for “briefing,” which includes the client brief and the agency’s response, the creative brief.

So, implement these three steps in your briefing process and you should never have to endure an unclear assignment from your client.

Pipe dream? No. Not at all. Failure to believe and act on these ideas sets you up for more failure.

Remember, you’re not putting your faith in a document—either the client or the creative brief. You’re putting your faith in its clarifying and inspiring powers. calrify-values

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

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

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

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

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

1. Submit a client brief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Participate in the briefing of the creatives.

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

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

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

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

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