Complaints about the creative brief that have nothing to do with the creative brief.

Small Fish With Ambitions Of A Big Shark - Business Concept

Complaints are often disguises. Each one is meant to hide a central truth, a truth that emerges only after you listen carefully to the rant. When the blame for some marketing shortfall lands on the creative brief, an easy target, the real culprit lies elsewhere.

Here are three of my favorites:

1. The creative brief is no longer relevant.

2. There’s something wrong with our creative brief.

3. If the brief isn’t great, the creatives will figure out the Big Idea.

I’ve heard versions of these whinings in conversations, in articles, and online. They’re all full of shittake mushrooms.

You don’t have to be a psychologist to understand what the real issue is. But I’ll play psychologist today and shed some light on these laments.

First: The creative brief is no longer relevant.

I hear this one the most. When I ask for elaboration, the line of thinking goes like this: There are too many platforms today (meaning social media and mobile) requiring different messages to reach our target consumer. The old models of advertising, like feature/benefit or information-based messages, don’t work in these settings. We have to change our approach…blah, blah, blah.

So look carefully. The complaint starts with the brief, but veers rapidly into the message, the communication. The bickering has nothing to do, in the end, with the brief itself. If you’re present enough in this conversation to stop and point this out to your interlocutor, the funny thing is: They agree with you!

It’s not about the creative brief. The complaint is about the work that arises from the creative brief!

Second: There’s something wrong with our creative brief.

I hear this one quite often. It always makes me laugh. I typically respond with this story:

Imagine you had the opportunity to visit the home of your favorite clothes designer, say Yves St. Laurent or Giorgio Armani. You walk into his personal clothes closet and look around. Even if it were empty, you have to believe the space itself would be impressive. walk in closet

But you don’t care about the closet, do you? No! You want to see what’s in it! You want to see the suits, the jackets, the material they’re made of. The shoes, the sweaters, the hand-made shirts. You want to see and feel and smell the quality around you. If you like clothes even just a little bit, you want to be surrounded by this genius’ creations.

So the creative brief is like a closet. It means nothing when it’s empty. It’s just a piece of paper with boxes or questions.

What we care about is the contents! The answers to those difficult questions. The clothes, baby! The clothes!

Stop worrying about the creative brief template. Even the worst template can dazzle if the answers to its questions are inspiring and thoughtful and engaging.

If you blame the template, you’re making an excuse for an ill-prepared creative brief writer. Please stop!

Third: If the brief isn’t great, the creatives will figure out the Big Idea.

This one hurts. This one clearly misses the point of the creative brief. It’s just plain wrong.

The brief, after all, is the first step of the creative process. It’s the first swing at solving the problem.

In other words, the creative brief is the Big Idea.

The creatives assigned to read it, work from it and be inspired by it deliver executions of the Big Idea. They translate the Big Idea into communications that sell. If the writers of the creative brief have stepped up, the heavy lifting has been done.

Abstract illustration concept for design

You know instantly when you’re reading a stellar creative brief. You can see how others are reacting. Look at their body language. Their wheels are turning. They’re asking questions. Talking about executions. They’re already working on the problem. They’re excited!

The opposite is equally visible. If the brief is uninspiring, everyone feels it. Or doesn’t feel it to be more accurate. Garbage in, garbage out.

Handing over an unfocused document filled with unfiltered thinking, lacking a compelling claim (the single-minded proposition), and passing the buck to the creative department to fill in missing information, disrespects the brand, the client, the agency, and all the people involved with making and selling the product.

We like to blame the creative brief for many ills, but we can’t blame it when the problem has nothing to do with the creative brief itself.

If old models of advertising fail, fix the models. We’re seeing this happen everyday. Brands talk about storytelling.

If you’re not getting the right information from you brief, remember: It’s a blank piece of paper until you fill it with questions. Change the questions if you must! But don’t blame the questions. Blame the answers!

If you don’t believe the creative brief is the repository of the Big Idea…well, maybe it’s time you found a different line of work.

No wonder you blame the creative brief.

 

Five truths every creative brief writer must face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. You have permission to be creative!

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

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

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

Why do you tolerate four or five rounds of creative revisions?

If you claim that you use a creative brief, yet you ask your creative partners to return four or five times—or more—with revised creative work, do you need me to tell you something is wrong with your creative brief?

Can’t you see the obvious?

This is the classic definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting different results. error-code-18

Yet it is a story I hear regularly when I lead workshops on writing the creative brief. It is the most common complaint I hear.

I don’t need to see your creative brief template to know what the problem is. The template is fine. I promise.

Content. The problem lies in your creative brief’s content. You don’t have the right information. Or you have the right information, but it’s buried beneath too much useless, irrelevant information. Or your brief’s content lacks conviction, specificity, clarity. Or all of the above.

The creative brief requires you to put a stake in the ground. It requires you to make choices, to leave out more than you keep. Completing this document requires courage. It is an act of strategic reduction.

It is not a repository of everything you know about your brand. Instead, it is a reliquary of the bold and definitive argument for your brand.

Process. The brief itself may be only part of the reason why there’s a disconnect between a client’s request and delivered creative work. It may also be your creative briefing process. That process breaks down, becomes dysfunctional, if the document does not have advocates from senior management. If the process is not taken seriously, is treated as an afterthought, a necessary evil, you can count on multiple rounds of creative that miss the mark.

A broken creative briefing process is the author of the saying: “There’s never time to do it right. There’s always time to do it over.”

Consider this analogy:

When I played golf a lot, I learned to approach the par-5s backwards. Since I didn’t have the length off the tee to get to a par-5 in two shots, I always planned for a layup. Thus I asked: Where do I want my second shot to be resting? My answer was: about 100 yards from the pin. So if the par-5 were 500 yards, and I wanted my second shot to be sitting at the 400 yard mark, give or take, that meant my drive could be relatively short, say 240 yards. That would leave me with only 160 yards to get to my ideal 100 yard approach shot. (It’s called strategy.)

That is a lot less daunting than trying to boom out a 260 drive followed by a 240 yard approach. On my best day, a “once-in-a-lifetime” series of shots, I might pull that off. I parred a lot of 5s with my less-risky plan. Sometimes, I even birdied.

The point is this: If you don’t have a plan for the time it takes to do your projects, the best creative brief in the world becomes a useless piece of paper. And if the piece of paper doesn’t have the right, agreed upon information, with clear objectives and insights, no schedule will survive it.

To get the best work in the fewest rounds, you must have a plan. You must commit to a creative brief that works within a reproducible creative brief process. The creative brief is Step Number One in the creative process itself.

I would much rather hear a company tell me that they don’t use a creative brief. This, at least, presents an opportunity to inculcate a process that brings all players together around a common purpose: The brand.

When I lead workshops on the creative brief and I see an example of a company’s brief only to discover that it is a rote document with little or no original thinking, no insight, no inspiration, I am not surprised to learn that the creative work falls short. Not occasionally. Not once in a while. Always. Repeatedly.

It usually means a weak or non-existent creative brief process as well. One leads to the other. The two are inter-dependent.

Here, then, is some advice on how to repair or re-invigorate your creative brief and the process you establish:

Think misers. Social scientists tell us that we tend to be miserly when we think. Thinking is hard work, even for the likes of Albert Einstein. So we avoid it when it’s not absolutely necessary.Albert_Einstein_Head

Keep this fact in mind when you approach the creative brief. It is a document, and part of a process, that requires thinking. Serious thinking. The creative brief is part of the creative process, so plan for it. Build enough time into your production schedule so that its writers (more than one) can THINK about it thoroughly.

The creative brief should go through multiple drafts. More thinking! It is not the product of a committee, but rather a dedicated, small group (account, planner, creative), all stakeholders, who weigh in on the effort. One person should do the writing, but the other one or two must be good editors and BS detectors.

In the same way that art directors are paired with copywriters in the creative department, creative briefs should be produced by teams. Who think! Together!

This is current best practices.

No one practices writing the brief. Yeah, it’s a fact. No one writes a brief until they actually have to. Think about that for a second. Imagine if LeBron James didn’t practice a free throw or jump shot until he had to do it in a game.

Uh-huh. We’d have never heard of LeBron James. Like all exceptional athletes, he spends more time practicing than he does playing. He has to. Do you? practice

You can practice writing briefs without a pen, paper or keyboard. You can do it in your head. You may do it without knowing it. Ever watch a TV spot and wonder what they were thinking? Imagine, if you can, what the brand’s most important message is. Did the spot address it? Why or why not? If not, how would you say it? That’s creative brief-writing practice.

It’s also thinking, and this is where the social scientists’ term “think misers” comes from. You watch the spot, don’t get it, or wonder how they arrived at that idea, then stop thinking. It’s too much work. Besides, your show is back, so you can turn off your brain and just take in the entertainment.

Do it differently next time. Actually THINK about why that spot works or doesn’t work.

This is practice. It’s grooving your swing, so to speak. It’s forging creative-brief muscle memory.

Invite senior management to write a creative brief. Do this collaboratively. Loop them in as early as you can. Ask for suggestions. Give them a firm deadline. Move on if they miss it.

Even if you get a C-level exec to participate only once, you’ll remind them of the value of the process, or clue them into it if they’ve never done it before. This is how you acquire new stakeholders. This is how change happens.

Like all processes, they are slow to become instituted and slow to change. But when you recognize a broken process, address it as soon as possible. Your brand deserves it.

 

 

To tell an authentic brand story, write an inspired creative brief.

In 1989, I was a copywriter for a small business-to-business advertising agency in Milwaukee.

Two facts stand out about this job. The first is that the shop did not use a creative brief. The document was not part of its day-to-day operations. I fixed that.

The second relates to one of its bigger clients, an American manufacturer of turf equipment, one of whose marketing executives I met on many occasions. This executive used to repeat a phrase I never forgot. He used it every time I, or one of my colleagues, asked this question when we started a new project:

“What’s the one, most important thing we need to say about your product?”

His answer still startles me, almost 30 years later.

“We don’t have just one thing,” he said. “We have a unique package of features.”

Except that no one tells a story about a unique package of features. That’s not how it works.

Storytelling as a tool for advertisers was not on many people’s minds in the late 1980s. A handful of brilliant thinkers, like Steve Jobs, knew better.

The history of storytelling dates to at least cave dwellers who left us drawings on walls that told visual stories. Let’s just say that storytelling is old. lascauxhorsesaurochshd

The creative brief isn’t. But chances are, few people working in advertising today were in the business when the creative brief came into existence. Account planning was born in 1965, and with it the creative brief.

The purpose of the creative brief has remained unchanged since its inception: to give succinct and inspired instructions to an advertiser’s creative partners with the expectation that a sales-driving idea emerges.

In the last 50+ years, the creative brief’s template has changed, but its purpose has not. It remains debatable whether the brief’s credibility and respect match its designed purpose, but that’s another story.

At least three questions that should be on every creative brief provide the impetus for a memorable brand story.

But first, a word of advice:

No brand story can unfold without internal buy-in. An authentic brand story is not manufactured. It does not arise from external (meaning outside the company) sources. It does not answer the questions What? or How? about a brand. It answers Why? Why does the brand exist?

Think about the best brand storytellers and you’ll see why this advice is true. And why it matters.

Here’s my short list:

Greats.

I’ll let the founders speak. (By the way, I own two pairs. I LOVE ’em!!)

Blue Apron.

I’ve used this product, too, but not currently. This isn’t an endorsement. It’s high praise for the story they tell. Here’s a highlight from their website:

“Our mission is to make incredible home cooking accessible to everyone.”

mobile-hero-1-variant-859ca07b851fe88cf29e48c37ac4b40aa37f18ef4f9e3d66241fadae10b86014

Every piece of communication from the company reflects this singularly focused message.

Harry’s.

I use an electric shaver, but if I didn’t, I’d probably buy Harry’s razors. Why? I’ll let their website speak:

The shaving company that’s fixing shaving
We created Harry’s to be different from the other shaving brands. Unlike the big brands that overdesign and overcharge, we make a high-quality shave that’s made by real guys for real guys.

Harrys-Hero

Each brand’s core message answers the question: Why does this product exist? That’s what the story is built around.

So which questions on the creative brief help creatives arrive at a brand story?

1. What is the Single-Minded Proposition? No matter what you might call it, and it has many names (Unique Selling Proposition, The One Thing, Key Message), this is the heart of any great story.

You’ll know your story is right when you can end it with this line: “And that’s the reason why (single-minded proposition here)…”

Try it with the three brands on my list of brilliant storytellers above. It works.

2. What is an authentic customer insight? If you’re focused on meeting company goals, you can’t successfully address what your customer needs. They come first. Always. A believable story begins and ends with your customer. Your insight should reflect this essential truth.

Arriving at an authentic customer insight does not require gobs of research money. If you know what the Socratic Method is, you have the tools to dive deep into your customers’ thinking to discover and address your their emotional wants and needs.

3. What is the company/product/service background? If you don’t ask this question, you will never understand why the company or product or service came into being. You need to be the equivalent of a brand archeologist. Move beyond features and benefits.

We advertising folk are storytellers. It’s in our DNA to fashion a story on behalf of the brands we are tasked to sell.

The details—the essential elements of your story—are embedded in the creative brief.

Storytelling is about basics. So is the creative brief. It’s the first step in developing your authentic brand story.

Can you explain your brand to a six-year-old?

Albert Einstein famously said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” Albert_Einstein_Head

The “it” is, well, whatever. Fill in the blank with anything: love, time, President Donald Trump.

Now I want you to substitute your brand for “it” and tell me if you can clearly and simply explain “it” to a six-year-old child. If you don’t have or know a six-year-old child, be careful how you answer. You will be using adult-speak in a heartbeat.

You’re being dismissive right now. I can tell. Do you truly know your brand? Can you explain it to a child?

Don’t laugh. Try it.

Uh-huh. As I suspected. It’s not so easy, is it?

This conundrum lies at the heart of why so many people who work with brands have difficulty being good brand communicators. How do I know this?

I’ve listened to experienced professionals at advertising agencies and Fortune 500 companies grapple with vocabulary to explain their brands.

Ask anyone responsible for devising a sentence called the “brand value proposition.” Ask anyone responsible for writing a brand “positioning statement.” Ask those responsible for writing clear, inspiring creative briefs.

Einstein was on to something with his insanely simple idea. Understanding how to do it would save boatloads of time, boatloads of money, boatloads of stress.

Consider this exercise, something I use in my college freshman composition class. Read the paragraph below, and tell me in two words, no more, what it is saying:

It is the opinion of the group assembled for the purpose of determining a probability of the likelihood of the meteorological-related results and outcome for the period encompassing the next working day that the odds of precipitation in the near-term are positive and reasonably expected.*

This causes my students migraines. First because they are not good close readers and second because their vocabularies are limited. Rather than looking up something they don’t know, they ignore it.

Herein lies another truth: If you ignore what you don’t understand, you are bound to perpetuate the misunderstanding.

This “exercise” paragraph is a tautology on steroids. A more technical term is verbal diarreha. It is an example of not knowing how to say what can be said in two words.

Can you explain your brand in two words? Two simple words that a child can understand?

If you can’t, you won’t pass Einstein’s simple test.

It’s probably costing you dearly.

Unknown

 

 

 

 

 

 

*The answer: Rain tomorrow.

 

To master the art of reviewing creative work, be like Spock.

As a new member of the faculty of the School of Marketing for the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), I will be traveling around the country leading workshops on how to write the creative brief. It is an opportunity I relish.

I’ve recently been asked to develop a new workshop on best-practices around reviewing advertising creative. Clients rightly want to improve their skills at critiquing the work they see from their ad agency or in-house advertising department partners.

This topic is a natural extension of the creative brief. The brief is the first step in the creative process, and looking at, and giving feedback on, the work that comes from the brief is the (hoped for) final step. Rarely, of course, does first-round creative work become accepted creative work. I am working mightily to correct this situation!

That’s why fine-tuning one’s skills in creative feedback is so important. A well-written creative brief can eliminate, or at least reduce, the likelihood of work that misses the mark. Possessing the skills and the insights to provide valuable feedback on the presented work also keeps the process on track.

The core message of my new workshop is: Be like Spock. Mr Spock

Even if you’re not a fan of Star Trek, I’m counting on your familiarity with this science-fiction icon. Mr. Spock was the finest First Officer in Star Fleet for a reason. He has much to teach us.

You’ll have to attend my ANA workshop to hear the entire story I present on creative review best practices, but I’ll offer you a small taste today.

So why Mr. Spock?

Because he was endowed with talents most humans only aspire to. He could remove his ego from any situation. He presented Captain Kirk with facts and evidence, not solutions. He always deferred judgment until he had the facts. We must–and can–emulate these skills to become masters of creative feedback.

My ANA workshop presents eight steps to mastering an effective creative review, but today I’ll share three:

1. Never use the word “I” when you give feedback on creative work.

Your only yardstick for reviewing creative is the creative brief. Your opinion does not matter. Creative review is not about you. Which means you must eliminate certain vocabulary when you discuss the work with your creative partners. Words and phrases such as “I like” and “I don’t like” and “good” and “bad.” These words have no place in a creative review.

Instead, focus on facts. Offer a critique, not criticism. Your mentor critiques. Your mother criticizes.

“I don’t like this color” is useless criticism. “This color does not align with the tone of the ad’s message” is what Mr. Spock might say. It is a concrete starting point for improving the work. It is constructive. You’ve removed yourself from the picture. You’ve squelched your ego.

The locus of your critique is the creative brief, which should be the source of information on the communication’s “tone of voice.” (There’s a box for that. If you don’t have one on your brief, add it. Now.)

2. You know too much.

This is perhaps the hardest truth for anyone on the client side to admit. You’re just lost in the weeds of your brand. Rightly so. You are the brand expert. The brand guardian. You have to know it intricately and intimately. Which means you do not have the necessary objectivity, by definition, to see what you need to see. Big head

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” you say. “I know all that. Remove my client cap and put on my consumer hat. This is old news!”

Good! I’m glad you remember this axiom. But do you actually practice it? I’m here to be your mother and remind you.

One best-practice technique I know many marketers insist on: They leave one chair empty and designate it as “our target audience” when they gather in a conference room to review creative work. How often do they remember to acknowledge its presence?

You do not have fresh eyes when it comes to your brand. Never forget.

3. You are not the target audience.

These are fighting words among some advertisers. Brand people, product people, client representatives—they all swear they use and love the products they sell. Uh-huh. I get it. Your point?

See #2 above. Numbers 2 and 3 are essentially the same message, but both phrases need to be said. Over and over.

All three points are different ways of saying the same thing:

TAKE YOURSELF OUT OF THE PICTURE.

You must know your audience better than anyone, but never believe this knowledge makes you the audience. This self-awareness will help you avoid costly creative mistakes.

THE CREATIVE BRIEF IS YOUR CHECKLIST. Remember to start and end with the brief. It is your guide. The work you evaluate must spring from it. It must be both the logical result, and produce the resonating emotion, of the brief.

If you stick to these simple rules, your creative partners—ad agency or in-house creative department—will have little cause to object to your comments and requests for changes. Your feedback will be based on facts, not emotions.

Because it’s always better to respond like Mr. Spock rather than Dr. McCoy. Piece3