Why “I” is better than “we” on a creative brief.

After years of preaching that the creative brief is about the content, not the template, I’m about to commit heresy. I’ve changed my mind. But only a little.

The creative brief template is just a set of questions, sometimes statements, requiring thoughtful responses. Emphasis on the word thoughtful.

Now I think that is not enough. Here’s why: The creative brief is, in the end, for the creatives. It’s meant to inspire them to creative brilliance. That part hasn’t changed.

The creative brief is also meant to be an inspiring document for the entire team to rally around. The “team” could be on the client side or the ad agency side.

But let’s look at the discipline from which the creative brief springs: account planning. At its most basic, account planning speaks for and embodies the consumer. The thoughts, feelings, aspirations, hopes, needs and wants of the human beings who buy the stuff we sell. The creative brief, therefore, addresses what we know about them.

So what if we changed the nature of the template to reflect this reality? I’ve seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of creative brief templates in my career. A tiny fraction do in fact take this approach. The vast majority do not.

What kind of change am I speaking of?

An adaptation, not a wholesale revision. A subtle, but significant, shift in thinking.

firstPOVsurfing

We need to introduce, or re-introduce, the first person “I” into the creative brief. I’ve seen plenty of briefs that use “we.” This is not the same thing.

The brief, after all, addresses the customer. The brief talks “to” the creative team, of course, but it’s “for” the customer.

Here are the questions I use on the creative brief template I teach in my workshops.

  1. What is the problem we’re trying to solve?
  2. Why are we communicating?
  3. Who are we talking to?
  4. What’s the background?
  5. What is the single-minded proposition?
  6. What’s the proof that the SMP is true?
  7. What is the key emotional benefit?
  8. What do we want people to feel after seeing the communication?
  9. What is the desired tone and mood?

These are the basics. I exclude things like budget, media, mandatories, copy points, approvals. Those things tend to be straight-forward. These nine questions require thought. (Some of you may wonder about the difference between #7 and #8. There is a big difference. You’ll have to attend my workshop or read my book to understand my thinking).

So what if we made a subtle change from first person plural (we) to first person singular (I)? How would this change the way we think about both the brief and the work it produces?

Let’s try it:

  1. Why are you bothering me with this communication?
  2. Why should I pay attention to this communication?
  3. Show me how well you know me.
  4. What do you know about me that I may not know about myself?
  5. What’s in it for me?
  6. Why should I believe you?
  7. Why is this important to me at a gut level?
  8. How will I feel after I’ve seen this?
  9. What am I supposed to feel about you?

Notice how I connected #8 and #9: they are meant to confirm each other.

In fact, if you look closely, using the singular first person connects many of these questions in a way that the royal “we” does not. It makes the brief feel more intimate. It’s less a brief and more a letter that requires…honesty, authenticity, truth.

Notice as well that #3 is no longer a question. It’s a statement. Actually, it’s a taunt, so it’s question-like. I could have phrased it, “How well do you know me?” But that’s not open-ended.

I like where this leads. I think it shifts our thinking from what “we” want to what our customer wants.2017 customer strends

I’m counting on you to revise and edit this further to suit your particular situation. I’m sure you could hone my questions to make them even better. Whether you adopt these question on your brief or not, I hope they make you think about how you craft this document.

It’s not a form to be filled out. It’s a thinking person’s document.

Who is the real culprit behind bad creative briefs?

The people who screw up the creative brief are not likely to read this essay. That’s too bad. They need a serious talking to.

The thing is, I don’t know who they are by name, but I do know their identities by title or role within a client’s organization. Notice I don’t mention ad agencies. While everyone, everywhere, struggles with getting this document right, agencies know its value and take it seriously. At least the agencies I’ve worked for, and the people I know who work for them.

Client-side marketers, on the other hand, still display a dangerous ignorance about the creative brief. An ignorance bordering on insanity. No, I take that back. They are insane. Crazy insane.

The document designed to transform brands—and to make these insane people look good—is routinely ignored, undervalued, sabotaged, or all of the above.

Why? I wish I knew.

But I know who is to blame. They commit the same error for the same reason:

Egoego

Which means my ranting will likely solve nothing.

Yet rant I will. I must. I have been called the “lone voice” on behalf of the creative brief. This is what a lone voice does.

The troglodytes come in three flavors, but share the same title: Senior Management.

1. They sabotage the creative brief process.

They sabotage because they can. They work like this:

Before the project has an official “kick off,” these saboteurs are either invited to review the creative brief, or asked to help compose it. They refuse. They ignore the request. They make excuses. They might beg forgiveness. But the result is the same. Their voice is not heard.

Then the creative brief emerges, and the next step occurs: the project kick-off.

The brief is discussed, or more likely debated for its lack of clarity and direction, but the driving force is always The Deadline. Usually yesterday. The work commences.

Then the work is presented, but not to the decision maker. Instead, to a less senior group. Some good idea rises to the top. Then it hits its first big hurdle. Senior Management (SM), who refused to participate in the opening stages, now steps in.

This is often when SM sees both the creative brief, as well as the creative work, for the first time. SM objects. The reason hardly matters. SM doesn’t like something. They revise the brief in some way, and that always means the creative work misses the mark. The process starts over.

Lost time. Lost enthusiasm. And what the SM should be most attuned to, but is not, lost $$$.

When a stake holder fails to get involved in the beginning, everyone pays…in the middle and especially in the end.shootinfoot

When there are multiple stake holders, it’s not unusual for no one to claim “final authority.” Worse, no one cares. Multiple turfs, silo-ed responsibilities, no collaboration. Everyone pays.

This is willful sabotage.

2. They don’t understand the creative brief.

All I have to write is: The Telephone Game. This is a simple visual.

You immediately picture a group of children…er…Senior Management. The one on the farthest left whispers something into the ear of the SM next to him. By the time the last in line hears the whispered message and announces what she has heard, the joke is on everyone. You know how this works.

But for reasons passing understanding, SM fails to grasp the concept. SM is convinced that a creative brief is not necessary. That everyone knows what the task is.

Even some veteran creatives buy into this nonsense. The rationale: We creatives often go without a brief and we manage to figure out what’s needed, and always deliver.

Bless you. My response: Why do you put up with it? Why do you become enablers?

No ad agency I know of works without a creative brief. Once in my past, I worked for a small B-to-B shop that did not use a creative brief. After months of pestering, SM relented, and instructed me to write the briefs.

Me, the copywriter.

Look what they have wrought.

3. They don’t believe in the creative brief.

I know, this is so close to #2 it may not deserve its own rant. But it’s a disease all its own. These troglodytes use the creative brief, but put so little stock in it that you might as well not have one at all. They are closer to #1 than #2 because this group of SM is likely to sabotage the process.

The primary difference between the saboteurs and the non-believers is: Influence.

Saboteurs dent morale, but the believers in the creative brief who work for them never lose faith.

Non-believers infect the entire organization.

I know this is flirting dangerously with religion, but the analogy fits. You have to put your faith in something that provides a rallying point. The creative brief is the logical and emotional center for the brand and of the creative process. These are its purposes. troglodyte

When you encounter troglodytes, you have to work especially hard to immunize yourself and your organization from their disease.

I have the feeling that you’re nodding in agreement with much, perhaps most, of what I’ve written.

“Alas,” you say, “what can I do?”

Here’s a thought: Print this out and leave it on the desk of your favorite troglodyte.

How to break the first rule of advertising

On July 19, the folks at Faktory, an ad agency in Utah, published a thought-piece on Medium.com. I liked it so much, I posted a link to my LinkedIn page. I still like it. A lot.

The premise is elegant and simple: If you want people to not only remember your communication, but to break what the writer described as the first rule of advertising (“No one looks for your ad”), you must connect with your audience in three ways:

  1. With a truth
  2. With an emotion
  3. With a story

Brilliant!

A truth is what I’d call an “insight”: something unique or previously unknown about your consumer, the marketplace, the product category, sometimes a combination of two or more.

An emotion is the deliberate evocation of an authentic feeling. This is what the best of advertising does so well. And so rarely.

And story. This is a narrative, they wrote, that rewards you at the end. They claimed it did not need to be linear. But they added a fourth point that I think was redundant:

Don’t mess [your audience] up by trying to say or do too much.

This is correct. But the good folks at Faktory veer off course just a bit. I think they should stick to three ideas, but enhance one of them. Specifically, point #3: a story with a message.

The definition of “story” after all, is: a narrative that arrives at a point, a resolution, a message. A story without a message isn’t a story at all.

The ads they liked so much—Old Spice #SmellLegendary—are in fact linear stories. Each has a beginning, a middle and an end. They may be absurd, but they are linear, and they have a point. I know this is what Faktory’s writer meant. smell

I have a name for this reward: The single-minded proposition.

Your ad (story) will not resonate if you have too many things to say. But one clear message, driven home within a compelling narrative, makes a memorable, and therefore effective, communication.

That’s why I would argue that the “rule of three” applies: A truth, an emotion, and a story (with a clear message). Do these three things, and you can negate Faktory’s astute “first rule of advertising”: No one goes out of their way to look at advertising.

Because some well-told stories have accomplished the seeming impossible: they’ve gone viral. People not only look for them, they even ask for them by name.

All I’ve done here is nit-pick. I’ve added succinctness to an otherwise strong argument. A story without a point is no story at all. It’s an example of your drunken Uncle Fred at the family dinner rambling on about…well, whatever. He has no point. But he loves the sound of his voice.

Here’s an example in :30. It’s a TV spot for Lexus, called, I’m sad to say, “Turning the Page.” There is no truth. No emotion. No single-minded story. It’s a spoken cliche reinforced with a visual cliche. What we used to derisively call “See–Say” advertising: see it, and because the advertiser believes the audience is stupid, say it, too.

Where do you find the elusive truth? The authentic emotion? The single-minded story?

If you’ve read my essays before, you know the answer: the creative brief.

This is where creatives find the inspiration for Big Ideas like #SmellLegendary and the other examples Faktory’s article highlighted. If you haven’t read the article, read it now. Re-read it. Talk about it. Make certain your creative briefs address each point.

Well done Faktory.

 

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.

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.

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*The answer: Rain tomorrow.