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:

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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.

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.

 

 

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

Brainstorming does not work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professor Thompson made this remarkable observation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old-school brainstorming is dead.

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

When your creative brief process is broken and how to fix it.

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Beginning writers tend to learn a lesson about plagiarism the hard way. They commit it unintentionally. They didn’t mean to quote an author without giving him or her due credit, but…

Unintentional plagiarism, I can attest from years of classroom experience, is the most likely kind of plagiarism a college freshman blunders into. The problem is, it’s still plagiarism and they still fail the paper.

The analogy works for a broken creative brief process. The participants, whether they’re in an ad agency or the marketing department of an advertiser, often have no idea their briefing process is broken. They didn’t mean to mess it up, but they did. Something isn’t right, and they keep chugging along hoping to muddle through.

It’s not unlike the definition of insanity: You keep doing the same thing over and over and hoping for, well, you know the rest.

So how can you tell when your briefing process is broken? What are the red flags?

Look for these four warning signs. In fact, if you recognize even only one of them, it’s time to address your creative briefing process before it does, in fact, break.

You Know It’s Broke When:

1: The people who work from the brief roll their eyes after it’s presented.

That’s an exaggeration. The people who work from the brief, and this is the creative people, are a difficult lot to begin with. They love to complain: about bad briefs, bad coffee, bad shoes. They complain because it’s in their nature. They tend to be jaded and borderline cynical. Okay, forget borderline.

They complain about bad briefs, especially, because they read them so often. They may in fact respond to any brief with an exasperated sigh. It’s reflexive. They can’t help it.

But if this happens frequently and is followed by a rush of questions of a certain nature, you’re in trouble.

These questions tend to look like this:

“I thought you said we couldn’t…”

“Are you sure you mean it this way? Last time you said…”

“Why is this okay now? Last month…”

“But I thought they hated (insert color/celebrity/location/idea)…”

“Wait a minute. That single-minded proposition has two/three/four ideas. Which one do they really mean?”

2: The parties do not agree on content.

You Know It’s Broke #2 is a subset of #1. Even if you can satisfactorily answer all the questions posed by your creatives after the briefing, you may not have a salvageable brief.

Those questions—and the underlying attitude of skepticism—tend not to be addressed to anyone’s satisfaction, and are a symptom of the broken process.

The fundamental premise of the brief comes into question. One of two things can happen.

First, the briefing ends in disagreement and creative go off and write their own brief, even if it’s not a formal document. They devise their own Single-Minded Proposition and that becomes the brief.

Sometimes this actually works. But you won’t know it even happened until the day the work is presented. If the work does not meet expectations, the Creative’s Creative Brief Syndrome is typically to blame (that’s my fancy term for the creative department’s DIY brief. Which you don’t want).

I know. I’ve committed this heresy myself, although only a handful of times. I’d say my batting average was above .500. That’s exemplary if you’re in the Majors. It’s horrible when you bomb in a creative presentation.

The second scenario, and the more likely outcome, is that the creative team leaves the briefing confused, and that’s what the work looks like when it’s presented. It’s a perfect illustration of “garbage in, garbage out.”garbage-in-garbage-out

These situations are why I wrote my book on the creative brief. It was the result of feeling utterly frustrated because my creative department operated either without a formal brief altogether, or we functioned with a brief that one or more players did not fully embrace. Any process is only as strong as its weakest link.

3: Only one player in the process writes the creative brief. This situation will almost always guarantee Reasons 1 and 2 above.

You Know It’s Broke #3 stands independent of the first two. It’s a symptom of old-school silo-ing, a tradition that dates back decades.

The creative departments of major ad agencies know first hand about the silo effect. In the 1950s and into the 1960s, most creative departments did not have “teams” of art directors and copywriters. They were separate departments. The did not talk to each other.

Geniuses like Bill Bernbach changed that. Copywriters and art directors were teamed up and expected to work together. The results played a seminal role in producing the Golden Era of advertising in the 1960s.

silosAccount and brand planners have wised up in recent years. They have been moving away from working independently as the owners of the creative brief and have advocated for cross-department collaboration. The principle that works so well in creative departments applies here.

If the author of the creative brief in your place of business works alone, even if she works with a partner in the same department, chances are you have a broken creative briefing system, or one that is sick and needs 911.

If creatives have no role in the process, they have little at stake. If they collaborate on not just writing the brief, but then also play a role in briefing on the brief they helped author, things change. Drastically and dramatically.

4. The reviewers of the creative work don’t know how to review the creative work.

The ability to offer clear feedback on the creative work is an absolute job requirement. There is no excuse for being inarticulate or afraid to hurt someone’s feelings.

Rest assured, advertising creatives are professionals. They have thick skin and can take criticism.

Still, being a critic is not easy. It takes finesse, patience and practice. Especially practice.

So I recommend that you practice. A lot. You don’t become adept at writing a creative brief by doing it once. Or even 10 times. You must write them dozens of times and even then you’ll learn something new with each attempt.

Find a piece of creative work not connected to your job or your brand. It could be a TV spot or an email.

Critique it. What do you like? What doesn’t work? Make a list. Write down your thoughts. You don’t have the creative brief against which to judge it, so use your savvy as a consumer.  You are, after all, a consumer.

Team up with a creative in your department or at your agency. Work one-on-one with a piece of neutral creative (meaning something neither you nor the creative is connected to) and ask questions about how to review it. Believe me, your creative partner will have some thoughts and won’t be afraid to speak them out loud. This is a learning opportunity for you.

The point is, the only way to become proficient at reviewing creative is to review it.

Remember the old joke: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

Step back and ask yourself some tough questions about your creative brief and the process of briefing. If you suspect any one of the symptoms I’ve discussed above, it’s time to reexamine your process.

It’s better to think inside the box.

A killer creative brief is hard to write. It should be hard. It’s supposed to be hard. If it were easy, no one would complain about the dearth of good creative briefs. And creatives love to complain about bad creative briefs. complainer-657x360

Ergo, writing a good one is not easy.

Is that why so many are poorly written? Because expectations are so low?

Perfect, at least some of us have come to know, is the enemy of the good.

Many authors have been attributed to this line: “I would have made this letter shorter, but I didn’t have enough time.” Some credit Mark Twain. Others Cicero.

Constraints force us to make choices. The best of us respond to the challenge. Too often, the creative brief writer throws up his hands and gives in to the temptation to include everything for fear of missing something. As Oscar Wilde would say in response, “I can resist anything, except temptation.”

To write a killer creative brief requires courage, confidence and brevity.

Next time someone (your boss, the client, a weak-minded account type) encourages you to add more to your creative brief, make them talk to the hand. Then recite these three reasons:

1. Liberating Constraint.

Force yourself to keep your brief to one page. That doesn’t mean a two-page brief is automatically bad or wrong. It simply means you are conscious of the need to find the essence of a product’s message.

The concept is called “Liberating Constraint.” When you force yourself to be reductive, you open creative doors. When you agree to reside inside a self-imposed “box,” the experience frees you. There’s a ton of research to back this up. prison-bars-image

You are not writing a user guide. You are writing explicit instructions to the creative team. The brief is designed to give them a push, point them in one possible direction, spark their thinking.

The brief is the first step in the creative process. Get the creatives started, then step back and let them do their jobs.

Ultimately, this means you must make choices. You must edit. You must be selective. You must be, well, brief.

Your goal, always: One page.

2. Two pages: No! Two minds: Yes!

Whomever writes a creative brief is not weak of heart. You got game. You strut. Even if inside you’re quaking in your boots, you don’t show it. You gotta exude confidence.

This is precisely why writing the brief is never a solo project. You must collaborate. It’s not the work of a committee, but rather of a dedicated team.

Compare this process to what creatives do: an art director/graphic designer pairs with a writer, and the two of them play a kind of creative ping pong. Ideas bounce back and forth between them. Some are rejected, others are kept to explore further.

The creative brief demands the same dual-minded attention. You share responsibility for the document. You both take credit. Which means you also must accept blame for a poorly written effort.

Hey, creatives routinely present lame ideas. It happens. Truth be told, they are often the ones who know their best from their worst ideas. The difference between creative teams and brief-writing teams: Brief writers create a single creative brief. Creatives always present multiple ideas. Oh well. Get used to it.

3. When the brief-writing team includes a creative, creatives now have a clear stake in the process.

When account or planning folks were the sole proprietor of creative briefs, that essentially set up a “them vs us” mentality. It was a lot easier for creatives to diss an even moderately bad brief. Why not? They had no skin in the game.

Make a creative part of the brief-writing process, and all that changes. As it should be. Creatives now own a piece of the effort. And when a creative assists the account or planning colleague in the briefing process, fellow creatives quickly realize their brethren is on board.

It makes a huge difference.

Liberating Constraint is my main message here, which clearly covers points 1 and 2.  But point 3 is a benefit, and creatives by nature will help keep the brief-writing process focused and concise. Creative always exist inside a box of one kind or another: a :30 spot, a one-page ad, any communication with a time or space limit. These are all examples of constraints. how-to-expand-your-comfort-zone

Thinking “outside the box” has become a horrible cliche that means, well, I have no idea what it means any more.

Thinking “inside the box” means self-imposed limits. That’s a great definition of a creative brief. It’s no guarantee that the document will be well written, much less inspired. But at least it won’t take very long to discover that fact.

Practice Liberating Constraint whenever you write a creative brief. Force yourself to make enlightened, insightful choices based on your brand story. Your brief will be more inspired. And so will your creative teams’ work.

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?

Every creative brief needs to be dangerous and unpredictable

warning_sign_boldTypically, inspiration arrives unannounced, often from unexpected sources. So it was when I read Michael Dukes’s first professional blog post the other day on Medium. He wrote about how to inspire creative ideas. I tip my hat to a fellow creative and say “thank you” for your inspiration.

The creative brief gets the creative ideas started. At its most elementary, a creative brief is an eloquent, focused set of instructions. It can be written for an advertising agency’s creative teams, a small business owner’s marketing team, a firm that hires a couple of talented freelance ad people. Whoever works from a creative brief needs this document to find a spark of an idea that heads her down the right path toward a relevant, insightful creative solution that sells.

Thanks to Michael Dukes’s thoughts on finding those ideas, here are my own thoughts on how to inspire any creative person who needs the best set of instructions possible to achieve her objectives. Notice how similar the points are along both paths.

These four thoughts are minimum requirements before you even begin to write a creative brief:

1. Abandon your comfort zone.

If a creative brief is to succeed in inspiring its readers, it can’t be a rote document. Translation: Cutting and pasting from a previous brief is a mortal sin.

A brief is simply a template that asks for relevant information. If a template lulls you into a rut, change the template. Ask the same questions, but use different words.

If your brief template has 10 blanks to fill in, eliminate unnecessary questions and make the document work harder with fewer words (see #2 below). You could even ask additional questions, as long as they force you to become more deeply focused.

Who says you have to write only one brief per project? There is always more than one way into a creative solution. Creatives are required to present multiple ideas. Creative brief writers should be too. how-to-expand-your-comfort-zone

Don’t let the template become your prison. Change it regularly to keep it fresh. Creatives who read and work from the document won’t be expecting that. If creatives and account folks collaborate on writing briefs, this idea will be easier to execute.

2. Impose limitations.

This is a favorite mantra. The imagination works harder and more effectively when it is constricted. “Think outside the box” is a stupid cliche. Think not only “inside” the box, but make the box as small as possible. I’ve written about this before. I am likely to return to it.

The creative brief is a reductive exercise. Resist the temptation to fill it up with useless information just to make it seem weighty. How little information can you provide and still spark killer ideas? You’ll never know unless you collaborate with creatives to test your powers of conciseness.

Let this be a kind of “Goldilocks” creative brief test: Keep reducing and editing the document until it’s just right.

3. Make it a struggle (for the creatives, not you)

Tom Jordan, now retired as CEO and Chief Creative Officer at Hoffman York in Milwaukee, gave me some of the best advice of my career when I worked for him in the late 1980s. He said that good creative ideas draw the circle, but don’t complete it.

In other words, they leave just enough unsaid to draw the reader/viewer/listener into the story. You must trust their intelligence to figure out the rest. It’s harder to accomplish that it might seem.

This is excellent advice for creative brief writers, too. The brief’s job is to inspire the work, not do the work. Its purpose is to find the nugget of an insight that will open imaginative doors for creatives.

A good brief makes the creatives grapple with new thinking, not by burying them with useless information, but by handing it to them in an unfinished state.

Easy? No. That’s demonstrated in the dearth of well-written briefs. Don’t let that frighten you.

4. Expectations are low, so you have nothing to lose.

If you’re old enough to remember the comedian Rodney Dangerfield, you recall his famous line: “I get no respect.” He speaks for the creative brief. It’s a document everyone loves to hate. Sad, but true.

DSez300_400x400So change that. Start by teaming up: one creative, one account person. Everyone must have skin in the game. Make a pact to raise the bar on expectations. The way to think differently about the creative brief is to, you know, think differently. The process has to begin somewhere.

Why not you? Why not now?

This isn’t rocket science. This is about fundamental insights and clear thinking, two attributes that all communication professionals possess in abundance.

Dangerous and unpredictable creative should be everyone’s goal. Start with a dangerous and unpredictable creative brief.

50 years after its invention, the creative brief needs some fixes.

The creative brief dates to the early 1960s when account planning was introduced to the advertising world by a Brit named Stanley Pollitt. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the creative brief. Its role in developing great advertising deserves recognition and, no disrespect intended, a review. All good things can be improved.

As both an admirer and advocate of the creative brief, I offer a small gift to this document’s long history: Some ideas to make the creative brief better.

1. Consumers make decisions about brands based on their feelings, not their brains. The Single-Minded Proposition must reflect this truth.

This is an insight that is not new, but is slow to be embraced. Some account planners and academics have been writing about this topic, and I have written about it without being fully aware of the research. Professional experience, however, is hard to ignore.

Too often, we accept single-minded propositions that focus on rationality, on a mistaken belief that people make decisions based on facts and evidence, that we act reasonably. The process humans follow to arrive at a buying decision is sloppy, filled with irrational thinking, often contrary to our own best interests. Branding would not exist as we recognize it today if it were not because of this odd path we take before we open our wallets.

We must, therefore, change the way we view the core of the creative brief—the single-minded proposition. Some argue that the “single” nature of this idea is a relic, and there may be some truth in that, but I believe the most important argument here is the missing, or under-representation of, emotion. faces-small

It’s a scary thing to place so much weight on a hard-to-measure part of human psychology. The good news is, measuring emotional responses is actually getting easier, and more social scientists are exploring it, with fascinating results.

Advertising driven by direct appeals to emotion also works better. It is often more engaging, more humorous and more memorable. Refer to the link above for evidence and its nearly five pages of references.

The single-minded proposition is dead, as I suggested in a recent post. It must be replaced by an updated single-minded proposition that embraces the human nature of decision making: The messy, dynamic, more trustworthy emotions that make us who we are.

Just ask any creative. She knows from experience.

2. Creative brief writers must become better writers.

We must all become better writers, but this is especially true for communications professionals.

Please don’t mistake this as a plea for better headline writers. Anyone can write a headline. For proof, visit a parking lot and see how many clever personal license tags you can find. writer-1-300x300

Good, clear writing is a direct result of good, clear thinking. The creative brief is the first step in the creative process. It is the first ad written for any new communications project. It is the inspiration for the creative team. It must carry this weight with grace.

A poorly written creative brief is uninspiring for one reason and one reason only: Lack of clarity.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, lack of clarity is not, repeat not, because the brief fails to offer “outside the box” thinking, a term that has become meaningless; worse, it is simply dumb and wrong.

Lack of clarity means incoherent, unintelligible, not particular. It means fuzzy, blurred, unsharp. Good writing makes ideas coherent, intelligible, particular. Good brief writing makes coherent ideas sizzle.

Creative brief writers must be dedicated practitioners of the art of clear writing, first and foremost.

3. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate.

Less is more does not work in this space. Creative teams are called teams for a reason. Isn’t it about time we initiate creative brief teams?

If you have a stake in the outcome, you vest yourself. It’s time for creatives to take an equity stake in the document they love to loathe.

4. Re-new your vows to the creative brief.

I came across a blog post from a thoughtful account planner who suggested that the creative brief had outlived its usefulness and that in its place, clients, agencies and creatives should substitute a freer, uninhibited approach to producing creative solutions: A kind of “divergent thinking meets convergent thinking” informal brainstorming session.

I found myself shaking my head for the nth time. Someone is always trashing the document when the problem, in fact, is the content and the content’s originators.

No matter who complains about the creative brief, the complaint is rarely different: It doesn’t inspire enough. It doesn’t propel good thinking enough. It doesn’t work hard enough. It doesn’t do something quite enough.

To my thinking, this misses the point. The document is simply a place holder. It is ultimately only as good as the answers its questions provoke. Asking better questions might help, but that is the easy part. Producing better answers is my response, and it is definitely the hardest part.

Don’t blame a poorly imagined story on the document in which it resides. Look at yourself, the story teller.

transmutation_circle_part_1_by_orbita2k2-d5mkp26Renew your vows to this instrument of inspiration. Believe it can perform alchemy and it will. It is a blank space awaiting…

 

10 ideas to polish your creative briefs.

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

1. Get out of the office! Live!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Never forget the basics.

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

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

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

5. A creative brief is essential to good storytelling.

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

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

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

6. Never submit a first-draft creative brief.

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

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

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

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

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

7. Always have a point of view.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Seek feedback. Always.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few nuggets to polish your brief writing.