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.

How to convince your agency or in-house creative department to use a creative brief.

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

Imagine that I hand you two identical boxes that contain identical contents.

One of the two boxes comes with a set of instructions to assemble the contents. The second box comes with no instructions. Suppose I told you that you had exactly one hour to complete the assembly.

Which box would you choose?

If you’re sane, you’d choose the box that comes with instructions. Why make your like difficult, right? keep-calm-and-follow-directions-35

But that’s exactly what it’s like for the creative department when you give them a project without a creative brief. You handicap them from the start.

Why on Earth would any professional communications firm even contemplate handing over a communications project to its creative team without a set of instructions? Why? Would someone please explain this concept to me? Because I just don’t get it.

Yet it happens. Every week or so I get an email from a reader or fellow creative bemoaning his or her situation where the creative brief (ad-speak for “set of instructions”) either does not exist, is ignored or is given lip service at best.

There is more truth to the cliche that the worst communicators are people in the communications business. They’re outstanding at talking to everyone on the planet…except themselves. They know every trick in the book to reach this audience or that, but when it comes to commiserating with each other, they are mute. They think the rules don’t apply to them.

This is a sad state of affairs.

If the decision makers where you work wouldn’t try to assemble the contents of a box without instructions, and that stark fact doesn’t convince them to use a creative brief, what can you do?

I have some advice that could change their minds.

I have witnessed more spinning wheels when a creative brief is ignored or underutilized. Meaning that creative work is rejected internally or by the client, or both, because something was missing, something was overlooked. More often, something was simply not clear.

The result is predictable: The creative team is forced to go back to the drawing board, but not necessarily with any clearer direction. Sometimes this happens repeatedly. I have painful memories of one project early in my career where I revised copy 17 times before it was finally approved. I learned quickly not to take it personally.

There is another route. The creatives will actually figure out the project, deliver some good (maybe even great) work and everyone is happy. This happens more often than you might imagine.

The question is: Why must it be this way when there is an alternative?

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Here’s how you can fix the problem: Try an A–B split. ff_abtesting_f

If you’re not versed in direct response, this means that you conduct a test with two approaches to the same project: one team gets a creative brief, the other doesn’t. If the creative brief isn’t part of your agency’s culture, you’ll have to do your best to create a template and fill in the boxes yourself. You must acquire evidence to show tangibly what happens when a brief is a part of the project from the beginning.

My experience shows that a creative team working from an inspired creative brief delivers better work the first time with fewer re-dos and miss hits.

You may have to try this experiment without buy-in from your bosses. You may also have to do it on the sly. You absolutely must find a creative (or an account exec) so there is collaboration between the two groups. Creatives will leap at the chance to work from a creative brief if none is currently available. Account folks should too, but may need persuading.

If your agency is too small for multiple teams on the same project, then choose two projects with similar objectives, similar target audiences or similar creative tone.

The point is, build your case for the creative brief with experience using a creative brief. Specifically, you should be able to answer the following questions in the affirmative before the work is submitted for review:

1. Is the direction from a creative brief clear, resulting in focused creative solutions?

2. Does the single-minded proposition inspire good thinking?

3. Is there an insight about the product or the target consumer that also inspires good thinking?

4. Does the creative brief establish a yardstick against which creative solutions can be assessed? In other words, can you say for certain whether or not a creative solution is “on brief” or “off brief”?

5. Does the brief establish clear expectations regarding the tone of voice for your product or service?

You’ll notice that these five questions are variations of those you would find on a creative brief itself.

So how do you measure the results of creative solutions arrived at “with” a creative brief versus those “without” a creative brief? A degree of subjectivity is inevitable, but if the creative solutions (meaning the ad ideas or concepts) address these questions successfully, you have demonstrated that the set of instructions you wrote (the brief) delivered creative that followed those instructions. Sometimes, that’s proof enough of the creative brief’s value.

Essentially, you have shown that #4 is achievable: You’ve proven that creative can be assessed, and your brief is the yardstick. high-jump-bar

This is the most important criteria for any brief: You set the bar at a certain height and ask whether or not the work at least achieves it. If it exceeds that height, wow. What a benefit. If it underachieves, you have a way of discerning why (the standards established by the brief) and a way to fix what doesn’t measure up.

Without a brief, how can you know if the work is good enough? Even if everyone in the room agrees that the work is good, even great, can they say why?

Since no one created a check list in advance (another way to describe a creative brief), no one can say with assurance that the work they see fulfills any criteria.

Your creative brief becomes the check list. The road map. The yardstick. The standard to which you can point and ask, “Did we get it right?” yardstick-measure-ruler-inch

Don’t let another day slip by if your creative work place does not use a creative brief. Don’t deny yourself the opportunity to work with a set of instructions. It’s very possible to assemble a piece of furniture from Ikea without any, but why would you want to even try?

The creative brief doesn’t make producing ideas easy. Hard work takes care of that. But it certainly makes everyone’s life easier…if you put it to the test for which it was designed.

How to recruit a creative to collaborate on writing a creative brief.

It never made any sense to me that an account planner or account management executive would write a creative brief on his or her own. Yet it’s not uncommon. It’s also a mistake, one that many ad agencies are addressing.

If your agency or marketing firm is not one of them, allow me to suggest three steps you can take to recruit a creative (copywriter, art director or creative director) to be your creative brief-writing partner. I don’t mean a one-time team up. I mean a long-term partnership.

Creatives have had collaborating partners for decades. No one comes up with ideas in the vacuum of solitary effort. The results of creative collaboration reveal themselves daily in ad agencies and corporate environments all across the globe. You, the creative brief writer, must join the party.

1. Find the creative who complains the loudest (or most quietly) about the creative brief.

Before you make your approach, stop and listen. At your next briefing session, pay attention to who dislikes the brief you, or one of your colleagues, present. complainer-657x360

Be careful: The creative who likes a brief least may be the one who says nothing, but sits sullenly and steams. You may have to attend many such briefing sessions to figure out the most likely creative. You may know already without having to think about it.

Believe it or not, hhis is your best collaborating partner.

Understand, some creatives love to complain. They may never be happy with a creative brief. We see so few truly well written briefs that another bad one, even a mediocre brief, merely lives up to expectations.

When you find the right creative, the one who seems like the least approachable candidate, you have to have a plan.

2. Ask this “least likely” creative candidate what she hates the most about your creative brief.

Get your creative to commit to telling you exactly what he/she likes and dislikes most about the creative briefs you’ve written. If you work with the creative, you may already have heard these complaints.

No matter. Ask again. Ask with seriousness. Be proactive. Don’t wait to here complaints. Ask. Expect a clear, direct answer.

My guess is, you’ll disarm this creative by simply asking the questions.

But don’t ask “What would you have written?” kinds of questions. You’ll put the creative on the spot. They may or may not have a good response. Instead, ask process questions: What can I do to arrive at better answers? How could I frame the responses so you get more out of them? Do you have examples of briefs you thought were well written so I could study them?

Your preparing the ground for your ask. You’ll get a sense of how serious this creative is about a the brief, and whether or not the complaints you hear reflect a passion for the process or this creative is simply complaining.

You want to work with someone who cares about the process. Not every creative does.

3. Don’t ask for help. Challenge.

You’ve prepared your ground by asking pertinent questions that will show your creative colleague that you’re interested in making improvements.

Don’t ask for help. Challenge your creative to solve a problem. 30-Day-Challenge-Soldiers1

Creatives, after all, are problem solvers. You are too, of course; that’s why you chose advertising as your profession. But creatives define themselves by those two words. A creative is far more likely to step up if he knows there’s a uniquely difficult problem to overcome.

And remember your objective: To establish a collaborate partnership for the long term. To tap into a creative’s unique insight into the creative process to help the agency deliver selling (and award winning) creative solutions.

There won’t be a learning curve. Creatives work from briefs regularly and know the drill. But getting them to sit with you in the “fill in the blanks” stage will pose a new kind of puzzle for most creatives. Many may claim to have “re-written” lots of creative briefs in their time. This will tell you who’s speaking the truth and who’s blowing smoke. Once they face the pressure of committing words to these difficult questions, they’ll quickly learn what’s at stake.

One last suggestion:

Once you find your creative-brief writing collaborator, insist that he or she briefs the creative team with the brief you wrote together.


It’s about putting her money where her mouth is. When she sees how her fellow creatives react to a brief she co-wrote, or at the very least on which she collaborated, this will communicate to her creative colleagues that she has some skin in the game. It speaks loudly and clearly that your creative collaborator owns (or co-owns) this brief.

It’s called street cred. You’ll get some. The briefing process will get some. The work will get it.

Creative partnerships work. Art directors and copywriters function as teams because together they produce better advertising. Decades of experience proves this.

Creative brief writing must adopt this team-based collaboration now. You can take a step toward this goal. Use these three steps to find, approach and partner with the right creative colleague to make your next creative brief truly inspired.

5 questions transform the creative brief into a roadmap for entrepreneurs, SBOs and sole proprietors.

Typically, a creative brief is a document that advertisers and ad agencies use for a specific purpose. It has a set of questions whose answers guide ad agency creatives in creating communications, from single emails to multi-media advertising campaigns, and variations in between.

But this same document, slightly adjusted, has another role.

Consider these scenarios: You’re an entrepreneur with only a product idea or a new product idea. You have a small business with a minuscule communications budget. You’re a sole proprietor who wears every hat in the day-to-day operations of your business. Maybe you’re a combination of these situations.

A creative brief is not just an objectives document that a business hands over to an advertising agency or a group of freelance creatives to produce branded communications. Viewed from a broader perspective and with a bit of fine tuning, the creative brief can easily become your marketing purpose statement.

Think of the creative brief as an organizing platform for your thinking about:

  • Who you are as a business;
  • What you want to accomplish;
  • Who you need to speak to, and
  • How you go about conducting that conversation

A creative brief, in short, can be your business playbook, your roadmap, your brand rationale, your aspirational mantra. skewed-roadmap

This blank document, filled with insightful, perceptive thinking, can direct you and keep you on your path. It can be tested and updated as circumstances change. It is limited only by the breadth of your expectations.

So to help you see the creative brief’s possibilities beyond the traditional role it plays between advertiser and advertising agency, consider five questions.

The answers to these five questions open thinking and actions for entrepreneurs, Small Business Owners (SBOs) and sole proprietors (including freelancers, something I did with much success for half my career as a copywriter and creative director).

Let the answers to the following five questions serve your business. Write out these questions and answer them with honesty. Find a partner to help you craft thoughtful, insightful answers.

It won’t be easy. It shouldn’t be easy. The process deserves your focused energy and time.

1. Can you create a word picture of the person or group of people who would be the likely buyer of your product or service?

I’ve discussed this idea in previous posts, but using slightly different language. The idea is the same. You must know who you are speaking to before you can engage in a conversation that results in a sale. The more details you know about this person, or more likely this group of people, the easier it will be to speak to them.

Don’t use a list of bullet points. Let your inner creative writer emerge as you describe each unique kind of user or buyer in intimate detail. Is she your mother? Your best friend? Are you the ideal user? Why?

You must be able to look deep into the heart of your potential customer and understand what motivates this person to want your product or service. This is how you will find a unique insight. Make an emotional connection with your customer and you have a loyal customer. You will have achieved brand loyalty.

You know more than you think you know about the people who are, or will become, your best customers. But you have to make the effort to examine carefully what you know before you actually understand what you know.

2. Answer the question your customers ask: “What’s in it for me?”

If you can successfully answer question #1 above, you have one, perhaps more, customer insight, some golden nugget about behavior or motivation. This information allows you, requires you, to answer question #2. You have to think like the customer. It’s about their experience, not yours.

Put another way, it forces you to think about product benefits, not product features. In the course of uncovering a consumer insight, you are likely to confirm that a product feature results in a benefit for the reason you thought. Or you’ll discover what the true benefit is, which may be something unexpected.

Here’s an example: When I was creative director for the loyalty programs of a major global airline, we introduced a concierge service for its most elite flyers. The service itself was free, although patrons paid for what the concierge provided for them. We discovered that, while the concierge service itself was rarely used by the airline’s best customers, customer perception of the value of this service was high. It produced additional loyalty to the airline via increased fare purchases. This was measurable. It was a surprising insight, but it opened a window into how we communicated the concierge service to these airline customers.

When you can answer the “WIIFM?” question, you are thinking about why your customer buys and buys again. And again. It takes you out of your reverie about how great the product is, and gets up in your grille about why it’s important to the people who count: paying customers.

3. Can you keep your message single-minded?

As I remind everyone in my college composition classes, K.I.S.S.: Keep it simple, students!

Especially in an era of nano-attention spans, the simpler, more focused and concise the message, the better.

Think of a bed of nails: People can fall asleep on a platform made of hundreds of sharp points. Why? Combined, they do not hurt. Their sharpness is blunted by sheer quantity. Too many points and there is no point. bed-of-nails

But a single, direct, needle-like point always penetrates. Always gets through. Is impossible to ignore.

Your message must have the same attributes. In the ad world, we call it the single-minded proposition: The one key idea that your customer (potential or existing) will find irresistible.

What do I mean by “message”? It’s not just a paid communication like an email or an ad. It could be a speech to a group of investors. A pitch to your banker, a vendor, a potential employee. Heck, to yourself when you find it a challenge to face a tough day (hey, we all have them…)

The most memorable message is short and sweet. That’s one idea worth stealing.

4. Can you prove your message is true?

This isn’t about proving truth in a court of law. It’s about proving reliability or quality or effectiveness in the court of public opinion.

What evidence do you possess about your product that people who buy it love it? The possibilities include:

  • Testimonials
  • Research
  • Awards
  • Reviews (customer and professional)
  • Media coverage
  • Institutional (contracts with big companies or government agencies)

Any one of these pieces of “evidence” to support your product add up quickly into brand equity. Take advantage of them in every way you can. “Leverage” the heck out of them. j.d.-power

Use ’em or lose ’em.

5. Can you show some attitude?

Students of literature and writing understand this to mean, What is your voice? Every writer has one. It’s the distinct way the writer crafts sentences that make the style unique.

So what is the voice of your product? Your brand? What is its attitude? How does it speak to your customer?

Think of your own favorite brands. What are the single words that come to mind when you think about brands you love to own and use? How do you feel about them?

For example, what do you drive? A Ford? BMW? Each brand conjures a mood and a tone of voice. You probably know it. Some brand voices are iconic, part of our culture. You may not know the exact words the brand chose, but you know what you feel when you wear the brand, drive it, eat it or use it.

You need to create your product’s “attitude” and use those individual words or phrases to communicate what that attitude is. Your list should include no more than five words, each one different. No synonyms.


These attitudes about your product/service/brand also help keep you focused on how you think, believe and act about your product, both within your company and to the world outside.

These five questions, all of which emerge from the core of the creative brief, can play a transformative role for your business even if you never engage the services of an advertising agency. These questions form the heart of your brand.

You need some guideline or roadmap to keep you on track with your business’s aspirations. There is no need to search for some fancy-schmancy instruction manual.

The creative brief contains it all—in one, neat, easy-to-use package.


How to fix a bad creative brief, Part 2: The single-minded proposition

The single-minded proposition is like a magnet: When you brief your creative team, it’s the first thing that draws their attention. They go right to this box/question and they are not afraid to judge the writer of the creative brief based solely on the answer they find.

It’s a harsh truth. It may not be fair, but it’s reality.

So here are three of the most common errors I’ve encountered in my 30 years of reading creative briefs, and some practical suggestions for fixing them.

1. Your single-minded proposition is too vague or uninspiring.

As the focal point of the creative brief, the single-minded proposition (SMP) carries a lot of weight. Perhaps too much so. It’s a very difficult little bugger to write. It’s like writing a headline. In fact, John Hegarty, founding partner of Bartle Boogle Hegarty in London, says that crafting a single-minded proposition is like writing the first ad for the project at hand. So the pressure is on you to do it well.

Fortunately, Hegarty relieves the pressure a bit by adding that your “first ad” doesn’t have to be great, but it has to be good.

My first suggestion is to partner with someone from the creative department. Don’t try to answer this question without an ally to help you. Choose a copywriter, but even an art director can write a good line. Use each other as sounding boards, or as creatives prefer to call their partners, as BS detectors. You won’t land on a great SMP on your first try. You’ll need to go through iterations until you arrive at something inspired.

Next, be brave. Step up and take a creative risk. With your creative partner ready to react, you’ll arrive at a shortish sentence that aspires to “first ad” status. Listen carefully to how your creative partner fashions an idea for the SMP. You’ll start to get a sense for what creatives everywhere look for in an inspiring line. Then practice with your own ideas. 18833aefdcb1882007aacee5b7042bf9

The point is, say things out loud. Write them in your notebook. Share them. Get feedback. You won’t get good at a focused, inspired SMP without getting the clunkers out first.

2. Your SMP is a laundry list of benefits.

This is the “better safe than sorry” version of the SMP. Include everything and hope something is valuable.

The result is the resigned eye-roll from your creatives.

Again, collaborating with a creative department partner should prevent this. Also, remember that your single-minded proposition has earned its name for a reason.

Put another way, think of the SMP as a popularity contest. Among the short list of product benefits that are the most important, only one can be the winner. One benefit stands out among all the others as the most desirable, around which you can build a piece of communication.

That’s your single-minded proposition. Focus on the word “single” and you will never end up with a dual or even a triple-minded proposition. It’s not about how many cool benefits your product has. It’s about finding the one that touches the most hearts.

I like this analogy: In India, there are guys who can fall asleep on a bed of nails. You’ve heard about this, right? Hundreds of nails lined up just so and the sharp points don’t break the skin. You don’t have to be from India either. maxresdefault

But can you imagine falling asleep on a bed with a single nail where your pillow is? Or where you rest your derriere (that’s French for your bum by the way)? I don’t think so.

That’s your guide when you write the SMP: Keep it focused. Make it about one especially relevant, resonating, compelling idea. One point gets through. Too many points and you lose your audience.

3. Your SMP is a paragraph.

This isn’t quite the same thing as #2, where you list all the benefits. It might be focused on a single benefit, but it has not been edited. It’s a first draft of an SMP. It reveals a lack of confidence in your own ability to be clear. 231

I may sound like a broken record, but this is where you need to have a creative brief-writing partner, preferably someone from the creative department. Collaboration leads to editing and revising. Between the two of you, you’ll reduce that paragraph to a single sentence. Perhaps a phrase.

Better yet, try to make it sound like a tagline. Many a great tagline started as a killer single-minded proposition. That “first ad” inspired what became an iconic word or phrase.

The single-minded proposition is the hardest “line” to write on a creative brief. It won’t happen on your first try. Give it its due, and work with a partner to hone it.

Follow these tips and you’ll avoid having a broken or clunky SMP in the first place.

How to fix a bad creative brief, Part 1

The best way to fix a bad brief is to not write one in the first place. But stuff happens. Your first draft may be a clunker. That’s why it’s called a “first draft.”

So here is a checklist. Whether you look at it before you write a creative brief or after, keep these ideas in mind and you’ll put yourself on a path toward an inspired document for your creative team(s).

1. Always collaborate. Never write alone.

It’s a simple truth: two minds are better than one. Two is my ideal number, too. I like the idea of partnering with a colleague to write the creative brief. My first choice is to partner with a creative. If no one volunteers, it may be time to go recruiting. alone_teddy_by_hombre_cz

A word of caution: Just because you partner with someone doesn’t guarantee your creative brief will always be inspired. Even art director/copywriter creative teams produce less than stellar advertising concepts. The work is only as good as the thinking that goes into it. Ditto for a creative brief.

Give yourself a head start by working with a colleague. You’ll have a sounding board. If you work with a creative, you’ll buy yourself a little extra credibility when you brief the creative team(s) with your brief because the creative department now has a bigger stake in the outcome. The upsides are numerous. The downsides are negligible.

Together, you and your collaborator have a much better chance of producing an inspired creative brief. And when creatives like a brief, they deliver better work. That helps everyone.

2. If your communication objectives aren’t clear, neither is the brief. Start your fix here.

There are lots of places where a creative brief can go wrong. While creatives tend to look first at the Single-Minded Proposition, you as the non-creative member of the creative brief-writing team should start by looking closely at the box labeled “Communications Objectives.” It may have a different label on your brief, such as “Reasons why we’re advertising” or “Purpose of the advertisement.” Whatever it’s called, this box is where everything begins, especially the Single-Minded Proposition (more on that next week).

Objectives are the facts of the creative brief. They tell the creative team what has to be accomplished by the communications they are creating. They don’t tell them the “why,” however.

Still, lack of clarity here produces impenetrable fog later.

3. How many objectives are listed?

If you have four or more, chances are you have too many.  I think three is ideal, but you could have four if one of your objectives is “Reinforce the brand.” This is a foundational objective, meaning it always drives home the core message of the brand.

4. Are the objectives jargon free?

It is remarkably easy to slip in business lingo, marketing-ese, or insider-speak when you write a brief. It’s almost like a default language and you have to be on the look-out. You must be ever vigilant. Jargon kills an inspired creative brief. Always use clear, direct language, the kind you’d expect to read on your brand’s website or in an ad. Keep it simple! jargon

5. Does each objective create a specific expectation?

For example, if one of your objectives is to “tell your best customer about how your brand cleans better…,” ask yourself if the word “tell” gives your creatives clear direction. Is that the strongest verb you can think of to accomplish this task?

The stronger your verbs in this box, the clearer the objective becomes. Could you say “excite your best customer…” or “persuade your best customer…” or “motivate your best customer…”? The right verb in the right place changes things dramatically. It’s a small thing with a big impact.

6. Have you chosen the right product benefits?

Most brands have a host of benefits, the reasons why a buyer could make an emotional connection to the brand. But only a select few benefits stand out as essential reasons to buy.

One example I like to use to illustrate this point is the brand of chewing gum I buy: Eclipse Winterfrost. I buy it because I like the taste. That would be it’s #1 feature. So what is the benefit of great taste? The obvious answer is: My breath is always fresh when I chew it so I feel confident.

But I also like the convenient size of each piece of gum and the handy dual 9-piece holders. The size of each piece of gum is a product feature. The benefit might be that the gum is easy to chew and doesn’t overwhelm my mouth. The two 9-piece holders are another product feature. Their benefit might be that I can easily carry them in my pocket.

WEB-eclipse-Is either one, or both, truly a reason to buy this brand of gum? Perhaps, but I don’t think I’d want to create an entire ad around either of them. The benefits aren’t compelling enough. The feeling of confidence I get because I don’t have bad breath is more important.

So make sure the product features and their respective benefits correspond to a meaningful reason to buy. If you’re using the wrong benefits, or not the strongest benefits, your creative brief may not have credibility.

NEXT WEEK: How to fix a bad creative brief, Part 2—The Single-Minded Proposition

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

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

It’s the wrong question.

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

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

1. Business, marketing or insider jargon

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

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

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

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

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

2. Bullet points

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

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

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

Who are we talking to?

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

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

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

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

3. “See below”

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

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

4. Anything cut and pasted from the previous creative brief

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

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

5. Anything cut and pasted from the client brief

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

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

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

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

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

7. A third page

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

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

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

8. The kitchen sink

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

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

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

If you can’t explain what a creative brief is, how can you write an inspired one?

What is your definition of a good creative brief? If you work in advertising, marketing, PR or social media, and a variety of other fields, chances are you have a working answer.

Here’s a great answer from a book called What’s a Good Brief? The Leo Burnett Way, written in 1998:

“A good creative brief…

…is brief and single minded
…is logical and rooted in a compelling truth
…incorporates a powerful human insight
…is compatible with the overall brand strategy
…is the result of hard work and team work”

Okay, so that’s what makes a good creative brief. But what is your definition of the document itself? Forget the descriptors. What is this thing?

If you don’t have a definition, how do you know if your brief is good or great or inspired? If you don’t know what each of those five points above is, how do you know if you even have a creative brief?

Let’s take a break this week and define the document itself so we know when a great one lands in front of us.

The simplest definition I have is this:

A creative brief is an objectives document whose sole purpose is to spark relevant ideas for the creative team.

I like it. But does it explain all the points in the Leo Burnett definition, which, by the way, is pretty darn close to being definitive? No.

Remove the word “good” and focus on just “creative brief.” If you look closely at the Leo Burnett criteria, you have a solid working definition:

1. A creative brief is brief and single minded

The document reduces to its most essential elements the purpose of the job being assigned to the creative team. Therefore it must, by definition, be focused. It must get to the point. i_love_single_minded_tshirt-rb60739ffd3fb423785cc26764a500fbd_8nhmp_324

This idea often flies in the face of a product manager’s expectations. She sees her product as a “unique package of features” (a term I heard spoken out loud by a marketing manager some years ago).

No one buys a “unique package of features.” They buy a solution to a problem, real or perceived. A favorite shampoo makes your hair look just so. You feel sexy. Your car makes you feel successful or masculine or trendy.

The creative brief makes tangible what this “feeling” is and communicates it succinctly to the creative team.

2. A creative brief is logical and rooted in a compelling truth

A creative brief must connect the dots for the creative team, starting with the reason why a product is desirable. The brief must show the logic behind the product-as-solution, not just the emotion. In other words, a creative brief must tell a single-minded truth.

For example, the single-minded proposition on one creative brief for the soft drink Tango reads: “Join the Tango resistance.”

spockThe “logic” is the reason to believe the proposition. What facts can you present to the creative team to help them build their creative case? With Tango: “It is no ordinary soft drink; it therefore says something about you when you drink it. It’s controversial, daring and overt,” according to the brief.

3. A creative brief incorporates a powerful human insight

Staying with the soft drink Tango, the brief writer had access to an insight about who would drink this product: teenagers.

Teens, according to the agency creative brief, “take on a brand’s personality as a representation of their own. Therefore, if a brand has no personality, it’s impossible for (teens) to feel an affiliation toward it.”

The brief also makes clear that Tango’s history of being out of the ordinary had not been leveraged. The conclusion? “In order to gain a loyal consumer base, we need to give (teens) something that’s worth being involved with.” 5661_ideas_moderation_permalink-1

Although this product and its television campaign are dated, the brief stands as a towering example of being “inspired.” Go to YouTube and view the spot that arose from this brief. You’ll see a “compelling truth” in 60 seconds.

4. A creative brief is compatible with the overall brand strategy

A simple reminder: If you don’t have a strategy, you cannot write a creative brief. Strategy first, creative brief second.

5. A creative brief is the result of hard work and team work

Even in the late 1990s, Leo Burnett recognized the value of teamwork in writing a creative brief. No one writes ads by themselves. It is a process that involves a team: copywriter and art director.

No one should write a creative brief alone. At least two people should collaborate. I recommend an account planner or account management person plus a senior creative. iFPG9VCwIIohqdefaultBut even junior account people and junior creatives, pairing up, are better than a soloist.

These five criteria, for me, are the definition of both a good creative brief and, simply, the creative brief itself. A creative brief is not a creative brief if it does not accomplish these five objectives.

This was a review of basics. As if you were practicing lay-ups on the basketball court or doing barre-work in a beginning ballet class.

Professionals always return to fundamentals to polish their skills.

Ad agencies: Bad client briefs are your fault.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Take the initiative

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

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

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

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

goldfish jumping out of the water

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

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

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

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

The agency’s creative brief is the response.

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

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

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

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

3. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate!

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

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

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

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

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

5 classic creative brief-writing mistakes

mistakeI’ve read hundreds, perhaps thousands, of creative briefs in my nearly 30 years in the ad business. Certain mistakes always seem to repeat themselves. Follow this simple guide and you can avoid some of the more common ones that creative brief writers make everyday.

1. Don’t forget that a creative brief must wear its passion on its sleeve.

Brief writers sometimes forget that the creative brief is firstly a position paper. It serves as an advocate for the product or service. Ergo, it must be clearly partisan. 1355676754_1347_Cheesehead

Fortunately, I have never read a creative brief that wasn’t partisan. But I have read plenty of briefs that were decidedly unenthusiastic in their partisanship. Which is almost worse.

If you want to fire up your creative team, their fire depends on your fire. You must be fanatical in your advocacy. That fanaticism must come through in the words you choose, the ideas you express, the passion in the document itself.

If you want to inspire, remember that your brand zealotry must be on display from the first word to the last.

2. Don’t forget to make your communication objectives clear and inspiring.

I’ve identified three boxes or questions on the creative brief that serve as the heart of the document. Any one, or more, of these three elements that are weak and the document suffers.

The first of these three questions is, “What are the communication objectives?” There are variations on this question, but this spot on the brief is where the client and the agency have agreed on the main selling points of the product.

Typically, you don’t want more than three messages in any communication. Realistically, you want only two: the most important benefit of the product, and then a reminder of the brand message. I call this a “brand reinforcement.” Sometimes the most important product benefit and the brand reinforcement are the same thing, so you have the perfect storm for a communication: one clear idea.

Whether you have three messages or one, the classic mistake at this spot of the creative brief occurs when they are fuzzy, soft, uninspiring. This situation typically results when the language the writer uses lacks the element of zealotry I mentioned in #1 above. But it also comes about when the writer struggles to simply be clear.

My solution is to focus in on your choice of verbs. Verbs are the John Wayne of words. They’re all about action. The creative team is looking for inspiration they can act on. When you choose the precise verb to describe your objectives, you hone in on specific emotions.

John-Wayne-p15For example, what if one of your communication objectives reads like this: “Describe to the consumer how Brand X will make her feel…”? Is that clear? My answer is, compared to what? It’s an easy enough idea to understand, but where is the brand zealotry? Nowhere, in my opinion.

Now, what if you wrote this instead: “Seduce her with Brand X’s …..”

What’s the difference between “describe” from the first version and “seduce” in the second? An entire world of possibility. Both are verbs, but the second verb, “seduce,” is deliciously specific, entertaining, and far more inspiring.

So what’s in a verb? Plenty. Take the time to think about what action you want the creative team to make and choose your verbs accordingly.

3. Don’t forget to make your single-minded proposition clear and inspiring…and truly single-minded.

Box number two on my all-star list of three boxes is the single-minded proposition (SMP). It’s the hardest question to answer on the brief. And the one that carries the most weight. Rightly so.

The SMP emerges organically from your (short) list of communication objectives. When that list is boring and vague, chances are the SMP will be a chip off the old block.

Bad idea.

Now understand that the SMP isn’t merely a “cut and paste” from the list of communication objectives. It’s not that simple. You need to revise and massage the one communication objective that stands out into something of its own. Sometimes a truly well-written SMP can become a product tag line. Or even a concept.

The temptation for the brief writer to play it safe with the SMP can be irresistible. It can end up reading like either a laundry list of everything in the communication objectives, or a generic statement like this: “There is no other product on the market like Brand Y.”

Which may be true. But so what? No one cares that it’s unique. No one will buy it just because it’s the only one like it. They might buy it if they had a reason!

The SMP must provide that motivation.

4. You don’t need a research budget to find an insight about your product user.

These days, there simply is no excuse for not having some insight into the thinking and/or buying habits of your product’s user. Data is everywhere.

Even if you don’t have a research budget, simple Socratic questioning can lead the average advertising professional to remarkably astute deductions about the product’s users. And, therefore, a usable insight that creatives can employ as a springboard to a winning idea.

My technique is called a Deep Target Dive™. It’s nothing more than a laddering system that asks one pointed question over and over. Begin by asking, “Why would the SMP appeal to Ms. Product User?” When you arrive at the answer, ask this question: “Why would that be important to her?”

With each new answer, ask the question, “Why would that be important to her?” again. Ask it as often as you can. In a matter of minutes, you’ll arrive at an answer that is both credible and unique. This is your educated insight. Brought to you by a dead Greek. Socrates_Louvre

5. Don’t forget that you should not write the creative brief by yourself.

This is a relatively new concept, but one I’ve been advocating for years. Some agencies are adopting the idea of pairing an account person with a creative person to write the creative brief.

If this isn’t happening where you work, step up and suggest it. Better yet, just do it. If you’re the brief writer, find a willing creative and recruit her. If you’re a creative, no matter what level, volunteer to work with someone in the account management department.

Don’t stop with just writing the brief together. Team up and present the brief at the briefing session. You’ll turn heads and the creative and account teams will look at both the document and the briefing itself with new eyes.

The first four points are common mistakes. The last is a mistake only in the sense that writing a creative brief should never have been a solo effort in the first place. The very idea demands a team approach in the same way that the best creative comes from a copywriter/art director collaboration. In time, I hope everyone will see the inevitability of this step.

Happy brief writing!