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.

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

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

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

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

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

1. Submit a client brief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Participate in the briefing of the creatives.

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

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

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

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

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


What creatives can contribute to writing a creative brief

Writing a creative brief should never be a solo practice. It must be a collaborative process. This is not the same as creative-brief-by-committee, but it should be a team-assembled creation.

I confess that when I was a practicing copywriter, even a young creative director, I rarely worked with the account management or account planning teams to chisel out a draft of a creative brief. Only later, after I’d written an early draft of my book, did I offer to work with those lonely souls who wrote briefs.

If I were starting my career today, knowing what I know about the challenges of writing a great creative brief, I would do things differently.

That’s why I have compiled this list of what advertising creatives can contribute to the process of writing an inspired creative brief.

Whether you—copywriter, art director, graphic designer, creative director, web content manager….the list is long—are a novice or the senior player, you have something at stake in the outcome of the creative brief.

1. Step up. Don’t wait to be asked.

If you are a senior-level creative (creative director or higher), you probably already collaborate with your account brethren on the brief. If you don’t, shame on you. Start today. Volunteer-Hands-Large

If you are anywhere else on the ladder of experience/responsibility, from novice to mid-career and you do not work with your account team on the brief, start now. This is not only a great team-building exercise, it is a career-enhancing practice.

Take ownership with your account person of the brief-writing process together. Volunteer to help, even if it starts out as just proofreading the first draft. I guarantee that any offer to help will be accepted with enthusiasm. The more sincere the offer, the more likely you are to learn and play an influencing role.

You, the ad creative, already know the value of working with a partner (your art director or copywriter) to produce better work. The principle holds true with the writing of a creative brief. You might just use this idea if your account team member resists.

Art directors, don’t shy away because you’re not a writer. If you’re a good thinker and conceptor, you have honed your BS detectors and can see faulty thinking when you read it. My best art director partners over the years played this role with me. They admitted that they couldn’t write a headline, but they knew a bogus idea when they saw it.

2. Ask questions first.

I have little doubt that an account person whose responsibility includes writing creative briefs will turn down your offer to help. But there might be some skepticism, especially if there is any tension between the account and creative departments. You’ll know whether this is true or not in your agency or place of employment.

If there is some tension, start your collaboration from a place of honest inquiry. Ask questions about how your account co-worker approaches the creative brief. Use the Socratic approach: each question can be followed by another question as you figure out the process.


I suggest this as a way to gauge the reaction of your co-worker and especially as a preventive measure. The last thing you want to do is make pronouncements and sweeping statements, or worse, accusations about weak past creative briefs.

Your job here is to turn your expressed interest in collaborating into a workable and successful team effort to produce killer creative briefs. Rome, as they say, was not built in a day. Take it slow and easy.

3. Brief the creative team with your account co-worker/brief-writing partner

Trod new ground. Typically, it is the account team that briefs the creatives. Why not break the mold and brief together? You worked on the process with your partner. Ergo, you have insights from the experience of sculpting the finished draft.


Not only does this adaptation of the briefing process communicate a common stake-holding position, it demonstrates to both teams—account and creative alike—that the partnership is serious and sustainable.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received on how to shake up my thinking when I get into a creative corner was to stop and turn everything around 180 degrees. Look at your challenge from a completely fresh perspective.

Briefing the creative team as a creative representative of the creative-brief writing team will make everyone see the process differently.

4. Reciprocate

Invite your new creative-brief collaborating account co-worker into your creative space and show her early drafts of your ideas. Talk about how your thinking, based on this brief you worked on together, sparked the ideas you’re experimenting with. Ask for feedback. Talk. Question. Listen.

Most importantly, collaborate. Or rather, continue the collaboration you started when you were writing the creative brief.

The idea here is not so much to blur the lines between account and creative. That’s not truly going to happen. It’s to synchronize the thinking process between the key players.

If you literally start on the same page on the same day of a new task—writing a creative  brief together—you are far less likely, it seems to me, to get off track later on.


The act of listening

I’ve heard many definitions of a creative brief: It’s a contract between a client and its advertising agency, or between an advertiser and its creative team. It’s a road map. It’s a guide.

They’re all good definitions.

But I think I heard an even better definition spoken by someone who knows more about the subject than most people: Jon Steele. If you’ve read this blog, you know I’ve quoted him before. He’s a planner at WPP in London, and the author of Truth, Lies and Advertising.

This time I came across some remarks he made posted on YouTube in which he said that what we do as makers of communications (and here I think it’s safe to include anyone in the professions of advertising, PR, marketing and the Web among others) is all about listening.

Let me repeat that: It’s about listening.

I was struck by that comment. Because I think that’s a great definition of the creative brief. It’s a listening tool. It’s a repository of what the writer has heard and absorbed about a product or service from many sources: the client, which includes marketing people, product experts, sales representatives. And most important, what consumers say about the product or service, in the form of consumer insights.

All this information has to be distilled, or reduced, to be useful directions for the creative team.

Yes, this is where the writer gets to show off what she has learned about the product or service. But that can happen only after she has done some serious listening.

The best, most inspired creative briefs come from collaboration and creativity—of that there is little doubt—but to arrive at the moment of inspiration requires something as simple as letting it all settle in.

There’s nothing mystical about it I assure you. In his seminal book on creativity, A Technique for Producing Ideas, James Webb Young outlined the five steps every human brain follows to produce that “Ah-ha!” moment. The third step is to walk away. To allow your brain to go quiet and to distract it by changing the subject.

In other words, to listen.

Creatives will tell you that the best ideas come after this step. After they’ve stopped thinking so hard and just went off to do something else.

The creative brief succeeds best, I think, when it’s used in the same manner. The brief writer has to first absorb all the information available, distill it, talk it over with creatives if that’s now part of the process (and it should be), then synthesize it to create the brief.

If, as a brief writer, you truly allow yourself to pay close attention to all the input at your disposal about your product or service, you’ll produce a creative brief that accurately reflects the essence of the brand. You’ll have produced a valuable document that creatives can use as a catalyst for great communications.

All this from a document designed to be an effective listening tool.