Creatives don’t need a creative brief to do their jobs

I tip my hat to friend, colleague and fellow creative Paul Rector for his astute reply to my last posting.

Specifically, these words got my attention:

"…the number of projects I've worked on without a brief far, far outnumbered the projects I've worked on that had one. And you know what, the work got done."

No argument from me. Although in my twenty-plus years in the business, I never started a project without a brief, even if I had to write one myself.

The more accurate experience for me has been working on projects from mediocre to just plain awful creative briefs that required Sherlock Holmes-like deduction to figure out the objectives. I'd be willing to bet that Paul is nodding in agreement on that point.

The question I ask in response is, why would anyone even contemplate starting a project without the benefits of a creative brief?

Creative folks are, you know, creative and clever and would never allow the absence of such a document keep them from solving the problem with the same creativity and cleverness they'd bring to it if they had a creative brief from which to work.

Creatives are professionals. They thrive on a good challenge.

But when you don't give creatives the benefit of a tightly written creative brief, it's a lot like asking Tiger Woods to compete in a major golf championship and then removing the putter from his bag. Hey, he'll find a way to get the job done because he's Tiger Woods. He'd still beat the field.

But why handicap him? Think about how much more unbeatable he is with his bread and butter club.

It's not the perfect analogy, but it's darn close.

Why ask creatives to spin their wheels either because they have no creative brief, or by giving them a brief that isn't worthy of their talents?

Paul has correctly identified what ends up happening: wasted time because they're guessing about the target audience or they don't have a clue about the competition, or no one has bothered to identify or uncover a unique insight, which is the same as wasting the client's money. And that just automatically means off-the-mark ideas.

Eventually the creative team will figure things out. But is "eventually figuring things out" the strategy you want to be paying for?

The creative brief exists to take the guess work out of the first step in the creative process.

Creatives, don't settle for anything less than a well-written brief. I you have to, shame your account colleagues and write it yourself.

The top five reasons why you don’t need a creative brief

5. The freelance creative team/ad agency is brilliant. They’ll figure it out.

Maybe. If you’re lucky. Or you have really deep pockets and can afford top-tier talent.

But if you’re neither lucky or rich, experience tells me that very few people understand how to write a tight brief that inspires the desired results.

And even if you are lucky, rich or both, that’s still no guarantee.

Your creative partners may be very good at what they do in terms of creative ideas that sell. But passing the buck on the creative brief sets you up for problems, including wasted time and money.

The creative brief is a contract with your creative partners in which you explain in great detail what you expect and what you want the communication ideas to achieve. You may disagree on which of the ideas they present will work best, and that’s part of the process, but you’ll have a document against which to judge all the ideas to determine whether they’re “on brief” or “off brief.”

4. Everyone knows what we want to do.

Yeah, your people are all clairvoyant, too.

Your company consists of good people and they’ll have disagreements. You’ll discover this as soon as you write a draft of a creative brief.

The time to learn about those disagreements is before you spend money to hire advertising professionals, not after the ad team presents ideas and someone says, “Yeah, but we never show photos of club members with their shirts off. Didn’t someone tell the ad guys that?” (This actually happened to me when I presented work to a client in the health club business that showed a chiseled bodybuilder sans t-shirt. Nowhere in the brief was this little tidbit mentioned, and it could have saved everyone the embarrassment.)

3. We don’t do anything briefly around here.

You must be the people with the 1000-page Website.

Brief doesn’t necessarily mean fewest words possible. I’ve read well-written briefs that ran five pages.

Brief means concise, clear and with a point of view. It’s not a document designed for “everything and the kitchen sink.”

As a wise creative director once said, “Give me the freedom of a tightly written creative brief.”

2. We always just have a meeting and everyone takes good notes.

When was the last time you played that child’s game called “Telephone”?

An oral briefing is no substitute for a written creative brief. The two should go hand in hand.

1. The deadline is yesterday.

Ah, yes. You have no time to write a creative brief.

I saw a poster in the office of a print production colleague that reads, “Lack of planning on your part doesn’t constitute an emergency on my part.”’

I also remembered this one: “There’s never time to do it right but there’s always time to do it over.”

When you operate without a creative brief, you’re flying by the seat of your pants. Worse, you’re flying blind. That translates into wasted time, wasted money, wasted opportunities.

Get into the discipline of writing a brief before you hand off an assignment to your creative partners. Let them know that you know what you want, and why.

UK briefs versus US briefs

We’re not talking boxers versus tighty-whities here.

I was thinking about a critique I received after a workshop I delivered last summer.

“You have too many creative brief samples from UK agencies,” I was told, “and not enough from US agencies.”

The reason was, and is, quite simple: The best briefs are written by our British cousins. They invented the concept of account planning. They offer training in account planning which also includes crafting well-written briefs.

Ergo, they write better briefs.

If I had more well-written briefs from US agencies, I’d use them.

But I don’t. So I can’t.

What is a good creative brief?

This is from a book published privately in 1998 entitled, What’s A Good Brief? The Leo Burnett Way.

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

This definition is a brilliant starting point for any discussion on the “how” of writing a good creative brief. As you can see, the Burnett Way assumes you already possess an “overall brand strategy” before you even put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

No strategy? No brief. Get the strategy nailed down before you write a brief.

No brief? Don’t even think about asking your creative team to start the job of developing creative ideas. It’s a waste of their time and your money.

Let me repeat that: Starting a project without a creative brief is a waste of your creative team’s time and your money.

If you’re a creative, stand your ground and insist on a brief.

If you’re an agency account person, do the right thing. Write a creative brief, and ask for assistance and input.

If you’re the client, set an example and give your agency, in-house department or freelance team a well-written brief.

Who should write a creative brief?

None of us is as smart as all of us.

I came across this Japanese proverb just recently. It’s not meant as an endorsement of writing a creative brief “by committee.” (You’ve all no doubt heard the adage: A camel is a horse put together by a committee.)

I share it with you because, as I mentioned in my last post, creatives never concept alone. A writer or art direct may go off on her own to begin the thinking process, but she always meets with her partner eventually to swap ideas and get a reality check.

So why would a brief writer think about tackling the task in a vacuum?

I’m certain this notion doesn’t fit the reality of day-to-day life at most agencies. Yeah, well here’s a great example of change we can believe in.

Writing a creative brief by yourself makes as much sense as a copywriter doing creative without an art director.

I recommend at least two heads should come together to write a brief. Make it two account people or one account person and one creative. Or one account person and two creatives. However the mix is arrived at, give the creative brief its due by putting more minds on duty to write it.

Who, exactly, do you write the creative brief for?

I’m not being sarcastic or flip. This is a legitimate question, one that’s easy to lose track of when you write a brief. And it’s something I hear very often.

Obviously, the holistic answer is: everyone on the team.

But ultimately, the brief is written for the creative team, the creative director, writer, art director and/or designer. Anyone in the creative department who’ll have a hand in producing the work to be presented internally first, then to the client.

Yeah, I know: duh.

But think for a minute. If you write the brief for your boss or immediate supervisor (someone higher up on the account services chain of command) you’ll end up using different vocabulary than if you write the brief for creatives.

Prove it, you say.

Okay, next time you have to write a brief, make it your mission to meet with the team (writer & AD) who’ll do the work. Tell them you’d like their input before you write the brief (give them a moment to recover their composure since they’ll never have heard these words from an account person before).

Then listen carefully. They’ll tell you in phrases and words you’ll want to write down and remember how to compose the brief.

Do this often enough, and a couple things will begin to happen. First, you’ll establish a new and better relationship with your creatives.

Second, your briefs will be clearer and tighter because you’ll be feeding back to your team the words you heard from them.

You don’t have to accept everything out of their mouths verbatim, of course. Make it a discussion, with give and take, until you arrive at agreed upon terminology that everyone understands. No guessing, no assuming, no clairvoyance required.

But I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what you discover. Best of all, you’ll make the task of writing a brief a team effort, or at least as much as that’s possible.

The last thing you really want to do is write a brief all by yourself. That’s usually how it’s done because of time issues. But it’s a mistake.

Creatives always do creative as a team, writer and art director. Two heads, not one. Brief writers should follow suit.

Rule of Thumb:

Write to the people who produce the work, not those who support them.

Rocket science not required

Ah, the creative brief. The Rodney Dangerfield of business documents in the ad world. The document everyone loves to hate, that creatives love to ignore, that planners love to futz with, that account folks wish would just, you know, go away.

It doesn’t have to be thus.

So vent here. Share your successes, your horror stories, your ideas, suggestions and comments.

I’ve had more than a few years of experience reading, working from, complaining about and helping others with the creative brief. I hope this blog will be a repository of insights and advice to make the lives of those of us who write creative briefs a little easier.

I’ll include articles, links to other sites and invite others with expertise and experience to weigh in from time to time.

For the record, this blog is affiliated with The Path to Pow! A workshop on writing inspired creative briefs that I started last year.