When creatives get no creative brief I just want to hurl!

This is a personal rant.

Whenever I'm part of a project where the creatives are handed some documents at a background meeting and it's called a "briefing" I want to scream and pound my head against the wall.

No one is fooled.

It's bad enough when one team of creatives is tortured by, um, subjected to this kind of treatment. But when multiple teams are sent their merry ways to concept with a hopelessly vague charge, it's just a crime.

The only redeeming thing about all this is that creatives have an uncanny ability to pull rabbits out of their hats. Over and over again. Such that everyone—planners, account people, even the creatives themselves—gets into the habit of planning for a miracle. Hell, they expect a miracle.

Why does this happen?

Is it group think? No one wants to speak up? Ingrained company culture? People like to spin their wheels? Or watch the creatives squirm while they're performing miracles?

Yeah, I realize I'm screaming into the wind. But I gotta ask.

Personal rant over.

What does developing 35mm film have in common with a creative brief?

Back in the days before digital cameras, photography buffs used a thing called 35mm film. Anyone remember it?

It came on a small roll and you had to physically load it into your camera. The process required you to spool the leader onto the camera's take-up reel which had teeth on it designed to grab the rows of holes on the outer edge of the unexposed film. It wasn't difficult, just something you had to practice.

When you shot your roll you rewound the film and took it into your local camera shop.

Or, if you were a true purist, you learned to develop the film yourself in a home darkroom.

Writing a creative brief is just like developing a roll of film.

The hardest part of developing a roll of film is the first step: getting the exposed film onto the take-up reel.


If you've never done it before, here's what it entails: 

First you have to fit the leading piece of the film between a pincer-like holder at the center of the reel, which you can see in the photograph provided. Then you have to spool the film gently onto the take-up reel, making certain the film never touches any part of the rest of the roll as you wind it onto the reel. You must allow space for the developing solution to wash over every part of the film.

Once you've successfully wound the entire roll of film onto the reel, you place it into a metal canister and secure the top onto it. Again, refer to the photo.

Then you can begin the process of developing the film by pouring in your developing solution. The hard part is over.

Sounds easy, right?

Except for one minor detail.

You have to do this entire procedure in the dark.

Any exposure to light and the film is ruined.

And here's the main point I'm making:

You won't know if you've done it correctly until the very end, when it's too late to correct any mistakes.

Which means you have to practice. A lot. Or you risk ruining all those shots you took of your daughter's 2nd birthday party.

That's why developing film is like writing a creative brief.

If you get the brief wrong, the creative work you see at the end of the process, when your team presents it, will also be wrong.

Does this actually happen in the real world of advertising?

Yes. More than people realize. 

It happens because briefs are rushed, not well thought out, not well researched or all of the above. It happens because the team never got a brief in the first place so there's no standard against which to measure the advertising.

The worst examples of this scenario usually happen when the creative is presented to the client. Everyone is on board, everyone is excited. Until the client speaks up and says, "but that's not what we want to say."

Writing a creative brief, whether you're the client who's hired an ad agency or creative freelancers, or you're an account person responsible for writing the brief for your creative team, requires practice.

Remember that old joke: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Clients big and small: Writing the creative brief is not just for your agency!

This point is a sub-set of the "who should write the brief" issue.

I've encountered too many clients who don't bother providing any kind of brief to their advertising agency or creative consultants.

This is a huge mistake.

Writing a creative brief for your creative team puts you, the advertiser, in the driver's seat. Call it whatever you will–communications brief, advertising needs brief, "how to make my advertising better" brief–you need to write something to get the process started.

Your creative team (agency or freelancers) will likely write their own creative brief as a way of articulating back to you, the client, that they understand what the project is all about. (If they don't, you might want to reconsider your relationship.)

Don't be concerned that the brief you get back looks nothing like the brief you submitted. You hired the agency or creative consultants for their professionalism and expertise. Trust them to do their jobs.

Your briefing document should be clear about three things in particular:

1. Tell your agency what you expect the advertising to accomplish.

If you say, "increase sales by X%" that's not too helpful. No agency accepts an assignment from a client with the expectation of seeing sales go flat or drop. Up is a given.

But if you say, "Last year a competitor introduced a new product and we saw our sales go down by X%, so we need to respond" that's a specific problem your creative team can get its head around.

2. Tell your creative team who your product is for, as specifically as you can.

The more you know about who buys your product, the better of you are at targeting a relevant message.

Try to avoid generalities and bullet points. Draw a picture of a particular consumer, an individual. Use specific words to describe who he or she is.

Here's an example of what I mean. It's from a brief written by a UK agency, hhcl/red cell, for a supermarket chain called Iceland:

"Think of the typical, hard-working Mum trying to feed a demanding family on a tight budget. Iceland is a godsend to them with its amazing deals and the advertising draws them in on a regular basis. However they either go straight for the deals or look for favourites, rarely taking the time to browse and find all the new things Iceland are introducing.

"They are family and house proud, live vicariously through celebrity gossip magazines and soaps, have a wide network of sassy Mum-friends (these Mums are surprisingly switched on and 'street smart') and are always looking for something new to make life just a bit easier. Their family is everything, kids especially and it's the needs of the latter that often inform and dictate their needs."

This is from a really well-written brief. But hey, it's not rocket science. You know your consumer well. Your brief to your agency or creative team can easily reflect that fact.

3. Tell your agency what you think the most important message should be about your product.

Resist the urge to list three or four things. Or more. That's too much information. Your advertising can certainly talk about a few key things, but its focus should be on only one.

The one key thing. In creative-brief writing parlance it's often referred to as the Single-minded Proposition.

The brief you get back from your agency will have a box with its version of this phrase. Your brief to them should too.

It's a hard thing to write this Single-minded Proposition. It's the epitome of whittling down your message to its essence.

Here's an example of what you probably should avoid:

"Brand X offers a unique package of features."

Don't laugh. I worked for a client whose marketing manager insisted that was the one key thing.

Here's the one key thing from the hhcl/red cell agency's Iceland creative brief:

"There's more to Iceland than anyone ever knew."

Clients, you need to write your own brief for your agency or creative consultants.

Own the process by starting it yourself.

The oldest quote in advertising

"Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half."
             John Wanamaker

I'm a bit biased, but I have to wonder if Mr. Wanamaker gave a well-written creative brief to his advertising people. If he had, he might not have gone down in ad lore the way we remember him today.

The clearer the instructions you give to the people you hire to create your advertising, the more likely your budget will be spent wisely.

Let me re-phrase that: If your objectives are clear, if you can tell your ad agency or creative consultants what you want before you spend a nickel you'll get what you want a whole lot sooner with fewer misunderstandings and misdirection. And you'll have advertising whose results you can measure.

You'll have ROI you can count on.

From one piece of paper?

Yes, if it's written with authority and inspiration, backed by research and consumer insights, and benefits that are relevant to the audience you're selling to.

Look at it this way: If you take a trip across the country and the map you use to make your way is inaccurate and out of date, what happens? You get lost.

Why would you expect anything different if the instructions you give (or allow to be given in your name) to your ad people are just as faulty? Or don't align with your brand?

A well-written creative brief is your insurance policy.

A well-written creative brief puts you in control of the trip you're sending your advertising people on.

A well-written creative brief puts your advertising budget on a more direct path to being spent wisely.

It's your money. Start by spending it on a finely honed document that gives crystal-clear instructions.

Happy brief writing in 2009

With the New Year just under way, it's time to make a few resolutions to keep your brief writing skills honed.

First, resolve to collaborate whenever you can. Two heads are better than one. And if you enlist your creative team for ideas and feedback, you'll build team rapport not to mention instant buy-in on your brief.

Second, resolve to always have a point of view. A creative brief is a tactical document, so it must be focused. Think of it as an actual ad that you prepare for your creative team to make their job easier.

Third, resolve to be creative yourself when you write the brief. Which means you can't wait until five minutes before the meeting with your creative team to whip out a brief. You know more than you think. Believe it and your briefs will reflect it.

Fourth, resolve to be the creative brief's advocate in your company. It tends to be the Rodney Dangerfield of business documents. It deserves better.

Fifth, resolve to find someone in the creative department (whether it's inside your company or an outside contractor such as a freelancer or an agency) to be your partner as the creative brief's advocate. This kind of alliance shows how serious you and your creatives view the brief. People will take notice.

Sixth, resolve to get someone in upper management to join you and your creative partner to be the creative brief's advocate as well. A three-legged stool has stability. It's a great insurance policy against one of the oldest truisms in the business: "There's never time to do it right but always time to do it over."

Good luck and happy brief writing.

I look forward to sharing my thoughts and insights on the creative brief  in 2009.