Giorgio Armani’s closet

I got an email from a colleague last week with a link to examples of creative briefs from agencies all over the world. An amazing array of documents. Most asked precise questions that led to a proposition that creatives anywhere could understand. 

One in particular revealed its disdain for the entire process by asking only one question, a box positioned at the very bottom of the page with the rest of the sheet left blank. I thought only creatives could exude that much attitude.

Which leads me to a not-so-startling observation:

It's not the template, it's the stuff you write there.

That thought in turn led me to another idea: the creative brief template is just like Giorgio Armani's closet. You want to believe he designed this very personal space to be an elegant, warm, inviting sanctuary for his wardrobe. Even empty it would be cool to see.

But it's the clothes, stupid! You want to know what he hangs up there!

That's the difference between a creative brief template and the creative brief you write.

Anyone can fashion (no pun intended) a thoughtful template, even a clever and provocative template. That's the easy part.

The hard part comes when you try to fill in the blanks with inspiring, insightful, relevant information that creatives can use to produce compelling advertising.

I hear a lot of talk about this agency or that saying it wants to revise its creative brief, that it's not working hard enough. I also read about planners who believe no two creative briefs should look the same. Each project demands its own brief. Different creative disciplines, in fact, require different templates.

Fine. Knock yourselves out. I've always believed that the brief should be an organic document that can adapt and change.

Just remember this central truth:

Content rules.

As Giorgio might say, everything else is an accessory.

Become the Joe Montana of brief writers

Here's a revealing story from Jon Steel's Truth, Lies and Advertising: The Art of Account Planning

One of the pleasures of living in San Francisco in the 1980s and early 1990s was the opportunity to see Joe Montana play for the San Francisco 49ers. One of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, Montana won four Superbowls and was legendary for this ability to bring his team back from deficits late in the fourth quarter of the game. Tom Junod, writing in GC magazine in September 1994, said of Montana, "For a long time, I thought of Joe Montana as a 'thinking man's quarterback,' a 'cerebral athlete' whose game – a greedy, hungry, gobbling thing, based on patience, restraint, even passivity – was an expression of some kind of Zen mastery." His impression, shared by many, I am sure, was that Montana must have a mind like a chess master, capable of computing all possibilities, calculating move, countermove and counter-countermove, all in a fraction of a second.

The GC journalist asked Montana if at those moments of crisis, with only seconds left on the clock and his team trailing, "he tried especially hard to complete his first pass, because then he knows that the defense starts thinking, Oh no, here comes Joe…And Joe answered that no, he tries to complete his first pass because it's always better to complete a pass than not to complete a pass. He feels the same way about the second pass, and the third."

"His simplicity," says 49ers president, Carmen Policy, of Montana, "is his genius…He is able to operate on a simplistic level and come to decisions that others would think of as very complex."

The point I think Jon is making is that writing a creative brief is an exercise in distilling the essence of a product just as much as creating the advertising is. 

The tendency in a creative brief is to pile on, to over think the problem.

KISS applies to a brief as much as to anything else in life: Keep It Simple, Stupid!

Thoughts on writing the creative brief: communication objectives

"What are the communication objectives?"

I've seen this question asked in a variety of ways, including "What do we need to do?", "What are we trying to achieve?", "What if…" followed by a sentence outlining desired outcomes of the creative, and "Why are we advertising?"

It's a simple question. But I've seen it confused with other descriptors such as "marketing objectives" and "business objectives." 

They're not the same thing.

The creative brief is written for the creative team, so anything that doesn't discuss what the advertising must say and how it's said will be viewed as a tangent, which is my nice way of saying it will be ignored.

Which isn't to say that marketing or business objectives are unimportant. They are important. Just not to creatives.

Let me put it another way. Marketing and business objectives relate to sales, growing market share, profits, things of that sort. Increasing sales is one thing creatives know their ads have to accomplish, so you won't be telling them anything useful.

Communication objectives are about describing what the advertising has to say, and say well. The best creative briefs I've read over the years address communication objectives by choosing smart, relevant, thought-provoking verbs.

Here are a few examples:

Inspire the consumer to call for a free sample of Brand X
Romance the consumer with Brand R's allure
Re-engage the consumer who's been away from Service T
Excite the consumer about the versatility of Brand K
Convince the consumer that Brand Q will make him feel powerful
Educate the consumer about Brand P's superior performance
Remind the consumer that Brand F won taste tests in 100 cities

You can probably think of dozens of other verbs to do the trick, but the list isn't that long. You need only a few really good verbs, ones you'll use over and over. If you can think of a new verb, such as instill or compel and you can make it work, use it!

The point is, when you use verbs to describe what the advertising must accomplish in the minds and hearts (mostly the hearts) of readers or viewers or listeners, you're giving your creative team clear direction. Pick out three really important things you want the ad to say, no more, and find the right verbs to describe the desired effect.

In a future post, I'll address the single-minded proposition, and how you can turn them into works of art that will make your creative team swoon with envy. 

In the meantime remember:

Verbs: the creative-brief writer's best friend.

The creative brief is like an ad written for the creative team

To aid you in crystallizing your task as someone who writes the creative brief—whether you are the advertiser initiating the project with your in-house creative department, an outside creative team or your advertising agency; or you are an agency account person—here's a great analogy:

The creative brief is a print ad that offers the first creative thinking for the copywriter and the art director.

This idea comes from a book entitled Truth, Lies and Advertising: The Art of Account Planning by Jon Steel.

Here's an excerpt from page 149:

"I once heard a planner ask John Hegarty, the creative director of the top London agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, what he looked for in a creative brief. He replied that he looked for a very simple, single-minded idea, which is usually expressed in the part of the brief that many agencies term the proposition. Hegarty said that it was his habit to take that one sentence and write it on a large piece of paper, above or below a picture of the product, almost as if the line from the brief were a headline. Then he would pin it up above his desk and ask himself first whether the juxtaposition of that line and that product made some rational sense, and second, whether it also started to suggest something interesting on an emotional level. If so, then he would think, 'There's the first ad in the campaign. It's my job to create something better.'"

I share this sage piece of advice not to intimidate, although it's a weighty thought, but rather to liberate and enlighten.

No one ever said writing a brief was easy. But I've made it a point to say over and over that writing a brief is not rocket science. 

Brief writers know more than they think they know, which is why it's so disappointing to work from briefs that appear to have been written five minutes before they came off the printer.

I also like to point out that writing the creative brief is your opportunity to influence in a very positive way the creative outcome of the project. It's your chance to drive that outcome. 

Jon Steel adds this challenge on the next page of his book:

"If the writer of the brief finds it impossible to manifest his or her own thinking in an advertising idea, then it will likely be an uphill struggle for the team assigned to create the actual campaign.

"A brief tends to succeed in direct proportion to the level of creativity present in both its idea and presentation. If the creative brief is not itself creative, if it does not suggest solutions to problems, present information in an expansive and interesting way, and interpret that information with imagination and flair, then its authors and presenters have no right to expect anything different from their creative teams." (emphasis added)

Don't panic: your "creative brief as ad" doesn't have to be a great ad. It doesn't even have to be good. But as Jon Steel quotes Hegarty, "…it does have to be interesting on both a rational and emotional level."

As I've said before on this blog, you'll write a better brief if you don't do it by yourself. Collaborate with your creative team. Ask them for their ideas. They have a stake in it.

Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate!

That's how you'll write a better "first ad" for your creative team.