What President Obama might say about writing a creative brief

Whether you voted for him or not, President Obama changed the nature of campaigning in this country by doing something that anyone whose job it is to write a creative brief will understand.

Barack Obama demonstrated a mastery at a public narrative that connected us to a core set of values we share about America and linked those values to a challenge that required action.

He was able to tell us a story we could relate to, engage in and support.

As brand advocates and guardians, we who make our living in the communication business get what it means to tell a story.That’s what the creative brief is: it’s a story about a product or service that requires action.

In particular, the action is taken by the creative team to translate the brief’s story into compelling communication, whether it’s advertising, PR, web related, an event or a series of Tweets. Anything that conveys the message about the brand is a continuation of the brand’s story.

When you think about how ground-breaking the Obama campaign was, you begin to appreciate the power behind a story told well.

Whether you’re running for the highest office in the land, or you’re trying to engage more people in your brand, you better have a great story.
And a great brand story begins with a well-written creative brief.
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Which matters more: what a reader feels or thinks after seeing an ad?

Not all creative brief templates are created equal.

Some ask the question, "What do we want the target audience to think after seeing the communication?" 

Some ask, "What do we want the target audience to feel after seeing the communication?"

Some ask a combination of both, think and feel. Some don't bother asking either question, which is a mistake if you ask me.

My bias is toward what we want a reader (or viewer or listener) to feel.

Why? What's the difference? And what relevance do the answers have to writing an inspired creative brief?

If you've worked in advertising for at least five minutes, you know that people connect to brands through…what?

Their emotions.

And there's now tons of research—scientific and business—that substantiates what advertising pros have known for years.

Consumers make their decisions about a brand based on how they react to it with their hearts, and they confirm their decisions with their brains.

I spent a number of years working on luxury automotive accounts so I know that the slick and very expensive collateral materials that luxury car companies produce every year play a very important role. After the sale.

I learned that these materials reinforce the purchase decision rather than motivate the consumer to purchase. 

(I can't speak to the 16-year-old who dreams about that Porsche and drools over the slick brochure because that's all he can get his hands on, but you get my point. On the day when he can truly afford it, you know his decision will be based on how he feels about the car when he's sitting in one, not looking at pictures of it in a brochure, right?)

So while there's clearly no harm in writing a creative brief that answers the question about what we want our target audience to think after seeing the ad, what that consumer feels will clearly have more impact on a purchase decision.

Ergo, it makes sense, as a brief writer, to make sure you nail what the appropriate emotion should be for your brand.

Which just goes back to what I had to say about words: take your time and get it right. If you're writing the creative brief, that makes you the resident brand guardian. Give yourself credit for knowing it better than anyone else.

Remember the line by Euripides I shared in last week's post, "A bad beginning makes a bad ending"?

A friend and mentor wrote to me (thanks Hils!) with her astute translation: 

"Garbage in, garbage out."

I know, that's blunt. But this is important.


I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about writing. Today, I want to talk about something more fundamental: Words.

I'm a writer, so words have special meaning for me. I get hung up on words. Sometimes a single word. Because when you change even one word, what can happen?

You can completely change what you mean.

Meaning can get changed in a good way. And a bad way. Intentionally, or unintentionally.

Which puts the onus squarely on the shoulders of who?

The writer.

I've heard some clever excuses for the misuse of words by a writer:

"Oh, he just didn't get what I meant."

"I can't help what you heard; I can only help what I said."

"That was absolutely clear. She must be really stupid."

As someone who makes his living with words, I've learned to be as careful as I can to ensure I use the exact word to describe the exact meaning I intend.

And still I fail. Someone, somewhere misconstrues my meaning. Someone reads something between the lines, or just plain sees something that isn't there. It happens.

Words mean things. Advertising folks have a tendency to be loose with words and their meanings. My favorite example (and biggest cringe inducer) is from a brand for whom I'm a zealot: Apple.

Think different.

Remember that one? Yeah, everyone knows what they meant. But it's still incorrect.

Okay, so we're not talking about an accidental death or a collapsed building. It's a headline.

Still, we have a responsibility to be as precise as we can when we use words. They have meaning. There are consequences.

I like to say that the creative brief is the first step in the creative process. It's the place where you have the chance, as a brief writer, to influence the outcome of the creative itself.

Get it wrong here and it may very well show up when you see the first round of creative concepts.

Euripides said, "A bad beginning makes a bad ending."

Please make sure you choose your words wisely.

Thoughts on writing the creative brief: Target audience

Isn't this just basic information here? The place where you describe who we're talking to?

Unfortunately, too often, that's as inspiring as some brief writers care to get.

This is where you can allow your writing to really soar. Where you don't have to be a brilliant writer to make a brilliantly inspiring impact on your creative team.

Rather than foist a series of bullet points about age, sex, household income, education and whatever, tell a story.

Yes, tell a story! Draw a picture with words. Your brand has unique loyalists. Give them their due when you fill in that spot on the creative brief dedicated to them.

Here's a shining example from a creative brief written by an especially inspired brief writer from Leo Burnett for a Proctor & Gamble brand you probably know: Vicks.

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.

Okay, I admit, this is more, a lot more, than a mere "target audience" box filled in with stats. You get insights into the psyche of someone with a cold (probably you; me, too, because we all act like this when we get a cold, if we can get away with it).

Still, you get my point here, don't you? Isn't this a far more elegant description of someone who might use Vicks than a bunch of stats?

Of course it is. 

It's also damn funny! Which makes it equally inspiring. Which means the brief writer pulled out all the stops because he or she knew who was reading it.

Keep this in mind next time you think the box labeled "target audience" is just a box.

It's an invitation. You're invited. No RSVP required.

How do you practice writing creative briefs when you barely have time to write creative briefs?

Good question. Tough question, too.

It gets back to how you learned to write a brief in the first place.

If you learned by doing, as I suspect most brief writers learned, the answer is, well, you practice by doing too.

But that's a lame answer. There has to be a better way to sharpen your creative brief writing skills.

Well, it just so happens that I have a great exercise. You can do it anywhere. You can do it any time of day. It doesn't take much time at all. And the more you do it, the better you'll become at writing briefs. Trust me. I do it a lot myself and it works.

I don't know if you can do it in your sleep, but it's worth a try.

Essentially, it's an exercise in writing a single-minded proposition (SMP), which is the most challenging part of the brief. Because if you can write solid, inspired SMPs, you've pretty much written the entire brief. When creatives ask, "What's the brief?" they're really asking, "What's the one thing we need to say?" So you'll end up getting a double creative brief workout.

Like any exercise you do on your own, only you will know how hard you're trying. Cheat, and you hurt only yourself.

You could begin with an existing client's project, but that's not quite as fun, and to make it fun, take control and pick something you like.

Try this guy, for example.

Mickey Mouse Face Utility Mat_2

I'm serious. I always start with him when I get to this point in my workshop. Anything, animate or not, not only possesses, but deserves, an SMP. Yes, even your mother. Especially your mother.

But start with this familiar face. Ask yourself the same question about Mickey that you'd ask about any other brand. Because he is, after all, a brand. Kinda well known too.

Do you see where I'm going with this? You can practice writing briefs for anything you look at all day long. The chair you sit in. The account person in the cube next door. Your pet.

Everything has its essence. Its one key thing. Its single-minded proposition. Find that and you've written a creative brief.

So what did you write about Mickey?

Next time you're eating lunch or sitting in a really boring meeting, look around you and write an SMP for someone or something in the room.

Remember John Hegarty's rule that the proposition is the first ad for the creative team. So don't be lazy. This is a test. 

Be pithy. Be clever. Be succinct.

Before you know it, SMPs will become second nature to you.

How so?

Because you'll be well practiced. Without ever having lifted a finger.