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.

Welcome to Creative Brief: The Blog

TIGHTBRIEF is now Creative Brief: The Blog.

If you’ve been receiving a weekly email from TIGHTBRIEF, please take a moment to sign up for the same convenient service here. Or rather over there, on the right.

It just made sense to migrate a blog on the creative brief to my website on the same subject. And I’ve added a page on my upcoming book, How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief, which will be out in June. Yeah, it’s the link called “Howard’s book.”

You’ll be able to purchase a copy on and the Barnes and Noble website. Stay tuned for an announcement.

To kick off Creative Brief: The Blog, I encourage you to take a poll I’ve created on LinkedIn. I’ll report the results next week in a post.

Thanks to all of you who read and follow my weekly musings.

One is the loneliest number

No one should ever write a creative brief alone. If you don’t believe me, listen to Jon Steel, author of Truth, Lies, and Advertising: The Art of Account Planning (whom I’ve quoted liberally on this blog):

“I can say with complete confidence that the best briefs I have ever written have really been written by my creative colleagues.”

His point is very simple. A creative team consists of an art director and a copywriter, and the two serve as sounding boards for each other. Without a sounding board, it’s very difficult to know if your idea has relevance or validity.

The truth is true for creatives and creative brief writers alike.

Mr. Steel isn’t suggesting that you pawn off your job to the creatives. On the contrary. Your creative team is your sounding board, your reality check.

Here’s his explanation:

“…(creatives) are invariably much better than I am at finding the right words to express the all-important main idea.”

Is that so surprising? It shouldn’t be.

Remember, I’m talking about collaboration, not delegation. As the person responsible for writing the creative brief, you have access to a lot more information than the creative team. As you do the work, you’re synthesizing this information and arriving at ideas of your own. Some more formed than others, but you have ideas.

It’s at this gestating stage that you need the sounding board. Your creatives can give you real feedback.

Here’s Mr. Steel again:

“…once (the brief writer) has a solution in sight, (you) should expose it to the creative team both to assess its potential and to see if the initial thinking can be expanded and enhanced. If it does make sense, and if they can enhance it, it gives them a powerful stake in the strategy and the brief. They are less likely to feel backed into a corner by it, and it also gives them a considerable head start in terms of thinking time.”

The upsides seem pretty clear to me: the likelihood of better creative in the first round, team buy in from the start, a little old-fashioned team bonding, and probably a couple of creatives rocked back on their heels because you asked for their opinions.

I understand that you, the brief writer, don’t live to be the creatives’ hero.

But I’ll bet it’s something you could get used to.

Another exercise you can do anywhere

Practicing your creative brief writing skills is easier than you might think.

In a previous post, I suggested that you could practice writing a brief by focusing on the single-minded proposition. Simply look around you, pick something like a chair or a colleague, and figure out its essence. That’s the equivalent of a single-minded proposition. Or the brief.

This exercise requires you to find an existing advertisement. Any media will do. If you’re reading a magazine, and you find a print ad you like, you can practice your brief writing skills by deconstructing the ad while you sit there.

No, this isn’t an advanced lit class. You can deconstruct just about anything.

You already know what questions a creative brief asks. So think about those questions when you look at the ad in your magazine.

Start with the SMP, which is the hardest thing to write when you do a brief, but the easiest place to begin when you do things backwards, which is what this exercise is all about.

So ask yourself, “What’s the one thing this ad is trying to tell me?”

If you can’t figure it out, don’t fret. It may very well be that the ad doesn’t succeed. Or that its SMP is muddled. Or that it’s trying to say too many things at once and ends up communicating nothing.

If you can figure it out, then it’s probably a good ad. Or at least it has potential.

Next, can you determine who, specifically, the ad is for? Chances are good that you’re the intended audience if you’re reading the magazine because you bought it, rather than, say, you’re at your dentist’s office and you’re just killing time.

You might have to read a bit of the copy to figure this out, but the headline, visual and tagline (if there is one) should be enough to give you a hint.

After that, see if you can determine what the proof is to believe the single-minded proposition. In other words, the substantiation. Meaning…what?

Meaning that the benefits are clear. Are they?

Okay, now ask: What am I supposed to feel about the product or service after seeing this ad? If it’s a successful ad, you should be feeling something. It should tug at your emotions in some way or another.

You don’t have to be bawling your eyes out or falling out of your chair laughing. Just something that resonates, that connects the product or service to a feeling. Even if it’s subtle, then it’s working.

We’re getting into a deep drill here, but try this: can you figure out what the ad’s tone of voice is? If you had to list a few words or phrases to describe it, what would they be?

So maybe you’re nodding your head at this point and realizing that this is all old hat, familiar stuff. No brainer. Piece of cake.

You can do all these little exercises in a lot less time than it probably took you to read this far. And you can do it all in your head.

That’s the point, really. You can do this anywhere. Consider it a mini-refresher. Or a warm-up.

And in no time, it’s like muscle memory. Your brain focuses and bingo!

I’m not suggesting that writing a brief is easy. It’s not. But if you work as a professional communicator, however you define that, this is stuff you do everyday.

Now you have a method to practice it without breaking into a sweat. Do it everyday. Do it once a week. Do it every once in a while. But make it part of your routine. Your creatives will thank you.

So deconstruct away.