Three clues to spotting a poorly written creative brief, Part 2

Last time I talked about how you can spot a lame effort on the part of a brief writer by checking out the Proposition. If it’s vague, not singular, it’s a likely bet that the rest of the brief will be equally fuzzy.

You’re left to fend for yourself. Not a promising prospect, believe me.

Another clue that tells you the brief writer is having a bad day: when the language of the brief sounds more like it’s meant to be read by a marketing manager or, worse, an accountant.

What do I mean?

I started noticing this trick—it’s more like a cover up for not knowing what the heck to say—very early in my career. The brief writer drones on about how the creative you’re being asked to produce is designed to…here comes the business language:

  • drive up sales
  • lift quarterly profits
  • reduce inventory
  • expand market share
  • respond to the competition
  • This kind of drivel has no place on a creative brief. It ends up in the brief for two reasons:

    First, because the writer isn’t even trying to think like a creative, like someone who has to translate the brief into sales-driving concepts. He or she is engaged in silo thinking, as if the writer of the brief were an island separate from the creative team.

    And second, because of silo thinking, there’s no concept of collaboration with the creative team to write the creative brief. It’s almost as if the brief writer stepped into a time machine and transported back to pre-1960s, before the days of the Golden Age of advertising when the copywriter and the art director started teaming up and created a revolution in our profession.

    It’s a sad state of affairs.

    So what can you, our intrepid creative, do when you read this kind of language?

    Well, now’s the time to ask a pertinent (no, I didn’t mean impertinent) question of your brief writer: how do any of the examples I listed above, and the variations that all account folks know how to come up with, address one simple question:

    Do these requests answer WIIFM?

    Do you all know what WIIFM stands for?

    What’s in it for me?

    If your brief writer can’t answer that question, anything in the brief that doesn’t answer it doesn’t belong in the creative brief.

    The well-written brief will tell the creative team what the ad has to say directly to the reader, directly to the user of the product or service.

    If the brief focuses on what the ad is supposed to do for the product or the bottom line or the quarterly report, do yourself a favor and hand it back and ask for “WIIFM-” related information.

    Unless, of course, the brief writer doesn’t mind an ad with a headline like this:

    “We bring 97.8% of good things to life, which is 14% higher than we did last quarter.”


    “I’d like to buy the world a Coke (and can you start, like, right now so we can meet our sales goals?)”

    Brief writers remember: the brief helps the creative team unlock the “WIIFM” secret that needs to be communicated directly to the consumer. If you get lost in business lingo, your creatives will flounder. Think like a creative, talk to your creatives, collaborate, escape silo thinking and put your “consumer” hats on.

    Creatives: Never be afraid to ask questions until you get the answers that help you figure out the WIIFM for the consumer.

    Avoid business jargon, lingo, marketing-speak, bean-counting terms.

    Next time: Clue #3: Bullet points can kill—draw word pictures instead.

    Three clues to spotting a poorly written creative brief

    (As if there were only three!)

    This subject came up in a Skype conversation I had recently with a new friend and colleague, Jean-Francois Fournon, a creative director at Shem’s Publicite in Casablanca, Morocco. I’ll blog about him and his experiences in an upcoming post.

    But when he mentioned that some of his younger creatives weren’t as well versed in briefs and therefore didn’t always know how to question a brief writer, much less challenge the writer on some of his or her conclusions, a light bulb went off in my head.

    I’ve spent most of my time discussing how to write an inspired brief. And virtually no time offering clues on how to spot a bad brief.

    This was one of those forehead-slapping moments.

    A truly inspired creative brief is usually, in fact often, accompanied by fireworks. You just know when the writer was in the zone and produced a brilliant document.

    Even moderately well-written briefs reveal their inspiration.

    And if you’ve been in the business for a while, you know a groaner when it lands on your desk.

    But what if you’re not a veteran writer or art director? What if you’re brand new, or even just a couple years on the job?

    Herewith is the first of three tips that even the most seasoned brief reader can use as a checklist against the high standards we all expect our creative briefs to achieve.

    #1. The Proposition
    Your creative brief template may have a variation on this one. It can be called the Unique Selling Proposition. The Single-minded Proposition. The Key Insight. The one important thing.

    Whatever it’s called on your brief, start here. This is the one-sentence summary of what the entire creative brief has to say. So a reliable clue that your brief isn’t aspiring to be inspiring will make itself known in this box.

    Ask yourself: is the Proposition really single minded? Is it a paragraph of benefits? Or honestly and truly the most important benefit (singular)? Could you write it on the palm of your hand?

    A few years ago I took a job as creative director at a marketing agency on a major international airline. My first day was about a week before a big presentation on a re-branding effort. So when I asked to see the creative brief, I was more than stunned when I read the Proposition. Essentially, it promised to save you money, let you get more work done en route, and give you better customer service.

    It was the first triple-minded proposition I’d seen. Not ever, but in a very long time. The creative team was so far into the process, and the client had insisted on it as it was written, that I had no choice but to play along.

    If you ever come across a Proposition that tries to give you a laundry list of benefits, this is your first clue that the brief is not only not inspired, but that the brief writer is being lazy. I don’t advise telling him that to his face. But I do believe you have the obligation to sit down and ask a few pointed questions so that you both arrive at one thing and one thing only.

    And it’s a relatively easy task to accomplish. You can come to the Proposition by a process of elimination.

    Here’s how it works: list three or four of the most important features of your product or service. Then for each feature, identify what the most meaningful benefit of this feature is.

    (For example, the MacBook I’m writing this post on. One obvious feature is that its OS uses icons that I can decipher intuitively. What’s the benefit? Well, yeah, it’s easy to use, but so is a knife and fork. No, the benefit is that it saves me boatloads of time that I don’t have to waste trying to figure out how to make it work! I can just get on with it! That’s huge! Okay, I’m a Mac zealot. Sorry.)

    My point is, when you’ve translated features into benefits, you have your list from which to arrive at the Proposition.

    You and your brief writer can then discuss these benefits and decide which one—which single benefit—is the most important. Even if they’re all special, one has to stand head and shoulders above the others. At the very least, one is the first among relative equals.

    That one benefit is the Proposition. Or more accurately, it’s the inspiration for a superbly crafted Proposition statement. Writing Propositions is a delicate art, but more on that later.

    If you collaborate, if you ask questions when you talk to your brief writer, you’ll keep a good relationship from turning sour, and you’ll empower your writer and arrive at the objective: a Proposition you can actually use.

    Oh, and chances are you’ll impress the heck out of your brief writer, who probably had no idea you cared so much. That realization alone will probably be inspiration for subsequent briefs.

    Next time: Clue #2—the difference between business or marketing language, and advertising language (and why it matters to an inspired creative brief)