The creative brief as liberating constraint

Over the course of my advertising career, now in its 30th year, I have seen two kinds of creative briefs. The first is the “kitchen sink” version. The writer essentially had no idea what belonged, so everything went into it. The second version I’ll call the “Client Brief 2.0,” a kind of cut-and-pasting from whatever document the client hands over to the ad agency account team.

Either version reveals much about both the writer and the process. When I would receive one of these briefs, it was easy to conclude that the writer was not up to the challenge of what an inspired creative brief should be. The brief, this person seemed to be saying, is beyond me.

I understand. While training around the creative brief is much improved since I began my career in the 1980s, it is still far from acceptable. Evidence the piles of poorly written briefs.

So start thinking about the brief differently.

It is not an invitation to your creative team to do whatever they want. It is not a blank check, or a blank slate, on which they can live out their creative fantasies.

Instead, think of the creative brief as a prison of opportunity. Better yet, it is the ideal liberating constraint.

David Ogilvy is famously quoted as having said, “Give me the freedom of a tight (creative) brief.” david-ogilvy_unpublished This is another way of defining the term liberating constraint. Here is another:

A liberating constraint restricts one’s freedom in one sense (or dimension), where the restriction allows greater freedom in another direction.

As a former working creative (copywriter then creative director), I always reveled in the restrictions of a creative assignment. I preferred to tackle new campaign ideas for a back hoe rather than Coca Cola. A back hoe has definable benefits and a very targeted user. Coke is, well…for everyone, and no matter how hard you dig to find evidence to the contrary, it’s a parity product.

A creative brief, by definition, must wear its liberating constraint elegantly. The writer must first establish clear objectives. The nature of well-defined objectives creates clear constraints for the creative team.

As a brief writer, think of your job as identifying the dragon your creative team must slay. This dragon is your objectives. Give the creatives detailed information and a clear set of objectives, David Ogilvy was saying, and the confines of this information become the catalyst for their ideas.

They will be boxed in by these objectives, and if you’ve presented them reasonably well, the creative team will use them as a springboard for advertising concepts. prison-bars-imageThey will push against your boundaries until the ah-ha moments arrive. Give them structure as well as information, and they will find the room they need to work.

This is your challenge as the brief writer. Or better, as a member of the small brief-writing team. You compel the creative team onward to creative brilliance by providing them with a document that by its very nature holds them back and forces them to accept constraint.

You just don’t want to tell them that. It’ll be our secret.


The Marshmallow Challenge and trust

Last week, I wrote about the role of trust in the person who writes a creative brief. I offered a quick exercise to gauge the level of trust you possess in your organization.

This week, I have a group exercise designed to build trust within a group. Many of you have likely heard about it, perhaps even tried it: The Marshmallow Challenge.

Simply put, the task is for a group of four people to construct a tower in the span of 18 minutes with four ingredients: a handful of uncooked angel hair pasta, a length of masking tape, a length of string and one marshmallow, Marshmallow challengewhich must be at the highest point of the structure. Oh, and the structure must stand on its own. No one is allowed to hold it.

Easy, eh? Unless you’ve tried this exercise, you have no idea. It’s used among all age groups, from kindergartners to adults, including business majors and CEOs. Kindergartners are typically the most successful. You might want to review this TED Talk to find out why. The least successful group is business majors.

The point I make here is twofold: first, a creative brief should never be undertaken as a solo activity. There is usually one person who writes it, but it should not be written by a single person. It is a collaborative affair.

Second, the creative brief-writing process demands trust for the document to be effective. As John Hegarty, founding partner and Worldwide Creative Director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) in London wrote in his celebrated book, Hegarty on Advertising, Andy Paradise“After all, the brief is nothing but a bit of paper that has been crafted by someone who too often wants to try, and sadly, to control the process. I’m always trying to open up the process, not close it down. I don’t want it to be controlled, I want it to be liberated.”

One simply way to accomplish this liberation is to collaborate. Bring in other members of the team to help craft this vital document. That means creatives. It means people outside the account planning and account management spheres. I am not suggesting a committee. I am suggesting a dedicated team.

Perhaps a group of four. Which makes the Marshmallow Challenge the ideal activity in which to bond and build relationships. The first piece of content that every creative brief requires is trust.


Are you trustworthy? It’s a must for a creative brief writer.

I used to say that before you can write a single word on a creative brief, you need a strategy. It’s time to amend that. There’s an important precept that straddles the two: trust.

Strategy must be in place before the brief can be written. But before you can begin the creative brief process, you, the writer, must have established a clear, open and honest relationship with the team of people who will work from your brief. This is why collaboration is so important. This is why the very idea of writing a creative brief by yourself is…crazy.

But step back for a moment and ask yourself: Are you trustworthy? Don’t take this question for granted. Even if you’ve been working in your organization for years, you may not know the answer. Worse, you may overestimate the answer. And if you’re brand new, you must take the necessary steps to build that trust.

As Warren Buffet has said, it takes years to build a good reputation and only five minutes to ruin it.

I teach English composition, critical thinking and argumentation at Glendale College in Los Angeles. This semester, I plan to challenge my students with a short writing assignment in which they argue their trustworthiness:

Are you trustworthy? Make your case in a short, well-written paragraph. Show it to your  friends and family. Do they agree?

Whether your task is to write the creative brief or you work from it, knowing the degree of trustworthiness you possess plays a huge role in the success of both the document and the outcome.

TrustworthinessI urge you to try this exercise. Not only is it an exercise in building trust, but it’s also an exercise is learning how others view you. The fact that you’d ask the question and invite others to respond will enhance their respect for you.

The creative brief is the first step in the creative process, and as the first step, its most vital content is unwritten.