Sharpen your brief writing with this two-step brain teaser

If you were a journalist, what would you read to become a better journalist? News stories. By people recognized as good journalists.tumblr_l3ffdyoMRR1qav9ywo1_1280

If you were a writer of fiction or poetry, what would you read to become a better novelist or poet? Other novelists and poets, of course.

So if you write creative briefs at your ad agency, marketing company or corporation, what do you read to become a better creative brief writer? Great creative briefs? Yes. If you can get your hands on them.

If you can’t, then what?

I recommend that you “read” great ads and do a simple, two-step brain teaser.

In the study of literature, it’s called “close reading.” The principle is the same in “reading” an advertisement. But to make this process work for you, I suggest that you take a passive approach. In fact, I urge you to be as passive as you can be.

Why? You’ll see.

This exercise works with any kind of ad, but I recommend you start with a television spot. Since I’ve asked you to take the passive approach, watching tv instantly puts you in the right frame of mind. Find your fave lounge chair or sofa or pillow, get comfy and wait.

When a tv spot airs, don’t move. Just let it happen. Exert as little energy as possible. Think “passive.”

You may have to practice this a few times to get it right. You’ll have to resist the urge to get up and hit the kitchen. Just veg while the :30 rolls past your brain.

So when you’ve got this form mastered, and you’re ready to engage the television spot as passively as you can, watch another commercial and answer two questions.

1. What is the point?

Try to figure this out by exerting as few neutrons of brain activity as possible. Don’t get all ad-fixated and ask, “What is the single-minded proposition?” get-to-the-point

React like a consumer: ironically uncaring, daring the advertiser to break your casual efforts at being disengaged.

You are an ad professional with insights into the process of connecting to a viewer. You have to actively turn off this knowledge. It won’t be easy. But in achieving the task, you will be opening a part of your brain to receiving information on an intuitive level. You are deconstructing the ad and looking for its most basic element: the key message.

But don’t work for it. The idea here is to test the spot’s effectiveness by allowing you brain to absorb the message below the conscious level.

That’s why it’s important to remain passive. If you can figure out what the point of the spot is, two things are apparent.

First, the spot communicated. Second, it was probably clear. If your answer forms a statement, you may have the draft of a single-minded proposition.

If your viewing results in no clear or obvious answer, chances are the spot did not communicate. Or was poorly executed. Or was just bad. Or all of the above.

2. Who are they talking to?

Don’t think, “Are they talking to me?” You’re taking a test here. If you can figure out the point of the spot, you should be able to figure out who might be interested. It could be you, but that’s not important.

If the spot were done well and you can figure out the point and who it is engaging, you’re lucky. It’s probably a good spot.

How does all this help you write a better brief?

First, it forces you to think differently. You’re receiving a piece of creative and your critiquing it at a point when it can’t be corrected or rejected, unlike how you might react if your creative team were presenting a rough to you for approval. It’s finished. You are a reviewer, not a consultant/team player.

Ask yourself: If I get the point and it’s clear, does it translate easily into a single-minded proposition? Do you like this SMP? Does the SMP lead you back to the spot you just viewed?

It’s one big circle. Everything has to fit.

You can do this simple, passive exercise with any television spot. Or radio spot. Just remember: You have to turn off your professional insights about advertising and be passive.

It works with a print ad, too, but you can’t be passive. Reading is not a passive activity. If you want a more difficult challenge, open up a glossy magazine and give it a go.

As a creative brief writer, you have to engage your brain everyday, even in a passive activity  I’ve suggested here.writers-block

Rookie or veteran, keep your brief writing muscles honed.


The problem with the creative brief is…


Lately, I have read a number of articles about the sorry state of the creative brief in the post digital age.

In one particular online post, I came across this list of reasons why the creative brief may no longer be an effective tool:

“1. The world has gotten faster

2. Technology has fundamentally transformed communication

3. Breakthrough matters more than anything

4. Conversations are often a brand goal

5. Powerful insights aren’t always easy to find

6. Creatives often don’t want to have the most pointed and sharpest brief

7. The internet has empowered every creative to challenge the brief and perhaps even come up with a better one on their own

8. Communication has now fragmented to such a point—how can there be one brief for everything?

9. No one reads anything anymore” (The Creative Brief project,

On another blog, I saw this slide:

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And on still another blog, I saw this slide:

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Are they kidding? Would someone please tell me the difference between asking new questions and creating a new template?

Better still, would someone please tell these folks that it’s not the questions, it’s the answers? And that this fundamental requirement has never, ever changed?

I get that the creative brief is, and must remain, an organic document that evolves as the nature of projects change.

But let’s also understand that no matter how brilliant the questions are, the answers have to be equally brilliant, even more so. They have to be focused, relevant, insightful. And if you don’t have insights, there are ways around that, tools that you can employ to help you divine insights from common sense and experience (see specifically the chapter that discusses the Deep Target Dive in my book How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief).

The best creative talents on the planet, from architects Frank Gehry and David Rockwell to advertising creatives like John Jay and John Boiler to authors such as Maira Kalman universally agree that the best briefs present, in the words of John Boiler, “…the most audacious and seemingly the impossible” (Briefly, Basset & Partners).

An excellent test of the well written brief, and they do exist, can be summarized by Howard Margulies:

It’s been suggested that you’ll know you’re onto something big when you can pitch the story in under 30 seconds. Can you deliver an elevator speech for your product? Are you writing it to be read?

Is this truly about new templates or better questions? Perhaps, but I think the key remains content. Whether you’re trying to break through the clutter or trying to engage your ideal buyer in a brand conversation, you still need insights to start the process. That means you need the intrepid brief writer who takes the time, in collaboration with creatives, to uncover those insights.

The result will be a brief that inspires. An inspirational brief doesn’t have to be as good as the creative it inspires. But it has to be good enough to get the creative team thinking…and doodling.

Ah, doodling and writing. Two more indicators that your brief has done its job.

Five reasons why you don’t need a creative brief.

(Adapted from the second edition of How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief by Howard Ibach. Published by Juju Books, due in June 2015)

I have heard these rationale spoken out loud by real, flesh-and-blood, breathing people who claimed to be alive. I suspect you have heard them too. EPSON scanner imagePerhaps you have spoken them. You don’t need to raise your hand. You know who you are.

5. “The creative team is brilliant. They’ll figure it out.”

Maybe. If you’re lucky.

But experience tells me that very few people can just “figure out” a creative brief that inspires the desired results.

And even if you are lucky, that’s still no guarantee.

Your creative team may be very good at what they do in terms of divining creative ideas that sell. But passing the buck on the creative brief sets you up for huge problems.

4. “Everyone knows what we want to do.”

Yeah, your people are all clairvoyant, too.

Your company consists of good people and they’ll have disagreements. You’ll discover this as soon as you write a draft of a creative brief.

The time to learn about those disagreements is before you assign the project. Not after the ideas get presented and someone says, “Yeah, but we never show photos of club members with their shirts off. Didn’t someone tell you that?” (This actually happened to me when I presented work to a client in the health club business that showed a chiseled bodybuilder sans tee-shirt. Nowhere in the creative brief was this little tidbit mentioned, and it could have saved everyone the embarrassment.)

3. “We don’t do anything briefly around here.”

You must be the people with the thousand-page Website.

Brief doesn’t necessarily mean fewest possible words. Some well-written briefs can be five pages.

As I have written in a previous post, David Ogilvy is famous for having said, “Give me the freedom of a tightly written creative brief.”

There is no time like the present to hone new skills. The creative brief deserves your attention.

2. “We always just have a meeting and everyone takes good notes.”

When was the last time you played the child’s game called “Telephone”?

piclemmingThe creative brief is the repository of collective wisdom. Everyone may take good notes, but as anyone who has watched a trial with eyewitness testimony, different people have different takes on the same events. A creative brief documents your objectives.

1. “The deadline is yesterday.”

Ah, yes. You have no time to write a creative brief.

I saw a poster in the office of a print production colleague that read, “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”

I also remember this one: “There’s never time to do it right, but there’s always time to do it over.”

When you operate without a creative brief, you’re flying by the seat of your pants. Worse, you’re flying blind. That translates into wasted time, wasted money, waster opportunities.

Have you heard other excuses for not writing a creative brief? Or for accepting a poorly written creative brief? I’d love to hear from you.

What makes a creative brief writer?


Two thousand fifteen marks my 30th year in the advertising business. I put in more than a quarter century at ad agencies and corporations. The last few years I’ve devoted to writing, teaching and waxing philosophic about the creative brief, clear writing and critical thinking.

My job as a creative was to work from a creative brief. I’ve written more than my share of creative briefs, but only because I had to, and because I was the de facto expert. My training in writing briefs comes from the U of Getitdone. That and having read a lot of briefs, and I mean a lot. I’d estimate, conservatively, that I’ve read over 2,000 creative briefs in my career.

So I may not qualify as an “trained” account planner with the necessary background in statistics and analytics, but I think I can hold my own with the best of the best.

Which leads me to two questions: What does it take to be a writer of an inspired creative brief? Who is most likely to possess the necessary qualities?

(By the way, Jon Steel has a wonderful video on YouTube about what he values in a good account planner. I tip my hat to him for inspiring this post.)

My list is short: Courage, curiosity, optimism.

Courage. As I have written elsewhere, the writer of a creative brief has the enormous task of writing the first adCourage_is_contagious

John Hegarty gets credit for this thought. He also says that the first ad doesn’t have to be a great ad, but it must be good enough to spark a conversation. So courage is a requirement because the creative brief writer must take a leap of faith. She must possess the steadfastness of her convictions. It’s an enviable quality. It’s an absolute must.

Curiosity. You can be short of life experience but make up for it by owning an insatiable wonder about the world around you. As a creative for my entire career, I always thought of the ad business of one of the few careers that demands that you be a Renaissance Man/Woman. You must have broad interests and the capacity to learn about new things almost daily. Curiosity fuels this capacity. Your curiosity as a brief writer also fuels the curiosity of the creative[2]-33278-p

Optimism. This may seem obvious. I don’t think you can succeed in the ad business as anything but an optimist. It is especially true of the creative brief writer. You must have absolute belief in the power of words to shape an outcome. You must believe in yourself to shape those words. You must believe in the process that results in an inspired creative brief: The acquisition of insights about human nature that, when reduced to their most clarifying elements, inspire big thinking. You must believe this.6e520b24c7f2022e3e60feb9b59d15aa

So who possess these attributes? Merlin. Gandhi. Dumbledore.

If you are a risk taker, love a challenge, do not accept anything less than excellence, I’d say you are likely to succeed.

If you view each creative brief writing assignment as an opportunity to push the creative team to break new ground, you have a skill others will covet.

Live long and inspire, with apologies to Mr. Spock.

The creative brief is like a letter to an audience of one.

Creatives tend to zoom in on the single-minded proposition when the creative brief is handed out. It’s our natural tendency to ask, “What’s the key message?”

But who we speak to is equally important. When we know who we are addressing, knowing how to craft the right message becomes easier.

It falls on your shoulders as the brief writer to provide not only the right information about the who and the how, but also to remember that our job as communicators is to rely on fundamentals: by talking clearly, directly and passionately. You can’t achieve these goals by speaking to an audience of millions or even thousands. Your brief must be a kind of letter directed to an audience of one.

The movie director Steven Spielberg is reported to have said, Steven-Spielberg

My success comes from making movies for the masses, but I talk to them one at a time.

This thought neatly sums up an inspired creative brief. Or put another way, if a brief is assembled well, its content offers the creative team unique insights into the individual who would purchase the product or service being sold by the advertiser.

If a creative brief speaks clearly, directly and passionately to the individual, it speaks to the masses.

How? Stop thinking of the creative brief as a document and start thinking of it as a letter. A personal letter from the advertiser to one person who, based on your knowledge of the product, seems most likely to value the advertiser’s product.

Talk to her. Find common ground. Flesh her out with hard-earned research, common sense, your insights into her thinking and the life she leads. Draw a word picture of who she is and let that inspire you to infuse the creative brief with a real conversation.

Don’t talk to the masses. Engage with an individual.

Don’t fill your brief with bullet points. Embody it with living, breathing details, the details that are the stuff of real life.


A creative brief is too often the captive of institutionalized thinking. You must not allow this to happen. The brief is too often filled with business jargon and product-ese. It’s your job to prevent this.

Jon Steel, author of Truth, Lies and Advertising, said, “Engage your consumers, don’t target them. Make them willing accomplices.”

It’s the difference between sitting on opposite sides of a table and looking across at one another. Or sitting next to each other, able to connect by physical touch.

The creative brief that engages with a single individual as if it were a personal letter is perhaps the single most important insight the creative team could ask for.