Rave review for 2nd edition of How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief

The second edition of How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief, the book Paul Suggett ranks #1 on his list “10 Advertising Books You Absolutely Must Read” has earned an equally prestigious review on his About.com page. 2nd edition book cover

He writes:

In a nutshell, this is a book that can improve the quality of the work coming out of your agency within weeks. And at the same time, improve the morale of everyone, from the sullen copywriter who’s tired of being given flimsy direction, to the creative director exhausted from showing the client work that “isn’t quite what we were looking for.”

He closes with this:

On behalf every creative working in advertising today, thank you Howard Ibach. This is a book no one wanted to write, but everyone wanted to read.

Read the complete Paul Suggett review. Expect publication of the 2nd edition in June 2015. Add your email address to the Feedburner subscription sign up on the left and be the first to receive news of publication.

Thank you Paul!

3 reasons why creatives should never write their own creative briefs.

In the late 1980s, when I was about three years into my career, I went to work for a business-to-business ad agency that did not have a creative brief as part of its process. I didn’t know this when I took the job. I learned to ask the question every time I moved jobs after that.

When I protested the absence of the brief, the response was: Fine, we’ll start using a creative brief. You write it. I was a copywriter. Not a senior copywriter. Just a copywriter. The account department wanted nothing to do with it. I was on my own.

So I started writing the creative brief. It was the first experience of frustration with this document that ultimately led, 20 years later, to the publication of my book, How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief.

I wrote the creative brief for that agency for the two years I worked there. Ed_Sheeran_-_Don't_(Official_Single_Cover)I do not recommend it for any creative, no matter how much better you think you can do it.

Why not?

I have three reasons why creatives of any stripe should never write their own creative briefs, by which I mean independent of any input from the account management department.

1. It’s not your job, man.

I can’t say it any plainer. The creative brief exists for the sole purpose of inspiring the creative department. Ergo, creatives can’t author their own inspiration.

It’s like trying to tell yourself a joke. You already know the punchline. And it’s no longer all that funny.

2. Never solo, always as a team.

I am an advocate of collaboration: creatives and account people should work on this document together for every project. They should also brief the creative team(s) together.

When I say “account people and creatives,” however, I am not speaking about a committee. I refer to a team: One account person, one creative. It’s the same team structure you find in the creative department with one writer and one art director: Two strong, disciplined professionals who balance out the other.

(Anyone remember this: What is a camel? A horse put together by a committee. I rest my case.) brown-bactrian-camel

3. The creative brief has to surprise.

Here’s the rub. The creative brief must inspire. But it doesn’t have to produce the final, agency-endorsed creative idea.

Whoa…did he just write that?

Yes he did. Read it again. The creative brief does not have to produce the winning concept from the creative department, but it must inspire the creatives to get there.

There’s a big difference. A great brief lights a fire. A so-so brief does not. If you’re at all familiar with how the mind produces an idea, you know that the first piece of fuel it needs is…information.

And not just any kind of information. Insightful information. Relevant information. Information that teases, provokes, instigates.

So who has a keen awareness of the creative process? The creatives themselves. That’s why including a creative on the two-person team that writes the creative brief is so vital. The creative brief-writing team needs the same kind of yin-yang balance that you find in the creative department: two people who can act as the BS detector for the other.

Let’s remember something else: The creative brief has only to get the ball rolling. It has to start the process. Don’t put unnecessary pressure on this document to produce the final big idea. That’s the job of your creatives. They just need a good shove in the right direction.

An inspired creative brief must surprise. 340x_vintage_surprised_ladyIt doesn’t have to solve the problem.

Creatives: Don’t be so arrogant that you think you can write a better creative brief than your account management colleague.

Account folks, don’t try to do the job alone.

Work together.




Clients should take these 5 steps to assure an inspired creative brief.

generate_creative_inspiration2.844vrjth2ww00sowog0wgwgg8.26qeyncemmo0w4w4sgokogcgw.thThe creative brief may be the domain of the advertising agency, but the power of its inspiration begins with the client, the company doing the advertising.

The creative brief, after all, is a response to the input the ad agency receives from its client.

If you, as the representative of your company’s branding efforts, choose to spend a serious chunk of your annual budget on advertising, it is in your best interest to make the relationship work. That relationship should start with clearly defined objectives and active participation in the process that leads up to the ad agency’s creative brief.

Follow these five steps and you can assure a firm foundation for every creative brief you ad agency writes.

1. Submit a client brief.

Believe it or not, many clients do not engage in this practice. This is a huge mistake.

I have worked on both the ad agency side and the client side. Some ad agencies in my past did not utilize creative briefs. One client where I worked as the senior executive in charge of advertising also did not have a brief. In both instances, I initiated the practice, sometimes with serious resistance. Resist-Change_0

Sometimes it’s called a client brief. I’ve also seen something called a marketing-communications brief (marcom brief for short). If you don’t have either, choose one and institute it right away as part of your best practices.

The client brief is your first opportunity to define expectations in writing. It is your way of saying to your ad agency/creative consultants what, exactly, you expect them to produce. It is very much a contract, a document that sets the tone and the direction. Take it seriously.

Have you heard the phrase, “Garbage in, garbage out”? You know that any effort is worth only as much as you put into it. This is not merely excellent advice. It’s a cautionary tale.

2. Brief your agency partners with this document, and ask both account and creative staff to attend.

Every good relationship depends on communication. This means both clear direction giving and attentive listening. When you ask to brief your agency partners with your client brief on every new project, you are setting not only an example, but also expectations.

Every creative brief you read from your agency is a direct answer to your client brief. It is the agency’s way of saying, “We understand your directions and this is how we have interpreted them.”

If you don’t use a client brief and if you don’t brief your partners with this document, you are leaving yourself wide open for the worst possible outcomes: misinterpretation, misunderstanding, wasted time and wasted money.

3. Insist on being part of the discussion with your agency partners when they begin drafting your creative brief.

Some agency execs may see this as heresy. I say it is vital. It is part of the building blocks of a good, and long-lasting, relationship.

You want to see how your ad agency people interact with each other. You want to hear how they think. They will want to know the same things about you and your team. You have your unique perspective on the products or services you are advertising. If you are honest with yourself, you admit to a skewed and biased point of view. Of course! In the competitive marketplace, you are a partisan.

Your agency people are partisans too, in your corner to help you sell more goods and services.

When you join in this discussion on the first draft of a creative brief, you solidify the place of the brief (yours and the ad agency’s) in the process.

But don’t overstay your welcome. Contribute in the initial phase, and then let your agency people do their jobs. You will see the final outcome in due course, at which time you will have a say.

4. An inspired creative brief may scare you. Remember who the real target is.

The box on the brief that creatives tend to read first is the Single-Minded Proposition (SMP). An inspired SMP is supposed to be very ad-like in its phrasing. It can often sound headline-y. Like a concept or an idea by itself.

I’ve written in this space before that the legendary creative director John Hegarty has often described this line as the first ad for the product. He would write out this line on a blank piece of paper above or below a picture of the product and then tape it to his wall. If it did its job, it was this first ad, the one that ideally would inspire the creatives to create better and better ideas.

Be prepared for something unexpected and often not meant for public consumption. Remember who it is written for: the creative team(s). Not you.

A piece of advice: If the SMP does in fact scare you or make you feel uncomfortable, it’s likely a very good first ad.

This is your cue to smile and sign off on the brief.

5. Participate in the briefing of the creatives.

When you have read and approved the creative brief from you ad agency, ask to be part of the briefing of the creative team or teams assigned to this project. Creatives will have many questions. If you are a veteran of such briefings, you know. If you are new, you will discover both creatives’ curiosity and skepticism as they grapple with realities and challenges on their journey to the idea that becomes the new campaign. Polar Bears Curiosity

This is another step in your bonding process with the people who come up with the ideas. Ask them questions! Encourage them to think aloud during this meeting. Ferret out their thinking, their concerns, their ingenuity…their uninhibited joy in the creative process.

The creative brief, as I have said many times, is the first step in the creative process. It is the document bemoaned and disdained and, when it is done well, heralded.

But we forget that the creative brief does not exist in a vacuum. It is a response to whatever input the agency received from its client.

If you end up not liking the ideas your agency presents, ask yourself if you did your job up front with a clear client brief.


What creatives can contribute to writing a creative brief

Writing a creative brief should never be a solo practice. It must be a collaborative process. This is not the same as creative-brief-by-committee, but it should be a team-assembled creation.

I confess that when I was a practicing copywriter, even a young creative director, I rarely worked with the account management or account planning teams to chisel out a draft of a creative brief. Only later, after I’d written an early draft of my book, did I offer to work with those lonely souls who wrote briefs.

If I were starting my career today, knowing what I know about the challenges of writing a great creative brief, I would do things differently.

That’s why I have compiled this list of what advertising creatives can contribute to the process of writing an inspired creative brief.

Whether you—copywriter, art director, graphic designer, creative director, web content manager….the list is long—are a novice or the senior player, you have something at stake in the outcome of the creative brief.

1. Step up. Don’t wait to be asked.

If you are a senior-level creative (creative director or higher), you probably already collaborate with your account brethren on the brief. If you don’t, shame on you. Start today. Volunteer-Hands-Large

If you are anywhere else on the ladder of experience/responsibility, from novice to mid-career and you do not work with your account team on the brief, start now. This is not only a great team-building exercise, it is a career-enhancing practice.

Take ownership with your account person of the brief-writing process together. Volunteer to help, even if it starts out as just proofreading the first draft. I guarantee that any offer to help will be accepted with enthusiasm. The more sincere the offer, the more likely you are to learn and play an influencing role.

You, the ad creative, already know the value of working with a partner (your art director or copywriter) to produce better work. The principle holds true with the writing of a creative brief. You might just use this idea if your account team member resists.

Art directors, don’t shy away because you’re not a writer. If you’re a good thinker and conceptor, you have honed your BS detectors and can see faulty thinking when you read it. My best art director partners over the years played this role with me. They admitted that they couldn’t write a headline, but they knew a bogus idea when they saw it.

2. Ask questions first.

I have little doubt that an account person whose responsibility includes writing creative briefs will turn down your offer to help. But there might be some skepticism, especially if there is any tension between the account and creative departments. You’ll know whether this is true or not in your agency or place of employment.

If there is some tension, start your collaboration from a place of honest inquiry. Ask questions about how your account co-worker approaches the creative brief. Use the Socratic approach: each question can be followed by another question as you figure out the process.


I suggest this as a way to gauge the reaction of your co-worker and especially as a preventive measure. The last thing you want to do is make pronouncements and sweeping statements, or worse, accusations about weak past creative briefs.

Your job here is to turn your expressed interest in collaborating into a workable and successful team effort to produce killer creative briefs. Rome, as they say, was not built in a day. Take it slow and easy.

3. Brief the creative team with your account co-worker/brief-writing partner

Trod new ground. Typically, it is the account team that briefs the creatives. Why not break the mold and brief together? You worked on the process with your partner. Ergo, you have insights from the experience of sculpting the finished draft.


Not only does this adaptation of the briefing process communicate a common stake-holding position, it demonstrates to both teams—account and creative alike—that the partnership is serious and sustainable.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received on how to shake up my thinking when I get into a creative corner was to stop and turn everything around 180 degrees. Look at your challenge from a completely fresh perspective.

Briefing the creative team as a creative representative of the creative-brief writing team will make everyone see the process differently.

4. Reciprocate

Invite your new creative-brief collaborating account co-worker into your creative space and show her early drafts of your ideas. Talk about how your thinking, based on this brief you worked on together, sparked the ideas you’re experimenting with. Ask for feedback. Talk. Question. Listen.

Most importantly, collaborate. Or rather, continue the collaboration you started when you were writing the creative brief.

The idea here is not so much to blur the lines between account and creative. That’s not truly going to happen. It’s to synchronize the thinking process between the key players.

If you literally start on the same page on the same day of a new task—writing a creative  brief together—you are far less likely, it seems to me, to get off track later on.


4 steps to writing an inspiring Single-Minded Proposition.

When I was a kid back in my hometown of Milwaukee, I loved basketball. Around the age of 13 I attended a week-long basketball camp hosted by the legendary coach of the 4641939331_0fee32dc15Marquette Warriors, Al McGuire. Coach McGuire put us through drills morning and afternoon before we had scrimmages after dinner.

It was grueling work, but when you’re a kid, it was just plain fun. Non-stop basketball. I loved it.

Looking back on that experience, I understand why we spent so much time practicing fundamentals: dribbling, layups, free-throws, jump shots. And running. Back and forth. Back and forth. I can still hear the sounds of pounding feet and squeaky sneakers on the polished hardwood courts.

These days, I teach Freshman English at community college in Los Angeles, which means I teach students about how to write an essay. If you think back to your days as a student, you might recall that the hardest part of an essay was the thesis statement. After more than 25 years as an ad copywriter and creative director, reading and working from creative briefs, the first thing I discovered about teaching students how to write a thesis statement was the remarkable similarity between it and the creative brief’s most challenging box:

The Single-Minded Proposition.

The essay’s thesis statement and the creative brief’s Single-Minded Proposition (or One Important Thing or Key Message or whatever you call it on your brief template) essentially work the same kind of magic: They tell the reader the point.

In an essay, the point is, What is your argument?

In a creative brief, the point is, What is the compelling reason why anyone wants this thing we’re selling?

It’s the hardest part of the creative brief to write because it carries so much weight. It’s typically the first thing a creative looks at when the briefing process begins. It is, as John Hegarty says, the first ad.

So what can be done to make this impossibly vital and important little sentence just a bit easier to write?

Go back to fundamentals.

Always, always, always: Go back to fundamentals. Whether it’s in sports or college writing, when you return to basics, you return to the things that help you develop mastery. layup-00

The reason why the Single-Minded Proposition is so difficult to write is that, like a thesis statement, it is entirely subjective.

It is an opinion.

Which means it has to express some point of view. And someone may disagree with it.

Don’t be intimidated. The Single-Minded Proposition springs from the product itself, so your opinion will be based on fact.

Here, then, are four basic steps on how to arrive at a good Single-Minded Proposition. Remember, as the first ad, in Hegarty’s words, the Single-Minded Proposition does not have to be great.

1. Identify the product’s most important features.

Every product (or service) has a feature. It is one of the aspects of the product that makes the product what it is. One feature of any Apple product, for example, is the intuitive nature of the software. It is easy to use. It’s why a toddler can pick up an iPhone or iPad and start using it without a manual.

2. When you identify the important features, figure out each feature’s benefits.

In other words, why does anyone care about this particular aspect of the product? Why, for example, does Apple’s intuitive software matter? Who cares? What’s in it for me, the user?

Yes, this is very basic stuff. When you figure out the product benefit, you’re halfway to figuring out a Single-Minded Proposition.

I say halfway because the leap from product benefit to Single-Minded Proposition is not direct. It is not literal.

The product feature talks to your head. The product benefit talks to your heart.

3. One of those feature/benefits will be the compelling reason to make a purchase.

Focus on the word “Single” in the Single-Minded Proposition. No matter what the product manager or senior marketing executive at your client says, the product you’re selling is not a “unique package of features,” a term I have heard repeatedly. The best communications are focused messages telling a story about one thing.

This may require some discussion, but you must agree on only one of the items on the short list of feature/benefits. This one will be your candidate for Single-Minded Proposition.

Like all good writing, a Single-Minded Proposition will probably not appear on your first try. Write many drafts. Be more daring with each try. Which leads to the final step:

4. Try the Times Square Test

When you have a draft of a Single-Minded Proposition, give it this test: Imagine you’re standing in the middle of Times Square at 11 PM on a Saturday night. If you’ve ever been there, you know it’s a sea of people, mostly tourists. timessquare

Now imagine you are standing on one side of Broadway and the person you think is the ideal purchaser of your client’s product is standing on the other side of Broadway. If you yelled your Single-Minded Proposition at the top of your lungs and your ideal purchaser heard you, would she get it? Would she understand the reason to buy this product?

You get only one shot at this test. And you have to be honest—with yourself. If you think the line communicates the compelling reason to make the purchase, you probably have a good Single-Minded Proposition.

There’s one caveat: The Single-Minded Proposition can be off-the-wall and outrageously over the top. It’s not meant for public consumption, but rather to inspire your creative team.

As the creative brief writer, your task is to deliver the most inspired and inspiring document you can to your creative team or teams.

That job is hard. Stick with fundamentals. This is how you develop mastery.