If you can’t explain what a creative brief is, how can you write an inspired one?

What is your definition of a good creative brief? If you work in advertising, marketing, PR or social media, and a variety of other fields, chances are you have a working answer.

Here’s a great answer from a book called What’s a Good Brief? The Leo Burnett Way, written in 1998:

“A good creative brief…

…is brief and single minded
…is logical and rooted in a compelling truth
…incorporates a powerful human insight
…is compatible with the overall brand strategy
…is the result of hard work and team work”

Okay, so that’s what makes a good creative brief. But what is your definition of the document itself? Forget the descriptors. What is this thing?

If you don’t have a definition, how do you know if your brief is good or great or inspired? If you don’t know what each of those five points above is, how do you know if you even have a creative brief?

Let’s take a break this week and define the document itself so we know when a great one lands in front of us.

The simplest definition I have is this:

A creative brief is an objectives document whose sole purpose is to spark relevant ideas for the creative team.

I like it. But does it explain all the points in the Leo Burnett definition, which, by the way, is pretty darn close to being definitive? No.

Remove the word “good” and focus on just “creative brief.” If you look closely at the Leo Burnett criteria, you have a solid working definition:

1. A creative brief is brief and single minded

The document reduces to its most essential elements the purpose of the job being assigned to the creative team. Therefore it must, by definition, be focused. It must get to the point. i_love_single_minded_tshirt-rb60739ffd3fb423785cc26764a500fbd_8nhmp_324

This idea often flies in the face of a product manager’s expectations. She sees her product as a “unique package of features” (a term I heard spoken out loud by a marketing manager some years ago).

No one buys a “unique package of features.” They buy a solution to a problem, real or perceived. A favorite shampoo makes your hair look just so. You feel sexy. Your car makes you feel successful or masculine or trendy.

The creative brief makes tangible what this “feeling” is and communicates it succinctly to the creative team.

2. A creative brief is logical and rooted in a compelling truth

A creative brief must connect the dots for the creative team, starting with the reason why a product is desirable. The brief must show the logic behind the product-as-solution, not just the emotion. In other words, a creative brief must tell a single-minded truth.

For example, the single-minded proposition on one creative brief for the soft drink Tango reads: “Join the Tango resistance.”

spockThe “logic” is the reason to believe the proposition. What facts can you present to the creative team to help them build their creative case? With Tango: “It is no ordinary soft drink; it therefore says something about you when you drink it. It’s controversial, daring and overt,” according to the brief.

3. A creative brief incorporates a powerful human insight

Staying with the soft drink Tango, the brief writer had access to an insight about who would drink this product: teenagers.

Teens, according to the agency creative brief, “take on a brand’s personality as a representation of their own. Therefore, if a brand has no personality, it’s impossible for (teens) to feel an affiliation toward it.”

The brief also makes clear that Tango’s history of being out of the ordinary had not been leveraged. The conclusion? “In order to gain a loyal consumer base, we need to give (teens) something that’s worth being involved with.” 5661_ideas_moderation_permalink-1

Although this product and its television campaign are dated, the brief stands as a towering example of being “inspired.” Go to YouTube and view the spot that arose from this brief. You’ll see a “compelling truth” in 60 seconds.

4. A creative brief is compatible with the overall brand strategy

A simple reminder: If you don’t have a strategy, you cannot write a creative brief. Strategy first, creative brief second.

5. A creative brief is the result of hard work and team work

Even in the late 1990s, Leo Burnett recognized the value of teamwork in writing a creative brief. No one writes ads by themselves. It is a process that involves a team: copywriter and art director.

No one should write a creative brief alone. At least two people should collaborate. I recommend an account planner or account management person plus a senior creative. iFPG9VCwIIohqdefaultBut even junior account people and junior creatives, pairing up, are better than a soloist.

These five criteria, for me, are the definition of both a good creative brief and, simply, the creative brief itself. A creative brief is not a creative brief if it does not accomplish these five objectives.

This was a review of basics. As if you were practicing lay-ups on the basketball court or doing barre-work in a beginning ballet class.

Professionals always return to fundamentals to polish their skills.

Ad agencies: Bad client briefs are your fault.


In April, Adweek ran a story titled, “New ANA Survey Shows the Gap Between Clients and Agencies on Issues Like Compensation and Briefs.” ana_logo

The ANA is the Association of National Advertisers, an organization begun in 1910 with more than 650 companies, representing 10,000 brands and annual advertising and marketing expenditures exceeding $250 billion. When this group speaks, ad people listen.

So when I read this line from the ANA’s Executive Summary, I was aghast:

Agencies emphatically believe that clients do not provide clear assignment briefings.

To add salt to this wound, of the 105 agencies surveyed by ANA, not one “strongly agreed” that clients provide clear client briefings. Not one.

I won’t win any friends in the ad agency world when I say this, but it’s your own damn fault.

Nowhere in the Executive Summary did I see a single mention of the creative brief. Only the client brief was pilloried for its weaknesses.

The briefing, from client brief to creative brief, is the beginning of the creative process. Ad agencies own this process. So own it!

Here, then, are three tangible steps that advertising agencies must take to correct this failure.

1. Take the initiative

Don’t complain about a bad client brief. Do something about it. You can’t afford to make excuses.

Whether your relationship with the client is brand new or twenty years old, the first step of the creative process begins with a brief. This is when you, the ad agency, must be prepared to perform in-the-field triage. If past experience tells you to anticipate an unclear brief, address it on the spot.

How? The easiest and most direct step you can take is to make sure both an account person and a creative person review the client brief while it’s still fresh. Build this step into your process and communicate it clearly to your client. Make it non-negotiable.

When I worked for a pharmaceutical ad agency in Chicago 20 years ago, I was startled, at first, by what happened when a new client came to visit for the first time. Agency executives began not by trotting out the creative team, not the account management team, not even research. They began the day-long orientation by introducing the new client to the accounting department: accounts receivable and accounts payable. It’s one of the reasons this agency remained profitable…and open.

goldfish jumping out of the water

The power to set expectations resides with you, the ad agency. So set them. Don’t wait for them to be set for you.

2. Fix a bad client brief with a great creative brief

Never let a bad client brief stop you from delivering a stellar, inspired creative brief.

A client brief is only one-half of the briefing process. It is a statement of the problem the client wants the ad agency to address.

The agency’s creative brief is the response.

That has always been one of its primary functions. The creative brief is a clarifying document. It clarifies not only for the creative team, but also for the client. The agency’s creative brief says to the client: This is what we think you have asked us to do.

Ergo, there is no excuse for a bad client brief. When the client sees the ad agency’s response to its brief, and if anything about the assignment was not clear, it will show up in the creative brief.

Ideally, the creative brief will have overcome the client brief’s impreciseness. fixitBut even if it doesn’t, there is never any reason why an ad agency should complain about missing the mark with its creative product.

The creative brief, well written and appropriately inspiring, is designed to prevent poor creative from happening.

3. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate!

I am constantly amazed that “collaboration” is still such a foreign concept and unfamiliar word in the ad game. That is changing, but slowly.

The model is the copywriter/art director collaboration that has existed at ad agencies for decades. This model should be replicated between creative and account management, and I have written extensively on this topic. It should also be replicated from day one with the parties at the client and the agency who are responsible for “briefing,” which includes the client brief and the agency’s response, the creative brief.

So, implement these three steps in your briefing process and you should never have to endure an unclear assignment from your client.

Pipe dream? No. Not at all. Failure to believe and act on these ideas sets you up for more failure.

Remember, you’re not putting your faith in a document—either the client or the creative brief. You’re putting your faith in its clarifying and inspiring powers. calrify-values

5 classic creative brief-writing mistakes

mistakeI’ve read hundreds, perhaps thousands, of creative briefs in my nearly 30 years in the ad business. Certain mistakes always seem to repeat themselves. Follow this simple guide and you can avoid some of the more common ones that creative brief writers make everyday.

1. Don’t forget that a creative brief must wear its passion on its sleeve.

Brief writers sometimes forget that the creative brief is firstly a position paper. It serves as an advocate for the product or service. Ergo, it must be clearly partisan. 1355676754_1347_Cheesehead

Fortunately, I have never read a creative brief that wasn’t partisan. But I have read plenty of briefs that were decidedly unenthusiastic in their partisanship. Which is almost worse.

If you want to fire up your creative team, their fire depends on your fire. You must be fanatical in your advocacy. That fanaticism must come through in the words you choose, the ideas you express, the passion in the document itself.

If you want to inspire, remember that your brand zealotry must be on display from the first word to the last.

2. Don’t forget to make your communication objectives clear and inspiring.

I’ve identified three boxes or questions on the creative brief that serve as the heart of the document. Any one, or more, of these three elements that are weak and the document suffers.

The first of these three questions is, “What are the communication objectives?” There are variations on this question, but this spot on the brief is where the client and the agency have agreed on the main selling points of the product.

Typically, you don’t want more than three messages in any communication. Realistically, you want only two: the most important benefit of the product, and then a reminder of the brand message. I call this a “brand reinforcement.” Sometimes the most important product benefit and the brand reinforcement are the same thing, so you have the perfect storm for a communication: one clear idea.

Whether you have three messages or one, the classic mistake at this spot of the creative brief occurs when they are fuzzy, soft, uninspiring. This situation typically results when the language the writer uses lacks the element of zealotry I mentioned in #1 above. But it also comes about when the writer struggles to simply be clear.

My solution is to focus in on your choice of verbs. Verbs are the John Wayne of words. They’re all about action. The creative team is looking for inspiration they can act on. When you choose the precise verb to describe your objectives, you hone in on specific emotions.

John-Wayne-p15For example, what if one of your communication objectives reads like this: “Describe to the consumer how Brand X will make her feel…”? Is that clear? My answer is, compared to what? It’s an easy enough idea to understand, but where is the brand zealotry? Nowhere, in my opinion.

Now, what if you wrote this instead: “Seduce her with Brand X’s …..”

What’s the difference between “describe” from the first version and “seduce” in the second? An entire world of possibility. Both are verbs, but the second verb, “seduce,” is deliciously specific, entertaining, and far more inspiring.

So what’s in a verb? Plenty. Take the time to think about what action you want the creative team to make and choose your verbs accordingly.

3. Don’t forget to make your single-minded proposition clear and inspiring…and truly single-minded.

Box number two on my all-star list of three boxes is the single-minded proposition (SMP). It’s the hardest question to answer on the brief. And the one that carries the most weight. Rightly so.

The SMP emerges organically from your (short) list of communication objectives. When that list is boring and vague, chances are the SMP will be a chip off the old block.

Bad idea.

Now understand that the SMP isn’t merely a “cut and paste” from the list of communication objectives. It’s not that simple. You need to revise and massage the one communication objective that stands out into something of its own. Sometimes a truly well-written SMP can become a product tag line. Or even a concept.

The temptation for the brief writer to play it safe with the SMP can be irresistible. It can end up reading like either a laundry list of everything in the communication objectives, or a generic statement like this: “There is no other product on the market like Brand Y.”

Which may be true. But so what? No one cares that it’s unique. No one will buy it just because it’s the only one like it. They might buy it if they had a reason!

The SMP must provide that motivation.

4. You don’t need a research budget to find an insight about your product user.

These days, there simply is no excuse for not having some insight into the thinking and/or buying habits of your product’s user. Data is everywhere.

Even if you don’t have a research budget, simple Socratic questioning can lead the average advertising professional to remarkably astute deductions about the product’s users. And, therefore, a usable insight that creatives can employ as a springboard to a winning idea.

My technique is called a Deep Target Dive™. It’s nothing more than a laddering system that asks one pointed question over and over. Begin by asking, “Why would the SMP appeal to Ms. Product User?” When you arrive at the answer, ask this question: “Why would that be important to her?”

With each new answer, ask the question, “Why would that be important to her?” again. Ask it as often as you can. In a matter of minutes, you’ll arrive at an answer that is both credible and unique. This is your educated insight. Brought to you by a dead Greek. Socrates_Louvre

5. Don’t forget that you should not write the creative brief by yourself.

This is a relatively new concept, but one I’ve been advocating for years. Some agencies are adopting the idea of pairing an account person with a creative person to write the creative brief.

If this isn’t happening where you work, step up and suggest it. Better yet, just do it. If you’re the brief writer, find a willing creative and recruit her. If you’re a creative, no matter what level, volunteer to work with someone in the account management department.

Don’t stop with just writing the brief together. Team up and present the brief at the briefing session. You’ll turn heads and the creative and account teams will look at both the document and the briefing itself with new eyes.

The first four points are common mistakes. The last is a mistake only in the sense that writing a creative brief should never have been a solo effort in the first place. The very idea demands a team approach in the same way that the best creative comes from a copywriter/art director collaboration. In time, I hope everyone will see the inevitability of this step.

Happy brief writing!

3 steps to avoid a creative brief that looks like a walk-in refrigerator.

Ideas present themselves when you least expect them. Just recently I was reading the Los Angeles Times and came across an article entitled, “Europe’s little fridges hold secret to less waste.”

It was a eureka moment.

Having lived in Europe myself for a short time 30 years ago, I remember my own tiny fridge in the seventh-floor walk up I rented. It forced me to shop more often because it held much less. But each meal was fresher and I wasted much less food. I also produced much less trash overall.

This everyday appliance is a perfect illustration of what can go wrong with a creative brief. It’s also the ideal comparison between the European model of a brief and the American.

The creative brief is an invention of the British, who would not like being called Europeans I know. Apologies, but you get my point. Brits, too, are known for smaller fridges.

Food_wasteAmericans, on the other hand, tend to purchase larger fridges and pack them with a week’s worth of groceries. We also tend to waste more food and produce more trash.

Ditto, I’m afraid, with the American version of the creative brief: Too much information, much of it wasted and unnecessary. It can end up looking like a double-door refrigerator monstrosity.

The lesson here is to remember that the brief is designed to not only inspire the creative team, but primarily to provide strategic reduction.

It is about getting to the heart of the matter.

The tendency, especially among inexperienced brief writers, is to include everything. Leave nothing out. This bad habit is born from the fear that the writer might forget a valuable tidbit that could lead to a winning idea.

It’s the wrong way to think. It’s also laziness.

Your job as a brief writer (including the creative who helps you write the creative brief) is to take the time you need to eliminate the waste and the unnecessary and the irrelevant. To weed out the superfluous and discover the hidden treasure that is the essence of an inspired creative brief. buried-treasure-iStock_000004087953Large1-1024x768

So here are three tests to administer to your next creative brief. Fail any one, and especially more than one, and you must consider revisions.

1. How many communication objectives have you listed?

If the answer is four or more, edit. Ideally, aim for three, and make sure that one of the objectives is always “Reinforce the brand.” That leaves two objectives, one of which will be the first among equals. Another name for this? The Single-Minded Proposition. One of your objectives must be the SMP. You will find the SMP nowhere else.

2. Be absolutely certain your SMP is truly Single-Minded.

Clients understandably want to say everything wonderful about their product or service. That’s why they hire ad agencies. The agency’s job is to talk them out of this nonsense. People who buy stuff (you and me and everyone else) are emotional creatures. We respond best to focused messages.

The analogy I like to use is this: You’ve heard about people who can fall asleep on a bed of nails. Too many points and they can’t truly hurt you. But have you ever considered sleeping on a bed with one sharp nail sticking out of it? No. You’d be crazy.

A well-written Single-Minded Proposition should resemble the bed with a single nail. You wouldn’t want to sleep on it, but you’d never miss the point (pun intended).

3. Find a consumer insight.

However you arrive at this consumer insight, you must have one. More than one if possible. But even just one can lead to a creative brief that inspires the creative team to find a big idea.

The consumer insight combined with a killer SMP is the heart of your inspired creative brief. There’s more to it, of course, but these two items are the infrastructure off of which you hang other pieces of information. Don’t bury these ingredients among useless information.

This means work. It is hard work. It is writing that springs from intense and creative thinking. It requires practice. Lots and lots of practice.

As I say to my college composition students, writing is not a formula. It is an art. It is a process that must be honed. It requires editing and revising. And it requires criticism and feedback.

Even though a well-written creative brief is the “first ad,” as John Hegarty calls it, it must never be a first draft.