Every brief writer needs a fishbowl.

peter-steiner-you-can-be-anything-you-want-to-be-no-limits-new-yorker-cartoon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the noted psychologist and TED Talk veteran, Barry Schwartz, has said, “Everyone needs a fishbowl.”

A fishbowl, that is, that provides at least the appearance of limitation and constraint. He argues, in his book, The Paradox of Choice, and his TED Talk, that too many choices do not make us happier or give us more freedom. Instead, too many choices cause paralysis.

Creative brief writers must understand this principle. The brief is designed not to give creative teams unlimited choices, or even abundant choices, but to restrict those choices. The creative brief, by definition, is a reductive document. It must glean the most important information about the product, reduce it to its most essential elements, and present those elements in a compelling fashion to inspire the creative team.

The result is more creative freedom, not less.

Too much information kills the brief. (Which is why the oldest, least-funny joke about the brief is related to its name.)

As the brief is designed to inspire good creative, it’s no mistake that creatives have learned from experience that the best creative ideas arise from restriction. Consider these words from T. S. Elliot: MTIwNjA4NjMzODAzOTMzMTk2

“When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.”

Advertising and marketing professionals live this daily. There is never enough time, never enough budget, never enough people, never enough resources to complete a project in the manner of their choosing. Lucky them. The best such professionals extract the best from the least.

Who has not heard or uttered this complaint:

There’s never enough time to do it right, but always enough time to do it over.

This excuse speaks to a lack of discipline in the face of restraints. Because we all face restraints everyday. The trick is to know how to use them to our benefit. Restrictions are liberating in the hands of someone who understands the nature of the imagination and creativity.

That’s why the creative brief remains such a critical component in the creative process. And why the brief is so damned hard to write. It also explains why the brief remains the target of so much abuse. When it’s hard to get it right, there are relatively few examples of outstanding briefs, and many examples of duds. I know: I’ve read too many of the former and not enough of the latter.

I suspect that brief writers are rather upset with me at this stage. They know the challenge of writing a great brief, and I’ve just made their lives a bit more difficult by emphasizing the importance of saying less, not more. Of saying less with more power and elegance.

I wonder, sometimes, if creative brief writers shouldn’t be schooled in the art of copywriting before they are allowed to write a creative brief.

I know my own education as a copywriter, which was earned by doing, not by attending any paid class, brought me face to face with the task of “copy fitting,” a mundane exercise that every copywriter endures.

Anyone who has ever taken a composition class learned how to cut a piece of writing in half. The challenge is to assure the message remains intact even as the word count dwindles. That’s what copy fitting is: Say what you have to say in only the space your art director allows.

Well, creative brief writers of the world, the creative brief is usually a page in length, which doesn’t mean you have to use the entire page. It can be 10 questions, five or even one astutely worded pick-axe.

Like Sardines in a Can October 12, 2002

To do it right and well, place yourself in a fishbowl. The idea is called liberating constraint. You will reward yourself and your creative team with more imaginative opportunities when you learn the benefits of living like a sardine.

50 years after its invention, the creative brief needs some fixes.

The creative brief dates to the early 1960s when account planning was introduced to the advertising world by a Brit named Stanley Pollitt. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the creative brief. Its role in developing great advertising deserves recognition and, no disrespect intended, a review. All good things can be improved.

As both an admirer and advocate of the creative brief, I offer a small gift to this document’s long history: Some ideas to make the creative brief better.

1. Consumers make decisions about brands based on their feelings, not their brains. The Single-Minded Proposition must reflect this truth.

This is an insight that is not new, but is slow to be embraced. Some account planners and academics have been writing about this topic, and I have written about it without being fully aware of the research. Professional experience, however, is hard to ignore.

Too often, we accept single-minded propositions that focus on rationality, on a mistaken belief that people make decisions based on facts and evidence, that we act reasonably. The process humans follow to arrive at a buying decision is sloppy, filled with irrational thinking, often contrary to our own best interests. Branding would not exist as we recognize it today if it were not because of this odd path we take before we open our wallets.

We must, therefore, change the way we view the core of the creative brief—the single-minded proposition. Some argue that the “single” nature of this idea is a relic, and there may be some truth in that, but I believe the most important argument here is the missing, or under-representation of, emotion. faces-small

It’s a scary thing to place so much weight on a hard-to-measure part of human psychology. The good news is, measuring emotional responses is actually getting easier, and more social scientists are exploring it, with fascinating results.

Advertising driven by direct appeals to emotion also works better. It is often more engaging, more humorous and more memorable. Refer to the link above for evidence and its nearly five pages of references.

The single-minded proposition is dead, as I suggested in a recent post. It must be replaced by an updated single-minded proposition that embraces the human nature of decision making: The messy, dynamic, more trustworthy emotions that make us who we are.

Just ask any creative. She knows from experience.

2. Creative brief writers must become better writers.

We must all become better writers, but this is especially true for communications professionals.

Please don’t mistake this as a plea for better headline writers. Anyone can write a headline. For proof, visit a parking lot and see how many clever personal license tags you can find. writer-1-300x300

Good, clear writing is a direct result of good, clear thinking. The creative brief is the first step in the creative process. It is the first ad written for any new communications project. It is the inspiration for the creative team. It must carry this weight with grace.

A poorly written creative brief is uninspiring for one reason and one reason only: Lack of clarity.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, lack of clarity is not, repeat not, because the brief fails to offer “outside the box” thinking, a term that has become meaningless; worse, it is simply dumb and wrong.

Lack of clarity means incoherent, unintelligible, not particular. It means fuzzy, blurred, unsharp. Good writing makes ideas coherent, intelligible, particular. Good brief writing makes coherent ideas sizzle.

Creative brief writers must be dedicated practitioners of the art of clear writing, first and foremost.

3. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate.

Less is more does not work in this space. Creative teams are called teams for a reason. Isn’t it about time we initiate creative brief teams?

If you have a stake in the outcome, you vest yourself. It’s time for creatives to take an equity stake in the document they love to loathe.

4. Re-new your vows to the creative brief.

I came across a blog post from a thoughtful account planner who suggested that the creative brief had outlived its usefulness and that in its place, clients, agencies and creatives should substitute a freer, uninhibited approach to producing creative solutions: A kind of “divergent thinking meets convergent thinking” informal brainstorming session.

I found myself shaking my head for the nth time. Someone is always trashing the document when the problem, in fact, is the content and the content’s originators.

No matter who complains about the creative brief, the complaint is rarely different: It doesn’t inspire enough. It doesn’t propel good thinking enough. It doesn’t work hard enough. It doesn’t do something quite enough.

To my thinking, this misses the point. The document is simply a place holder. It is ultimately only as good as the answers its questions provoke. Asking better questions might help, but that is the easy part. Producing better answers is my response, and it is definitely the hardest part.

Don’t blame a poorly imagined story on the document in which it resides. Look at yourself, the story teller.

transmutation_circle_part_1_by_orbita2k2-d5mkp26Renew your vows to this instrument of inspiration. Believe it can perform alchemy and it will. It is a blank space awaiting…

 

Why the brief will always be part of the creative process.

Sometimes you have to ask the simple questions because they tend to be the hardest to answer: Why do we use a creative brief at all when so many people seem to question its purpose and doubt its usefulness? Does this document have a role today?

The hardest questions to answer are therefore the most important questions to ask.

So I will go down this road and venture an answer. In my reading about the brief, and in my many discussions, I hear more complaints about this document than direct answers that address its role. But my answer is clear and unequivocal: Yes, the creative brief is as important today as it was when it was first introduced in the 1960s.

Here is my rationale for the creative brief:

1. The creative brief is a set of instructions.

Two thoughts come to mind here. The first is a recollection of something my 7th grade science teacher, Mr. Bredeson, posted on the wall of his classroom. It was a hand-lettered sign that read: “When all else fails, read the directions.” dummies

I’ve never forgotten this simple lesson. I repeat it every semester when my college classes begin anew. Guys tend to be the biggest offenders: They think they know how to put something together and dive in. I’m sure there are some who succeed without a hitch. But the important question is, “Why?” Unless you have time to kill, why would any sane, educated person attempt to assemble something without reading the instructions?

Which leads me to my second thought: If you’ve ever purchased something from Ikea, you know it requires assembly. The directions that all Ikea products come with are illustrations, not written instructions. They are generally clear and easy to follow. Could you assemble one of Ikea’s products without following those instructions? Maybe. But why would you even think about doing such a foolish thing? Unless you have time to kill and are incredibly stubborn, those instructions are designed to get you from a pile of pieces to a usable product in the least amount of time. They are designed to make your life easier.

ikeaYou simply can’t get to point B from point A quickly and efficiently without those instructions.

2.  Unlike Ikea instructions, a creative brief must also inspire.

Ikea instructions are designed to build a useable piece of furniture. A creative brief is designed to inspire the creative team to produce sales-generating creative. It must offer insights into the product, the consumer’s thinking and it must also kick-start the creative team with ideas, what John Hegarty called the “first ad.”

This is where I think the complaints arise. There are pedestrian briefs and inspiring briefs. Too many of the former, too few of the latter. So the call to junk the brief arises from a dearth of well-written sets of instructions. In other words, the typical brief may tell you what to do, but it gives the creative team no spark.

3. The creative brief is a measuring stick to judge the work.

There are many analogies here. One of my favorites is the “Telephone Game” (or Chinese whispers if you live somewhere else). It’s a kid’s game.

One person begins by whispering a word or phrase to the person next to him. That person then whispers what she thinks she heard to the next person. And so on. The typical result is usually unrecognizable once five or six people have passed on the word and it reaches the end of the line. WordofMouth

This is a remarkably clear rationale for a creative brief, and it stands up to scrutiny when the work is presented for review. If you don’t have clear directions in the beginning, you end up with unclear and usually off-message work at the end.

Another way of saying this is, “Garbage in, garbage out.”

The point here is simple: The creative brief is not going anywhere. It has a permanent role in the creative process. It is the first step in the creative process. It exists to fulfill the three, basic functions discussed above.

In my reading, I have come across nothing that challenges the validity of these three points, perhaps because no one even thinks about that.

Instead, I read frustrated complaints about poorly written briefs; creative processes that are missing briefs entirely; briefs that don’t address the realities of today’s mobile environment; briefs that fail to address the emotional rationale of consumers’ behavior; briefs that are not flexible.

But nowhere have I read that anyone proposes scrapping the brief. At its best, a brief is merely an organic placeholder, flexible enough to adapt to any circumstances. With this important caveat:

It’s not about the questions. It’s about the answers.