Why do you tolerate four or five rounds of creative revisions?

If you claim that you use a creative brief, yet you ask your creative partners to return four or five times—or more—with revised creative work, do you need me to tell you something is wrong with your creative brief?

Can’t you see the obvious?

This is the classic definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting different results. error-code-18

Yet it is a story I hear regularly when I lead workshops on writing the creative brief. It is the most common complaint I hear.

I don’t need to see your creative brief template to know what the problem is. The template is fine. I promise.

Content. The problem lies in your creative brief’s content. You don’t have the right information. Or you have the right information, but it’s buried beneath too much useless, irrelevant information. Or your brief’s content lacks conviction, specificity, clarity. Or all of the above.

The creative brief requires you to put a stake in the ground. It requires you to make choices, to leave out more than you keep. Completing this document requires courage. It is an act of strategic reduction.

It is not a repository of everything you know about your brand. Instead, it is a reliquary of the bold and definitive argument for your brand.

Process. The brief itself may be only part of the reason why there’s a disconnect between a client’s request and delivered creative work. It may also be your creative briefing process. That process breaks down, becomes dysfunctional, if the document does not have advocates from senior management. If the process is not taken seriously, is treated as an afterthought, a necessary evil, you can count on multiple rounds of creative that miss the mark.

A broken creative briefing process is the author of the saying: “There’s never time to do it right. There’s always time to do it over.”

Consider this analogy:

When I played golf a lot, I learned to approach the par-5s backwards. Since I didn’t have the length off the tee to get to a par-5 in two shots, I always planned for a layup. Thus I asked: Where do I want my second shot to be resting? My answer was: about 100 yards from the pin. So if the par-5 were 500 yards, and I wanted my second shot to be sitting at the 400 yard mark, give or take, that meant my drive could be relatively short, say 240 yards. That would leave me with only 160 yards to get to my ideal 100 yard approach shot. (It’s called strategy.)

That is a lot less daunting than trying to boom out a 260 drive followed by a 240 yard approach. On my best day, a “once-in-a-lifetime” series of shots, I might pull that off. I parred a lot of 5s with my less-risky plan. Sometimes, I even birdied.

The point is this: If you don’t have a plan for the time it takes to do your projects, the best creative brief in the world becomes a useless piece of paper. And if the piece of paper doesn’t have the right, agreed upon information, with clear objectives and insights, no schedule will survive it.

To get the best work in the fewest rounds, you must have a plan. You must commit to a creative brief that works within a reproducible creative brief process. The creative brief is Step Number One in the creative process itself.

I would much rather hear a company tell me that they don’t use a creative brief. This, at least, presents an opportunity to inculcate a process that brings all players together around a common purpose: The brand.

When I lead workshops on the creative brief and I see an example of a company’s brief only to discover that it is a rote document with little or no original thinking, no insight, no inspiration, I am not surprised to learn that the creative work falls short. Not occasionally. Not once in a while. Always. Repeatedly.

It usually means a weak or non-existent creative brief process as well. One leads to the other. The two are inter-dependent.

Here, then, is some advice on how to repair or re-invigorate your creative brief and the process you establish:

Think misers. Social scientists tell us that we tend to be miserly when we think. Thinking is hard work, even for the likes of Albert Einstein. So we avoid it when it’s not absolutely necessary.Albert_Einstein_Head

Keep this fact in mind when you approach the creative brief. It is a document, and part of a process, that requires thinking. Serious thinking. The creative brief is part of the creative process, so plan for it. Build enough time into your production schedule so that its writers (more than one) can THINK about it thoroughly.

The creative brief should go through multiple drafts. More thinking! It is not the product of a committee, but rather a dedicated, small group (account, planner, creative), all stakeholders, who weigh in on the effort. One person should do the writing, but the other one or two must be good editors and BS detectors.

In the same way that art directors are paired with copywriters in the creative department, creative briefs should be produced by teams. Who think! Together!

This is current best practices.

No one practices writing the brief. Yeah, it’s a fact. No one writes a brief until they actually have to. Think about that for a second. Imagine if LeBron James didn’t practice a free throw or jump shot until he had to do it in a game.

Uh-huh. We’d have never heard of LeBron James. Like all exceptional athletes, he spends more time practicing than he does playing. He has to. Do you? practice

You can practice writing briefs without a pen, paper or keyboard. You can do it in your head. You may do it without knowing it. Ever watch a TV spot and wonder what they were thinking? Imagine, if you can, what the brand’s most important message is. Did the spot address it? Why or why not? If not, how would you say it? That’s creative brief-writing practice.

It’s also thinking, and this is where the social scientists’ term “think misers” comes from. You watch the spot, don’t get it, or wonder how they arrived at that idea, then stop thinking. It’s too much work. Besides, your show is back, so you can turn off your brain and just take in the entertainment.

Do it differently next time. Actually THINK about why that spot works or doesn’t work.

This is practice. It’s grooving your swing, so to speak. It’s forging creative-brief muscle memory.

Invite senior management to write a creative brief. Do this collaboratively. Loop them in as early as you can. Ask for suggestions. Give them a firm deadline. Move on if they miss it.

Even if you get a C-level exec to participate only once, you’ll remind them of the value of the process, or clue them into it if they’ve never done it before. This is how you acquire new stakeholders. This is how change happens.

Like all processes, they are slow to become instituted and slow to change. But when you recognize a broken process, address it as soon as possible. Your brand deserves it.

 

 

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To tell an authentic brand story, write an inspired creative brief.

In 1989, I was a copywriter for a small business-to-business advertising agency in Milwaukee.

Two facts stand out about this job. The first is that the shop did not use a creative brief. The document was not part of its day-to-day operations. I fixed that.

The second relates to one of its bigger clients, an American manufacturer of turf equipment, one of whose marketing executives I met on many occasions. This executive used to repeat a phrase I never forgot. He used it every time I, or one of my colleagues, asked this question when we started a new project:

“What’s the one, most important thing we need to say about your product?”

His answer still startles me, almost 30 years later.

“We don’t have just one thing,” he said. “We have a unique package of features.”

Except that no one tells a story about a unique package of features. That’s not how it works.

Storytelling as a tool for advertisers was not on many people’s minds in the late 1980s. A handful of brilliant thinkers, like Steve Jobs, knew better.

The history of storytelling dates to at least cave dwellers who left us drawings on walls that told visual stories. Let’s just say that storytelling is old. lascauxhorsesaurochshd

The creative brief isn’t. But chances are, few people working in advertising today were in the business when the creative brief came into existence. Account planning was born in 1965, and with it the creative brief.

The purpose of the creative brief has remained unchanged since its inception: to give succinct and inspired instructions to an advertiser’s creative partners with the expectation that a sales-driving idea emerges.

In the last 50+ years, the creative brief’s template has changed, but its purpose has not. It remains debatable whether the brief’s credibility and respect match its designed purpose, but that’s another story.

At least three questions that should be on every creative brief provide the impetus for a memorable brand story.

But first, a word of advice:

No brand story can unfold without internal buy-in. An authentic brand story is not manufactured. It does not arise from external (meaning outside the company) sources. It does not answer the questions What? or How? about a brand. It answers Why? Why does the brand exist?

Think about the best brand storytellers and you’ll see why this advice is true. And why it matters.

Here’s my short list:

Greats.

I’ll let the founders speak. (By the way, I own two pairs. I LOVE ’em!!)

Blue Apron.

I’ve used this product, too, but not currently. This isn’t an endorsement. It’s high praise for the story they tell. Here’s a highlight from their website:

“Our mission is to make incredible home cooking accessible to everyone.”

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Every piece of communication from the company reflects this singularly focused message.

Harry’s.

I use an electric shaver, but if I didn’t, I’d probably buy Harry’s razors. Why? I’ll let their website speak:

The shaving company that’s fixing shaving
We created Harry’s to be different from the other shaving brands. Unlike the big brands that overdesign and overcharge, we make a high-quality shave that’s made by real guys for real guys.

Harrys-Hero

Each brand’s core message answers the question: Why does this product exist? That’s what the story is built around.

So which questions on the creative brief help creatives arrive at a brand story?

1. What is the Single-Minded Proposition? No matter what you might call it, and it has many names (Unique Selling Proposition, The One Thing, Key Message), this is the heart of any great story.

You’ll know your story is right when you can end it with this line: “And that’s the reason why (single-minded proposition here)…”

Try it with the three brands on my list of brilliant storytellers above. It works.

2. What is an authentic customer insight? If you’re focused on meeting company goals, you can’t successfully address what your customer needs. They come first. Always. A believable story begins and ends with your customer. Your insight should reflect this essential truth.

Arriving at an authentic customer insight does not require gobs of research money. If you know what the Socratic Method is, you have the tools to dive deep into your customers’ thinking to discover and address your their emotional wants and needs.

3. What is the company/product/service background? If you don’t ask this question, you will never understand why the company or product or service came into being. You need to be the equivalent of a brand archeologist. Move beyond features and benefits.

We advertising folk are storytellers. It’s in our DNA to fashion a story on behalf of the brands we are tasked to sell.

The details—the essential elements of your story—are embedded in the creative brief.

Storytelling is about basics. So is the creative brief. It’s the first step in developing your authentic brand story.

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Would you like students to quote you in classroom discussions?

I need your help.

My new book is tentatively titled How To Write A Killer Single-Minded Proposition. It’s a companion to my critically acclaimed text, How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief 2nd edition. OOS Icon

Like my current book, this new graphic text will be a nuts and bolts examination of the single-minded proposition (SMP). It will include step-by-step instructions on how to arrive at this sentence or phrase, practical exercises, examples of well-written SMPs, and advice on how to fix weak SMPs. I’ll also look back at the history of the creative brief.

An important feature will be comments and insights from professionals in advertising and marketing on this most important part of the creative brief.

Will you help me? Do you have an opinion on what makes a good SMP?

This is your chance to weigh in.

If I use your comments, I’ll send you a signed copy of the new book absolutely free

First, please complete a short, four-question survey. If you wish, you can cut-and-paste this URL into your browser: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/FZF7WMN.

Also, share this link with friends, colleagues and people whose opinions readers would value.

My current textbook is now required reading at a growing number of undergraduate and graduate programs around the country, including the University of Minnesota School of Mass Communications and Journalism and New York University’s graduate program in Integrated Marketing.

Students could soon be quoting you in classrooms far and wide. quotes

Thanks in advance for your enthusiasm and willingness to share your wisdom.

 

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Can you explain your brand to a six-year-old?

Albert Einstein famously said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” Albert_Einstein_Head

The “it” is, well, whatever. Fill in the blank with anything: love, time, President Donald Trump.

Now I want you to substitute your brand for “it” and tell me if you can clearly and simply explain “it” to a six-year-old child. If you don’t have or know a six-year-old child, be careful how you answer. You will be using adult-speak in a heartbeat.

You’re being dismissive right now. I can tell. Do you truly know your brand? Can you explain it to a child?

Don’t laugh. Try it.

Uh-huh. As I suspected. It’s not so easy, is it?

This conundrum lies at the heart of why so many people who work with brands have difficulty being good brand communicators. How do I know this?

I’ve listened to experienced professionals at advertising agencies and Fortune 500 companies grapple with vocabulary to explain their brands.

Ask anyone responsible for devising a sentence called the “brand value proposition.” Ask anyone responsible for writing a brand “positioning statement.” Ask those responsible for writing clear, inspiring creative briefs.

Einstein was on to something with his insanely simple idea. Understanding how to do it would save boatloads of time, boatloads of money, boatloads of stress.

Consider this exercise, something I use in my college freshman composition class. Read the paragraph below, and tell me in two words, no more, what it is saying:

It is the opinion of the group assembled for the purpose of determining a probability of the likelihood of the meteorological-related results and outcome for the period encompassing the next working day that the odds of precipitation in the near-term are positive and reasonably expected.*

This causes my students migraines. First because they are not good close readers and second because their vocabularies are limited. Rather than looking up something they don’t know, they ignore it.

Herein lies another truth: If you ignore what you don’t understand, you are bound to perpetuate the misunderstanding.

This “exercise” paragraph is a tautology on steroids. A more technical term is verbal diarreha. It is an example of not knowing how to say what can be said in two words.

Can you explain your brand in two words? Two simple words that a child can understand?

If you can’t, you won’t pass Einstein’s simple test.

It’s probably costing you dearly.

Unknown

 

 

 

 

 

 

*The answer: Rain tomorrow.

 

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To master the art of reviewing creative work, be like Spock.

As a new member of the faculty of the School of Marketing for the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), I will be traveling around the country leading workshops on how to write the creative brief. It is an opportunity I relish.

I’ve recently been asked to develop a new workshop on best-practices around reviewing advertising creative. Clients rightly want to improve their skills at critiquing the work they see from their ad agency or in-house advertising department partners.

This topic is a natural extension of the creative brief. The brief is the first step in the creative process, and looking at, and giving feedback on, the work that comes from the brief is the (hoped for) final step. Rarely, of course, does first-round creative work become accepted creative work. I am working mightily to correct this situation!

That’s why fine-tuning one’s skills in creative feedback is so important. A well-written creative brief can eliminate, or at least reduce, the likelihood of work that misses the mark. Possessing the skills and the insights to provide valuable feedback on the presented work also keeps the process on track.

The core message of my new workshop is: Be like Spock. Mr Spock

Even if you’re not a fan of Star Trek, I’m counting on your familiarity with this science-fiction icon. Mr. Spock was the finest First Officer in Star Fleet for a reason. He has much to teach us.

You’ll have to attend my ANA workshop to hear the entire story I present on creative review best practices, but I’ll offer you a small taste today.

So why Mr. Spock?

Because he was endowed with talents most humans only aspire to. He could remove his ego from any situation. He presented Captain Kirk with facts and evidence, not solutions. He always deferred judgment until he had the facts. We must–and can–emulate these skills to become masters of creative feedback.

My ANA workshop presents eight steps to mastering an effective creative review, but today I’ll share three:

1. Never use the word “I” when you give feedback on creative work.

Your only yardstick for reviewing creative is the creative brief. Your opinion does not matter. Creative review is not about you. Which means you must eliminate certain vocabulary when you discuss the work with your creative partners. Words and phrases such as “I like” and “I don’t like” and “good” and “bad.” These words have no place in a creative review.

Instead, focus on facts. Offer a critique, not criticism. Your mentor critiques. Your mother criticizes.

“I don’t like this color” is useless criticism. “This color does not align with the tone of the ad’s message” is what Mr. Spock might say. It is a concrete starting point for improving the work. It is constructive. You’ve removed yourself from the picture. You’ve squelched your ego.

The locus of your critique is the creative brief, which should be the source of information on the communication’s “tone of voice.” (There’s a box for that. If you don’t have one on your brief, add it. Now.)

2. You know too much.

This is perhaps the hardest truth for anyone on the client side to admit. You’re just lost in the weeds of your brand. Rightly so. You are the brand expert. The brand guardian. You have to know it intricately and intimately. Which means you do not have the necessary objectivity, by definition, to see what you need to see. Big head

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” you say. “I know all that. Remove my client cap and put on my consumer hat. This is old news!”

Good! I’m glad you remember this axiom. But do you actually practice it? I’m here to be your mother and remind you.

One best-practice technique I know many marketers insist on: They leave one chair empty and designate it as “our target audience” when they gather in a conference room to review creative work. How often do they remember to acknowledge its presence?

You do not have fresh eyes when it comes to your brand. Never forget.

3. You are not the target audience.

These are fighting words among some advertisers. Brand people, product people, client representatives—they all swear they use and love the products they sell. Uh-huh. I get it. Your point?

See #2 above. Numbers 2 and 3 are essentially the same message, but both phrases need to be said. Over and over.

All three points are different ways of saying the same thing:

TAKE YOURSELF OUT OF THE PICTURE.

You must know your audience better than anyone, but never believe this knowledge makes you the audience. This self-awareness will help you avoid costly creative mistakes.

THE CREATIVE BRIEF IS YOUR CHECKLIST. Remember to start and end with the brief. It is your guide. The work you evaluate must spring from it. It must be both the logical result, and produce the resonating emotion, of the brief.

If you stick to these simple rules, your creative partners—ad agency or in-house creative department—will have little cause to object to your comments and requests for changes. Your feedback will be based on facts, not emotions.

Because it’s always better to respond like Mr. Spock rather than Dr. McCoy. Piece3

 

 

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Why brainstorming doesn’t work and what creative brief writers can learn from it.

Brainstorming does not work.

This is old news. Dating back to the late 1950s, research shows that “all ideas are good ideas” brainstorming produces fewer ideas than if individuals are left to their own private ideations and then share and compare them in groups.

Further, evidence is solid that if you do exactly the opposite of what Alex Osborne, the “O” in B.B.D.O., espoused in his 1948 bestselling book, Your Creative Power — that is, you add the element of debate and disagreement to a typical “keep it positive” brainstorming session — the quality of ideas also increases. Dramatically so. 5661_ideas_moderation_permalink-1

A central problem, according to Rebecca Greenfield in her July 2014 article for Fast Company, is what’s called “conformity pressure.” Here’s what she says:

Because brainstorming favors the first ideas, it also breeds the least creative ideas.” She continues: “People hoping to look smart and productive will blurt out low-hanging fruit first. Everyone else then rallies around that idea both internally and externally.

What she suggests instead comes from a number of thinkers who on their own developed an idea remarkably similar, but now is referred to as “brainwriting.”

It’s simple and obvious. Participants write down their ideas first before a group discussion. They post those ideas on a board anonymously. Everyone in the group reviews those ideas and votes/comments on the best. Only then, according to Greenfield, does discussion commence. writers-block

Greenfield notes that Leigh Thompson, management professor at the Kellogg School, in her book Creative Conspiracy, discovered that “brainwriting groups generated 20% more ideas and 42% more original ideas as compared to traditional brainstorming groups.”

Professor Thompson made this remarkable observation:

I was shocked to find there’s not a single published study in which a face-to-face brainstorming group outperforms a brainwriting group.

So what can creative brief writers learn from this research? Two things.

First, as powerful as the argument is for collaboration—the idea that no single person should write the vital “first-step” document in the creative process—individuals who make up the small team that writes the creative brief must still contribute individually before they collabrate.

Greenfield’s article (“Why brainstorming doesn’t work; try this technique instead”) demonstrates the dangers of “group think.” I think this is less likely to happen in the smaller team (two, at most three) who writes a brief, but it can still happen. One person can dominate. One person can be more senior.

Collaboration helps to eliminate at best, minimize at least, a dominate voice by employing this “brainwriting” technique before the creative brief writing team assembles to discuss and write the document. Key questions on a creative brief are uniquely difficult to answer and require thought.

Consider the way a creative team functions: a copywriter and an art director meet to review the project’s details, acquired from the creative brief. They may spend some time batting ideas around, but typically, in short order, they go off to mull over and meditate on their own.

In a day or two, they regroup and compare notes. That’s when the real work begins. They discuss, debate, edit, revise, shape, form and reform…until they arrive at a concept, or a portfolio of concepts. These ideas may bear some resemblance to their original thinking, or not.

The point is, each creative team has a process: meet, discuss, mull alone, regroup, debate, edit, polish, present. The process may vary with each team, but in 25 years as a creative, I can vouch for the importance of and need for a process.

The same must be true for the collaborative process of writing the creative brief. The team can meet for a general discussion of what the document should include, but time must be set aside for individual ideations before the team meets again to write the brief.

Second, brainwriting research makes it clear that the process of producing the creative brief may need more time to allow participants to nurture the best possible “spark” for the creative team.

I have no evidence to suggest that today’s brief writers are denied sufficient time to produce this document, except to say that the nature of the business world makes it harder and harder to build in “thinking” time for anyone.

We live in a “It’s due yesterday” time crunch. That was true when I started in the ad business in the early 1980s. It’s worse today.

However, the price you pay for a poorly conceived and poorly executed creative brief is measured in both dollars and lost time. watch-time

I am reminded of a poster I saw on the wall of a production department manager, which sums up the dilemma succinctly, and serves as a gentle reproach:

There is never time to do it right, but there is always time to do it over.

Old-school brainstorming is dead.

Brainwriting works. Use its principles to ensure the creative brief writing team has time to do its job well.

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When your creative brief process is broken and how to fix it.

broken-007

Beginning writers tend to learn a lesson about plagiarism the hard way. They commit it unintentionally. They didn’t mean to quote an author without giving him or her due credit, but…

Unintentional plagiarism, I can attest from years of classroom experience, is the most likely kind of plagiarism a college freshman blunders into. The problem is, it’s still plagiarism and they still fail the paper.

The analogy works for a broken creative brief process. The participants, whether they’re in an ad agency or the marketing department of an advertiser, often have no idea their briefing process is broken. They didn’t mean to mess it up, but they did. Something isn’t right, and they keep chugging along hoping to muddle through.

It’s not unlike the definition of insanity: You keep doing the same thing over and over and hoping for, well, you know the rest.

So how can you tell when your briefing process is broken? What are the red flags?

Look for these four warning signs. In fact, if you recognize even only one of them, it’s time to address your creative briefing process before it does, in fact, break.

You Know It’s Broke When:

1: The people who work from the brief roll their eyes after it’s presented.

That’s an exaggeration. The people who work from the brief, and this is the creative people, are a difficult lot to begin with. They love to complain: about bad briefs, bad coffee, bad shoes. They complain because it’s in their nature. They tend to be jaded and borderline cynical. Okay, forget borderline.

They complain about bad briefs, especially, because they read them so often. They may in fact respond to any brief with an exasperated sigh. It’s reflexive. They can’t help it.

But if this happens frequently and is followed by a rush of questions of a certain nature, you’re in trouble.

These questions tend to look like this:

“I thought you said we couldn’t…”

“Are you sure you mean it this way? Last time you said…”

“Why is this okay now? Last month…”

“But I thought they hated (insert color/celebrity/location/idea)…”

“Wait a minute. That single-minded proposition has two/three/four ideas. Which one do they really mean?”

2: The parties do not agree on content.

You Know It’s Broke #2 is a subset of #1. Even if you can satisfactorily answer all the questions posed by your creatives after the briefing, you may not have a salvageable brief.

Those questions—and the underlying attitude of skepticism—tend not to be addressed to anyone’s satisfaction, and are a symptom of the broken process.

The fundamental premise of the brief comes into question. One of two things can happen.

First, the briefing ends in disagreement and creative go off and write their own brief, even if it’s not a formal document. They devise their own Single-Minded Proposition and that becomes the brief.

Sometimes this actually works. But you won’t know it even happened until the day the work is presented. If the work does not meet expectations, the Creative’s Creative Brief Syndrome is typically to blame (that’s my fancy term for the creative department’s DIY brief. Which you don’t want).

I know. I’ve committed this heresy myself, although only a handful of times. I’d say my batting average was above .500. That’s exemplary if you’re in the Majors. It’s horrible when you bomb in a creative presentation.

The second scenario, and the more likely outcome, is that the creative team leaves the briefing confused, and that’s what the work looks like when it’s presented. It’s a perfect illustration of “garbage in, garbage out.”garbage-in-garbage-out

These situations are why I wrote my book on the creative brief. It was the result of feeling utterly frustrated because my creative department operated either without a formal brief altogether, or we functioned with a brief that one or more players did not fully embrace. Any process is only as strong as its weakest link.

3: Only one player in the process writes the creative brief. This situation will almost always guarantee Reasons 1 and 2 above.

You Know It’s Broke #3 stands independent of the first two. It’s a symptom of old-school silo-ing, a tradition that dates back decades.

The creative departments of major ad agencies know first hand about the silo effect. In the 1950s and into the 1960s, most creative departments did not have “teams” of art directors and copywriters. They were separate departments. The did not talk to each other.

Geniuses like Bill Bernbach changed that. Copywriters and art directors were teamed up and expected to work together. The results played a seminal role in producing the Golden Era of advertising in the 1960s.

silosAccount and brand planners have wised up in recent years. They have been moving away from working independently as the owners of the creative brief and have advocated for cross-department collaboration. The principle that works so well in creative departments applies here.

If the author of the creative brief in your place of business works alone, even if she works with a partner in the same department, chances are you have a broken creative briefing system, or one that is sick and needs 911.

If creatives have no role in the process, they have little at stake. If they collaborate on not just writing the brief, but then also play a role in briefing on the brief they helped author, things change. Drastically and dramatically.

4. The reviewers of the creative work don’t know how to review the creative work.

The ability to offer clear feedback on the creative work is an absolute job requirement. There is no excuse for being inarticulate or afraid to hurt someone’s feelings.

Rest assured, advertising creatives are professionals. They have thick skin and can take criticism.

Still, being a critic is not easy. It takes finesse, patience and practice. Especially practice.

So I recommend that you practice. A lot. You don’t become adept at writing a creative brief by doing it once. Or even 10 times. You must write them dozens of times and even then you’ll learn something new with each attempt.

Find a piece of creative work not connected to your job or your brand. It could be a TV spot or an email.

Critique it. What do you like? What doesn’t work? Make a list. Write down your thoughts. You don’t have the creative brief against which to judge it, so use your savvy as a consumer.  You are, after all, a consumer.

Team up with a creative in your department or at your agency. Work one-on-one with a piece of neutral creative (meaning something neither you nor the creative is connected to) and ask questions about how to review it. Believe me, your creative partner will have some thoughts and won’t be afraid to speak them out loud. This is a learning opportunity for you.

The point is, the only way to become proficient at reviewing creative is to review it.

Remember the old joke: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

Step back and ask yourself some tough questions about your creative brief and the process of briefing. If you suspect any one of the symptoms I’ve discussed above, it’s time to reexamine your process.

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It’s better to think inside the box.

A killer creative brief is hard to write. It should be hard. It’s supposed to be hard. If it were easy, no one would complain about the dearth of good creative briefs. And creatives love to complain about bad creative briefs. complainer-657x360

Ergo, writing a good one is not easy.

Is that why so many are poorly written? Because expectations are so low?

Perfect, at least some of us have come to know, is the enemy of the good.

Many authors have been attributed to this line: “I would have made this letter shorter, but I didn’t have enough time.” Some credit Mark Twain. Others Cicero.

Constraints force us to make choices. The best of us respond to the challenge. Too often, the creative brief writer throws up his hands and gives in to the temptation to include everything for fear of missing something. As Oscar Wilde would say in response, “I can resist anything, except temptation.”

To write a killer creative brief requires courage, confidence and brevity.

Next time someone (your boss, the client, a weak-minded account type) encourages you to add more to your creative brief, make them talk to the hand. Then recite these three reasons:

1. Liberating Constraint.

Force yourself to keep your brief to one page. That doesn’t mean a two-page brief is automatically bad or wrong. It simply means you are conscious of the need to find the essence of a product’s message.

The concept is called “Liberating Constraint.” When you force yourself to be reductive, you open creative doors. When you agree to reside inside a self-imposed “box,” the experience frees you. There’s a ton of research to back this up. prison-bars-image

You are not writing a user guide. You are writing explicit instructions to the creative team. The brief is designed to give them a push, point them in one possible direction, spark their thinking.

The brief is the first step in the creative process. Get the creatives started, then step back and let them do their jobs.

Ultimately, this means you must make choices. You must edit. You must be selective. You must be, well, brief.

Your goal, always: One page.

2. Two pages: No! Two minds: Yes!

Whomever writes a creative brief is not weak of heart. You got game. You strut. Even if inside you’re quaking in your boots, you don’t show it. You gotta exude confidence.

This is precisely why writing the brief is never a solo project. You must collaborate. It’s not the work of a committee, but rather of a dedicated team.

Compare this process to what creatives do: an art director/graphic designer pairs with a writer, and the two of them play a kind of creative ping pong. Ideas bounce back and forth between them. Some are rejected, others are kept to explore further.

The creative brief demands the same dual-minded attention. You share responsibility for the document. You both take credit. Which means you also must accept blame for a poorly written effort.

Hey, creatives routinely present lame ideas. It happens. Truth be told, they are often the ones who know their best from their worst ideas. The difference between creative teams and brief-writing teams: Brief writers create a single creative brief. Creatives always present multiple ideas. Oh well. Get used to it.

3. When the brief-writing team includes a creative, creatives now have a clear stake in the process.

When account or planning folks were the sole proprietor of creative briefs, that essentially set up a “them vs us” mentality. It was a lot easier for creatives to diss an even moderately bad brief. Why not? They had no skin in the game.

Make a creative part of the brief-writing process, and all that changes. As it should be. Creatives now own a piece of the effort. And when a creative assists the account or planning colleague in the briefing process, fellow creatives quickly realize their brethren is on board.

It makes a huge difference.

Liberating Constraint is my main message here, which clearly covers points 1 and 2.  But point 3 is a benefit, and creatives by nature will help keep the brief-writing process focused and concise. Creative always exist inside a box of one kind or another: a :30 spot, a one-page ad, any communication with a time or space limit. These are all examples of constraints. how-to-expand-your-comfort-zone

Thinking “outside the box” has become a horrible cliche that means, well, I have no idea what it means any more.

Thinking “inside the box” means self-imposed limits. That’s a great definition of a creative brief. It’s no guarantee that the document will be well written, much less inspired. But at least it won’t take very long to discover that fact.

Practice Liberating Constraint whenever you write a creative brief. Force yourself to make enlightened, insightful choices based on your brand story. Your brief will be more inspired. And so will your creative teams’ work.

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What “Finding Dory” can teach us about brand insights

Two disparate worlds collided this weekend that produced an insight. This is supposed to happen to people like me who use insights for a living.

First, I read contributing Atlantic editor David H. Freedman’s thoughtful piece, “The War on Stupid People” in the July/August issue. He tells us that the lack of intellectual chops, otherwise known as being stupid, has become the new acceptable put down. “Those who consider themselves bright,” he writes, “openly mock others for being less so.”

This practice is reinforced in corporate America. Many companies, Freedman tells us, are implementing new intelligence tests for potential hires. If you don’t measure up, it becomes a mark against you, and a reason not to make an offer of employment.

This in spite of the emerging evidence that smart people do not necessarily make the best employees. Something about having little experience with failure and thin skins. Interpersonal skills, self-awareness and emotional qualities, Freedman writes, can be better job performance predictors.

Perhaps his most astute observation is this: “Among other things, the less brainy are, according to studies and some business experts, less likely to be oblivious of their own biases and flaws, to mistakenly assume that recent trends will continue into the future, to be anxiety-ridden, and to be arrogant.”

The sad fact is, the minority of Americans who are in this intellectual elite influence the world for the rest of us.

Then I went to see the Disney/Pixar blockbuster, “Finding Dory.” It was not on my “must see” list, but after reading so many positive reviews, I relented. It is that rare combination of laugh-out-loud entertainment and serious message vehicle. As a college educator, I was reminded to take its message into my classroom everyday. Finding-Dory-Disney-pixar-2016

But as a brand strategist and storyteller as well as a creative brief educator, I saw another message. Advertising professionals take data and research seriously, as we should. What we learn from the things consumers tell us as well as what we discern from their unconscious (i.e. body language) behavior, lead us, or so we hope, to a valuable insight, maybe even more than one. The kind of insight that makes tailoring communication to persuade them to try and/or remain loyal to a brand.

That’s the theory, anyway.

I left the theatre while the credits to “Finding Dory” were still rolling, and I couldn’t help but laugh to myself. The central question posed in the movie is the very question we brand guardians must ask to guide us in finding the insights we covet.

Before I get to that question, here’s a brief synopsis for those of you who have not yet seen this charming, heart-warming and outrageously funny tale, which incidentally also made me cry.

“Finding Dory” is a sequel to the popular “Finding Nemo” that came out in 2003. Its premise is that a year after Dory, a fish with short-term memory problems, helps Marlin find his son, Nemo, she remembers she has parents and sets out to find them. Marlin and Nemo go along to help. Thoroughly engaging mayhem unfolds, and it is no “spoiler” to tell you that in spite of her clear deficiencies, Dory finds mom and dad. It’s how she manages this feat, and what she learns that make this adventure so memorable.

Back to the question: At one point in the movie, when Marlin and Nemo get separated from Dory, the two struggle, momentarily paralyzed with inaction. Nemo poses the question, “What would Dory do?” to help his dad figure out the next move.

At first, papa Marlin assumes the intellectual approach and begins to analyze and synthesize the situation in order to ascertain a strategy. Until he realizes that’s not how Dory operates. Dory’s lack of conventional intelligence, which might be classified these days as a developmental disability, gives the lie to her abilities.

Marlin has his “Ah-ha!” moment and decides to take a leap of faith, Dory-like, to keep the search for Dory, and the story line, moving.

It is both this question and its answer, combined with Freedman’s observations about so-called intelligence, that produced my own “Ah-ha!” moment.

Finding a brand insight is a hard thing to do. There are no guarantees that intrepid digging will uncover anything remotely insightful. But this guarantee is, well, guaranteed if you stop at data and research.

A brand insight comes, not from brainy application of intelligence, but rather from what I’ll call the “Dory effect”: trusting your instincts and allowing intuition to rule.

By this I do not mean to ignore data and research. On the contrary. Remember the advice of James Webb Young in his 1948 masterpiece, “A Technique for Producing Ideas.”  When you are in the creative zone of the five steps Webb outlines, you eventually arrive at step 3: information overload requires you to walk away and clear your head. By this moment the seeds have been planted. But only at this moment can they bloom into an idea. techforproducingideas1

This is the answer to the question, “What would Dory do?” It is the leap of faith Dory took from the moment she decided to go on her parent quest. It is the foundation on which rested every decision she made along the way.

It is the foundation on which insights arrive, too. I say “arrive” because I believe the intuitive, creative mind is more likely to be receptive to an idea than one grounded only in data- and research-based analysis.

No one “uncovers” an insight. An insight emerges after information is processed and left to settle, and then sparked by the intuitive brain.

Date and research are the nutrients. Intuition is the blender.

The next time you are in the hunt for a brand insight, don’t forget to ask:

What would Dory do?

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How many “practice” creative briefs have you written?

kobe-bryant-practices-in-nike-kobe-9-elite-02-570x570Basketball legend Kobe Bryant has made countless jump shots and layups in his practice sessions.

“As a kid growing up, I never skipped steps. I always worked on fundamentals because I know athleticism is fleeting.”  Kobe Bryant

Tennis star Serena Williams has likely hit uncountable numbers of volleys in practice since she was a young girl. Someone asked if her success were due to luck.

“Luck has nothing to do with it, because I have spent many, many hours, countless hours, on the court working for my one moment in time, not knowing when it would come.”14SERENA1-master768

The legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus has said that he played fewer tournaments than his fellow competitors because he chose to spend that time practicing his game at home.

“Nobody—but nobody—has ever become really proficient at golf without practice, without a lot of thinking and then hitting a lot of shots.” Jack Nicklaus

Seinfeld has told tens of thousands of jokes on stages across the country. Ballet star Misty Copeland has spent thousands of hours in the classroom, working at the ballet barre, all in preparation for her performances. Speaking legend Tony Robbins has rehearsed hours and hours for his presentations.

The same is true for ministers, gymnasts, coaches, courtroom lawyers…you name the profession, and you can imagine the almost unimaginable hours of preparation these dedicated individuals have devoted to their craft, all to be ready to display their skills when they matter most: on the job.

So I ask you: How much preparation have you put in to write a creative brief?

Here’s my guess: Exactly none.

There is no preparation. You just write one when you have to write one.

And therein lies a major missed opportunity. No one practices the skills required to write a creative brief well. There is no “creative brief boot camp” to make you sweat your tail off learning the fundamentals of writing this document. There should be.

Sounds absurd, right? Not from where I sat, which was on the receiving end of one of those too often poorly written documents that landed on my desk.

As a point of comparison, creatives constantly practice their concepting skills. Young creatives especially. Sometimes they don’t know when to stop practicing. They do “spec” work, whether it’s for their own professional portfolio or some pro-bono client or even a friend’s dog-sitting service. They’re like little “Energizer bunnies”: they keep concepting and concepting until their brains cramp. This is how they get really good.

When I was younger, I used to flip through the Yellow Pages (remember that?) until I’d find an interesting business, the more obscure the better. Then I’d create a spec ad for that business. Back in the 1980s, when I was just getting started, I wrote a spec-ad for a music teacher who taught the accordion: “I can teach anyone to carry a tune.” Groaner, yes, but the fact is, I practiced my craft even when no one was looking.

If you write creative briefs for a living, can you say the same? If the answer is no, my next question is: Why not?

I’ve said it over and over: the creative brief is the first step in the creative process. Get it wrong here and everything that follows suffers proportionately. It’s the principle of “garbage in, garbage out” at work.garbage-in-garbage-out

Practice is vital.

But who has time to practice?

Professionals do. If you’re a professional, you must practice.

Here are three techniques you can adopt right away.

1. Practice in your head.

One of the more important questions on a creative brief is, “What is the Single-Minded Proposition?” This is something you can practice formulating as you commute to and from work. You don’t even need pen and paper.

Imagine the product or service, conjure its key benefit and translate that benefit into a “What’s in it for me?” proposition that directly addresses the product’s best customer. Think of that short phrase or sentence. Don’t stop there. Think of alternatives. Come up with many SMPs. Which one is the best? Why?

Turn this into a brain-game and repeat it often. It’s called practice. It’s what professionals do.

2. Follow your creatives’ lead: Do spec work for a favorite cause or a pro-bono client. Now you have a reason to practice.

If you don’t do this already, it’s time to start. Most agencies and brands dedicate time and resources to charitable causes. Volunteer. Even pro-bono projects need creative briefs.

3. Start an in-house creative-brief writing workshop whose purpose is honing brief-writing skills. Volunteer to lead it.

The first time I was asked by a dean of student affairs at one of the community colleges where I now teach whether I’d ever taught grammar, I hesitated for just a second before saying yes and accepting the assignment.

In truth, I’d never taught grammar before. But it turned out to be the best and most fun experience I’ve had in the classroom. And I mastered the fundamentals of grammar because…

…I had to teach them!

Whether you’re a 20-year veteran or a newbie, you, too, can teach someone how to write a better brief. When you teach, you become a better practitioner. If you do even rudimentary research online, you’ll find source material that will help you teach brief writing, and my book is only one of them (although I happen to think it’s the best source).

The point is, every brief writer needs practice. No professional doesn’t need practice.

Take the initiative. Start now. Because you’re a professional.

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