How to break the first rule of advertising

On July 19, the folks at Faktory, an ad agency in Utah, published a thought-piece on Medium.com. I liked it so much, I posted a link to my LinkedIn page. I still like it. A lot.

The premise is elegant and simple: If you want people to not only remember your communication, but to break what the writer described as the first rule of advertising (“No one looks for your ad”), you must connect with your audience in three ways:

  1. With a truth
  2. With an emotion
  3. With a story

Brilliant!

A truth is what I’d call an “insight”: something unique or previously unknown about your consumer, the marketplace, the product category, sometimes a combination of two or more.

An emotion is the deliberate evocation of an authentic feeling. This is what the best of advertising does so well. And so rarely.

And story. This is a narrative, they wrote, that rewards you at the end. They claimed it did not need to be linear. But they added a fourth point that I think was redundant:

Don’t mess [your audience] up by trying to say or do too much.

This is correct. But the good folks at Faktory veer off course just a bit. I think they should stick to three ideas, but enhance one of them. Specifically, point #3: a story with a message.

The definition of “story” after all, is: a narrative that arrives at a point, a resolution, a message. A story without a message isn’t a story at all.

The ads they liked so much—Old Spice #SmellLegendary—are in fact linear stories. Each has a beginning, a middle and an end. They may be absurd, but they are linear, and they have a point. I know this is what Faktory’s writer meant. smell

I have a name for this reward: The single-minded proposition.

Your ad (story) will not resonate if you have too many things to say. But one clear message, driven home within a compelling narrative, makes a memorable, and therefore effective, communication.

That’s why I would argue that the “rule of three” applies: A truth, an emotion, and a story (with a clear message). Do these three things, and you can negate Faktory’s astute “first rule of advertising”: No one goes out of their way to look at advertising.

Because some well-told stories have accomplished the seeming impossible: they’ve gone viral. People not only look for them, they even ask for them by name.

All I’ve done here is nit-pick. I’ve added succinctness to an otherwise strong argument. A story without a point is no story at all. It’s an example of your drunken Uncle Fred at the family dinner rambling on about…well, whatever. He has no point. But he loves the sound of his voice.

Here’s an example in :30. It’s a TV spot for Lexus, called, I’m sad to say, “Turning the Page.” There is no truth. No emotion. No single-minded story. It’s a spoken cliche reinforced with a visual cliche. What we used to derisively call “See–Say” advertising: see it, and because the advertiser believes the audience is stupid, say it, too.

Where do you find the elusive truth? The authentic emotion? The single-minded story?

If you’ve read my essays before, you know the answer: the creative brief.

This is where creatives find the inspiration for Big Ideas like #SmellLegendary and the other examples Faktory’s article highlighted. If you haven’t read the article, read it now. Re-read it. Talk about it. Make certain your creative briefs address each point.

Well done Faktory.

 

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Five truths every creative brief writer must face.

I offer these five truths about the creative brief that will help you take a successful first step of the creative process.

1. Collaborate, especially with creatives. Never write this document by yourself.

How many of you remember Steve Jobs’s Parable of Rocks? It bears repeating. This is Jobs speaking: Steve Jobs

“When I was a young kid there was a widowed man that lived up the street. He was in his eighties. He was a little scary looking. And I got to know him a little bit. I think he may have paid me to mow his lawn or something.

“One day he said to me, ‘Come on into my garage I want to show you something.’ And he pulled out this dusty old rock tumbler. It was a motor and a coffee can and a little band between them. And he said, ‘Come with me.’ We went out into the back and we got some rocks… some regular old ugly rocks. And we put them in the can with a little bit of liquid and little bit of grit powder, and we closed the can up and he turned this motor on and he said, ‘Come back tomorrow.’ This can was making a racket as the stones went around.

“And I came back the next day, and we opened the can. And we took out these amazingly beautiful polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other like this (Jobs clapped his hands), creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful polished rocks. river rocks

“That’s always been in my mind, my metaphor for a team working really hard on something they’re passionate about.

 “It’s that through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together they polish each other and they polish the ideas, and what comes out are these really beautiful stones.”

I know you’re thinking that he’s speaking about creative people: art directors, copywriters, digital folks, graphic artists and others. Maybe.

But think about the principle. Put an account planner, a creative and an account management person in a room together, and have them forge a creative brief as a team. Everyone has a stake. It’s not “You write it, I’ll work from it.” No. It’s a team effort.

Creatives have done this for decades. Creative brief writers should be doing it this way, too.

2. You must make choices. Less is definitely more.

The tendency is to cover your butt. You don’t want to accused of forgetting something. So everything is included. Nothing is excluded. Your brief is not brief.

Not everything matters. You must make decisions. The principle of “Liberating constraint” applies here. Box in your creative team with restrictions, rules, walls, the very things they detest. The result is creative freedom. This is the definition of the creative brief.

The creative brief is not a product encyclopedia. It’s the opening line of a brand poem.

3. Take a stand, and stand by it. You must be courageous.

If the Single-Minded Proposition (or the Core Idea, or the One Thing, or whatever you call it on your brief) does not spark a debate, go back to the drawing board and try again.

When it does spark a debate, relax. You done good. Now defend it.

4. If you’re really a professional, practice.

Gary Player, the South African golf legend, told this story some years ago.

Player was practicing sand shots out of a green-side bunker when a fan stopped by to watch. Player hit shot after shot after shot, each one landing softly on the green and rolling into the cup. After each shot, he heard his fan say the same thing, “That’s just luck!”

Player, clearly annoyed, turned to the man and with a smile on his face, said, “That’s right! The more I practice, the luckier I get!” Gary Player

If the only time you write a creative brief is when you actually have to write a creative brief, you’re doing yourself a disservice. And everyone else on the team.

Imagine if Gary Player hit a sand shot only when his ball actually landed in a bunker. Or if LeBron James shot a free throw only when he was fouled. Imagine if these two sports giants never practiced. You know what would happen. We would never have heard of them. They’d have been failures.

It’s your job to practice writing a brief even when no brief is required. You can do this anytime: On your commute. Waiting in line for coffee. In the dentist’s chair. Think about a product, an everyday item, anything. What is its Single-Minded Proposition? Who would truly use it? What insights can you conjure about this consumer? What are the obstacles to overcome?

These are simple mind exercises you can do at any time. You don’t have to put fingers to a keyboard. But you do have to engage your brain. It’s a muscle like your bicep or hamstring. Use it. Practice.

The point is to develop muscle memory. Do this for 30 days and you have a habit. A professional habit.

5. You have permission to be creative!

The creative brief is the first step in the creative process. I like to quote Sir John Hegarty here: The brief is the first ad. It doesn’t have to be great, but it must be good.

So don’t be shy. You are allowed, encouraged, to offer up creative ideas. I have seen them called “creative starters” on some briefs. They may lead nowhere, but if you leave them out, we’ll never know, will we?

Remember these five truths and you will write better, clearer, more inspiring creative briefs.

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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.”

mobile-hero-1-variant-859ca07b851fe88cf29e48c37ac4b40aa37f18ef4f9e3d66241fadae10b86014

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.

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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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