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.

 

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.

Communication professionals are lousy communicators

I’ve heard this complaint for my entire advertising career. Anyone in the communications business tends to be tone deaf when it comes to being his or her own best advocate.

It shows.

Even in the age of instant communications and social media, we (and it’s a big group that fits into this we) just suck at it.

Just look at most creative briefs. They suck.

Do you write them where you work? I’m talking to you.

I’ll bet you suck at it. You had no training. Right? You just did what someone else did and copied it. Right?

You know I’m right.

You’d think something as inclusive and basic as a creative brief would be our bread and butter.

Instead, it’s more like our bread and water, a punishment even the best brief writers tend to slog through. Don’t even ask me about the ones who don’t give a damn.

Why is it thus?

I recently began a new gig at a company as the in-house ad guy. It’s a new experience being on the client side. I’m still getting my head around it.

But in the first meeting at which a new project was kicked off, we (the creative team) were handed a document that passes for a creative brief (not really) and the conversation got started. Or rather it got stuck on details completely unrelated to the creative business at hand.

After a few minutes, I just stopped the conversation and asked the only pertinent question worth asking:

“So what, exactly, is the big deal about this product?”

Crickets.

I’m attempting to introduce the creative brief into daily use at this new place. I’m going to succeed. Because they’re hungry for a better way. Until I asked this question, no one would have been able to answer it.

You gotta ask the right question.

And if you can’t answer that question, you might as well stay in bed.

And if you can’t answer that question on the creative brief, you might as well not bother the creative team.

It occurs to me that we, as professional communicators, need to step it up as we face a dramatically changed business environment in general, and an equally re-shaped world in adland. If we can’t justify our ability to engage with our customers on all levels, we’ll be out of business.

Which is why I’m continually puzzled by the dismissive and cynical attitude toward the creative brief that I see on display by fellow adland practitioners.

“It’s so old fashioned. It’s out of date. We need something new and different and better to do the work we do. I’m tired of creative briefs. What good are creative briefs…”

OMG.

The creative brief is like water: it fills the space it’s given. Give it nothing and that’s what you get in return. Fill it with creatively inspired liquids, and you will be richly rewarded.

So, do you suck as a creative brief writer?

Prove it.

Send me an example. How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief

Anything: a well-written SMP. A finely tuned objectives statement. A dazzling excerpt from a customer profile. A probing insight.

Don’t send me anything that’s proprietary and would get you into trouble. Make it at least a year old.

The best 3 submissions that meet my high standards will get a free, signed copy of my new book.

And then at least three people will no longer have an excuse for being lousy communicators.