Why “I” is better than “we” on a creative brief.

After years of preaching that the creative brief is about the content, not the template, I’m about to commit heresy. I’ve changed my mind. But only a little.

The creative brief template is just a set of questions, sometimes statements, requiring thoughtful responses. Emphasis on the word thoughtful.

Now I think that is not enough. Here’s why: The creative brief is, in the end, for the creatives. It’s meant to inspire them to creative brilliance. That part hasn’t changed.

The creative brief is also meant to be an inspiring document for the entire team to rally around. The “team” could be on the client side or the ad agency side.

But let’s look at the discipline from which the creative brief springs: account planning. At its most basic, account planning speaks for and embodies the consumer. The thoughts, feelings, aspirations, hopes, needs and wants of the human beings who buy the stuff we sell. The creative brief, therefore, addresses what we know about them.

So what if we changed the nature of the template to reflect this reality? I’ve seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of creative brief templates in my career. A tiny fraction do in fact take this approach. The vast majority do not.

What kind of change am I speaking of?

An adaptation, not a wholesale revision. A subtle, but significant, shift in thinking.

firstPOVsurfing

We need to introduce, or re-introduce, the first person “I” into the creative brief. I’ve seen plenty of briefs that use “we.” This is not the same thing.

The brief, after all, addresses the customer. The brief talks “to” the creative team, of course, but it’s “for” the customer.

Here are the questions I use on the creative brief template I teach in my workshops.

  1. What is the problem we’re trying to solve?
  2. Why are we communicating?
  3. Who are we talking to?
  4. What’s the background?
  5. What is the single-minded proposition?
  6. What’s the proof that the SMP is true?
  7. What is the key emotional benefit?
  8. What do we want people to feel after seeing the communication?
  9. What is the desired tone and mood?

These are the basics. I exclude things like budget, media, mandatories, copy points, approvals. Those things tend to be straight-forward. These nine questions require thought. (Some of you may wonder about the difference between #7 and #8. There is a big difference. You’ll have to attend my workshop or read my book to understand my thinking).

So what if we made a subtle change from first person plural (we) to first person singular (I)? How would this change the way we think about both the brief and the work it produces?

Let’s try it:

  1. Why are you bothering me with this communication?
  2. Why should I pay attention to this communication?
  3. Show me how well you know me.
  4. What do you know about me that I may not know about myself?
  5. What’s in it for me?
  6. Why should I believe you?
  7. Why is this important to me at a gut level?
  8. How will I feel after I’ve seen this?
  9. What am I supposed to feel about you?

Notice how I connected #8 and #9: they are meant to confirm each other.

In fact, if you look closely, using the singular first person connects many of these questions in a way that the royal “we” does not. It makes the brief feel more intimate. It’s less a brief and more a letter that requires…honesty, authenticity, truth.

Notice as well that #3 is no longer a question. It’s a statement. Actually, it’s a taunt, so it’s question-like. I could have phrased it, “How well do you know me?” But that’s not open-ended.

I like where this leads. I think it shifts our thinking from what “we” want to what our customer wants.2017 customer strends

I’m counting on you to revise and edit this further to suit your particular situation. I’m sure you could hone my questions to make them even better. Whether you adopt these question on your brief or not, I hope they make you think about how you craft this document.

It’s not a form to be filled out. It’s a thinking person’s document.

Who is the real culprit behind bad creative briefs?

The people who screw up the creative brief are not likely to read this essay. That’s too bad. They need a serious talking to.

The thing is, I don’t know who they are by name, but I do know their identities by title or role within a client’s organization. Notice I don’t mention ad agencies. While everyone, everywhere, struggles with getting this document right, agencies know its value and take it seriously. At least the agencies I’ve worked for, and the people I know who work for them.

Client-side marketers, on the other hand, still display a dangerous ignorance about the creative brief. An ignorance bordering on insanity. No, I take that back. They are insane. Crazy insane.

The document designed to transform brands—and to make these insane people look good—is routinely ignored, undervalued, sabotaged, or all of the above.

Why? I wish I knew.

But I know who is to blame. They commit the same error for the same reason:

Egoego

Which means my ranting will likely solve nothing.

Yet rant I will. I must. I have been called the “lone voice” on behalf of the creative brief. This is what a lone voice does.

The troglodytes come in three flavors, but share the same title: Senior Management.

1. They sabotage the creative brief process.

They sabotage because they can. They work like this:

Before the project has an official “kick off,” these saboteurs are either invited to review the creative brief, or asked to help compose it. They refuse. They ignore the request. They make excuses. They might beg forgiveness. But the result is the same. Their voice is not heard.

Then the creative brief emerges, and the next step occurs: the project kick-off.

The brief is discussed, or more likely debated for its lack of clarity and direction, but the driving force is always The Deadline. Usually yesterday. The work commences.

Then the work is presented, but not to the decision maker. Instead, to a less senior group. Some good idea rises to the top. Then it hits its first big hurdle. Senior Management (SM), who refused to participate in the opening stages, now steps in.

This is often when SM sees both the creative brief, as well as the creative work, for the first time. SM objects. The reason hardly matters. SM doesn’t like something. They revise the brief in some way, and that always means the creative work misses the mark. The process starts over.

Lost time. Lost enthusiasm. And what the SM should be most attuned to, but is not, lost $$$.

When a stake holder fails to get involved in the beginning, everyone pays…in the middle and especially in the end.shootinfoot

When there are multiple stake holders, it’s not unusual for no one to claim “final authority.” Worse, no one cares. Multiple turfs, silo-ed responsibilities, no collaboration. Everyone pays.

This is willful sabotage.

2. They don’t understand the creative brief.

All I have to write is: The Telephone Game. This is a simple visual.

You immediately picture a group of children…er…Senior Management. The one on the farthest left whispers something into the ear of the SM next to him. By the time the last in line hears the whispered message and announces what she has heard, the joke is on everyone. You know how this works.

But for reasons passing understanding, SM fails to grasp the concept. SM is convinced that a creative brief is not necessary. That everyone knows what the task is.

Even some veteran creatives buy into this nonsense. The rationale: We creatives often go without a brief and we manage to figure out what’s needed, and always deliver.

Bless you. My response: Why do you put up with it? Why do you become enablers?

No ad agency I know of works without a creative brief. Once in my past, I worked for a small B-to-B shop that did not use a creative brief. After months of pestering, SM relented, and instructed me to write the briefs.

Me, the copywriter.

Look what they have wrought.

3. They don’t believe in the creative brief.

I know, this is so close to #2 it may not deserve its own rant. But it’s a disease all its own. These troglodytes use the creative brief, but put so little stock in it that you might as well not have one at all. They are closer to #1 than #2 because this group of SM is likely to sabotage the process.

The primary difference between the saboteurs and the non-believers is: Influence.

Saboteurs dent morale, but the believers in the creative brief who work for them never lose faith.

Non-believers infect the entire organization.

I know this is flirting dangerously with religion, but the analogy fits. You have to put your faith in something that provides a rallying point. The creative brief is the logical and emotional center for the brand and of the creative process. These are its purposes. troglodyte

When you encounter troglodytes, you have to work especially hard to immunize yourself and your organization from their disease.

I have the feeling that you’re nodding in agreement with much, perhaps most, of what I’ve written.

“Alas,” you say, “what can I do?”

Here’s a thought: Print this out and leave it on the desk of your favorite troglodyte.

Complaints about the creative brief that have nothing to do with the creative brief.

Small Fish With Ambitions Of A Big Shark - Business Concept

Complaints are often disguises. Each one is meant to hide a central truth, a truth that emerges only after you listen carefully to the rant. When the blame for some marketing shortfall lands on the creative brief, an easy target, the real culprit lies elsewhere.

Here are three of my favorites:

1. The creative brief is no longer relevant.

2. There’s something wrong with our creative brief.

3. If the brief isn’t great, the creatives will figure out the Big Idea.

I’ve heard versions of these whinings in conversations, in articles, and online. They’re all full of shittake mushrooms.

You don’t have to be a psychologist to understand what the real issue is. But I’ll play psychologist today and shed some light on these laments.

First: The creative brief is no longer relevant.

I hear this one the most. When I ask for elaboration, the line of thinking goes like this: There are too many platforms today (meaning social media and mobile) requiring different messages to reach our target consumer. The old models of advertising, like feature/benefit or information-based messages, don’t work in these settings. We have to change our approach…blah, blah, blah.

So look carefully. The complaint starts with the brief, but veers rapidly into the message, the communication. The bickering has nothing to do, in the end, with the brief itself. If you’re present enough in this conversation to stop and point this out to your interlocutor, the funny thing is: They agree with you!

It’s not about the creative brief. The complaint is about the work that arises from the creative brief!

Second: There’s something wrong with our creative brief.

I hear this one quite often. It always makes me laugh. I typically respond with this story:

Imagine you had the opportunity to visit the home of your favorite clothes designer, say Yves St. Laurent or Giorgio Armani. You walk into his personal clothes closet and look around. Even if it were empty, you have to believe the space itself would be impressive. walk in closet

But you don’t care about the closet, do you? No! You want to see what’s in it! You want to see the suits, the jackets, the material they’re made of. The shoes, the sweaters, the hand-made shirts. You want to see and feel and smell the quality around you. If you like clothes even just a little bit, you want to be surrounded by this genius’ creations.

So the creative brief is like a closet. It means nothing when it’s empty. It’s just a piece of paper with boxes or questions.

What we care about is the contents! The answers to those difficult questions. The clothes, baby! The clothes!

Stop worrying about the creative brief template. Even the worst template can dazzle if the answers to its questions are inspiring and thoughtful and engaging.

If you blame the template, you’re making an excuse for an ill-prepared creative brief writer. Please stop!

Third: If the brief isn’t great, the creatives will figure out the Big Idea.

This one hurts. This one clearly misses the point of the creative brief. It’s just plain wrong.

The brief, after all, is the first step of the creative process. It’s the first swing at solving the problem.

In other words, the creative brief is the Big Idea.

The creatives assigned to read it, work from it and be inspired by it deliver executions of the Big Idea. They translate the Big Idea into communications that sell. If the writers of the creative brief have stepped up, the heavy lifting has been done.

Abstract illustration concept for design

You know instantly when you’re reading a stellar creative brief. You can see how others are reacting. Look at their body language. Their wheels are turning. They’re asking questions. Talking about executions. They’re already working on the problem. They’re excited!

The opposite is equally visible. If the brief is uninspiring, everyone feels it. Or doesn’t feel it to be more accurate. Garbage in, garbage out.

Handing over an unfocused document filled with unfiltered thinking, lacking a compelling claim (the single-minded proposition), and passing the buck to the creative department to fill in missing information, disrespects the brand, the client, the agency, and all the people involved with making and selling the product.

We like to blame the creative brief for many ills, but we can’t blame it when the problem has nothing to do with the creative brief itself.

If old models of advertising fail, fix the models. We’re seeing this happen everyday. Brands talk about storytelling.

If you’re not getting the right information from you brief, remember: It’s a blank piece of paper until you fill it with questions. Change the questions if you must! But don’t blame the questions. Blame the answers!

If you don’t believe the creative brief is the repository of the Big Idea…well, maybe it’s time you found a different line of work.

No wonder you blame the creative brief.

 

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.

 

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.