Three clues to spotting a poorly written creative brief

(As if there were only three!) This subject came up in a Skype conversation I had recently with a new friend and colleague, Jean-Francois Fournon, a creative director at Shem's Publicite in Casablanca, Morocco. I'll blog about him and his experiences in an upcoming post.

But when he mentioned that some of his younger creatives weren't as well versed in briefs and therefore didn't always know how to question a brief writer, much less challenge the writer on some of his or her conclusions, a light bulb went off in my head.

I've spent most of my time discussing how to write an inspired brief. And virtually no time offering clues on how to spot a bad brief.

This was one of those forehead-slapping moments.

A truly inspired creative brief is usually, in fact often, accompanied by fireworks. You just know when the writer was in the zone and produced a brilliant document.

Even moderately well-written briefs reveal their inspiration.

And if you've been in the business for a while, you know a groaner when it lands on your desk.

But what if you're not a veteran writer or art director? What if you're brand new, or even just a couple years on the job?

Herewith is the first of three tips that even the most seasoned brief reader can use as a checklist against the high standards we all expect our creative briefs to achieve.

#1. The Proposition Your creative brief template may have a variation on this one. It can be called the Unique Selling Proposition. The Single-minded Proposition. The Key Insight. The one important thing.

Whatever it's called on your brief, start here. This is the one-sentence summary of what the entire creative brief has to say. So a reliable clue that your brief isn't aspiring to be inspiring will make itself known in this box.

Ask yourself: is the Proposition really single minded? Is it a paragraph of benefits? Or honestly and truly the most important benefit (singular)? Could you write it on the palm of your hand?

A few years ago I took a job as creative director at a marketing agency on a major international airline. My first day was about a week before a big presentation on a re-branding effort. So when I asked to see the creative brief, I was more than stunned when I read the Proposition. Essentially, it promised to save you money, let you get more work done en route, and give you better customer service.

It was the first triple-minded proposition I'd seen. Not ever, but in a very long time. The creative team was so far into the process, and the client had insisted on it as it was written, that I had no choice but to play along.

If you ever come across a Proposition that tries to give you a laundry list of benefits, this is your first clue that the brief is not only not inspired, but that the brief writer is being lazy. I don't advise telling him that to his face. But I do believe you have the obligation to sit down and ask a few pointed questions so that you both arrive at one thing and one thing only.

And it's a relatively easy task to accomplish. You can come to the Proposition by a process of elimination.

Here's how it works: list three or four of the most important features of your product or service. Then for each feature, identify what the most meaningful benefit of this feature is.

(For example, the MacBook I'm writing this post on. One obvious feature is that its OS uses icons that I can decipher intuitively. What's the benefit? Well, yeah, it's easy to use, but so is a knife and fork. No, the benefit is that it saves me boatloads of time that I don't have to waste trying to figure out how to make it work! I can just get on with it! That's huge! Okay, I'm a Mac zealot. Sorry.)

My point is, when you've translated features into benefits, you have your list from which to arrive at the Proposition.

You and your brief writer can then discuss these benefits and decide which one—which single benefit—is the most important. Even if they're all special, one has to stand head and shoulders above the others. At the very least, one is the first among relative equals.

That one benefit is the Proposition. Or more accurately, it's the inspiration for a superbly crafted Proposition statement. Writing Propositions is a delicate art, but more on that later.

If you collaborate, if you ask questions when you talk to your brief writer, you'll keep a good relationship from turning sour, and you'll empower your writer and arrive at the objective: a Proposition you can actually use.

Oh, and chances are you'll impress the heck out of your brief writer, who probably had no idea you cared so much. That realization alone will probably be inspiration for subsequent briefs.

Next time: Clue #2—the difference between business or marketing language, and advertising language (and why it matters to an inspired creative brief)