How to write a brief that connects what we want people to think, feel and do

By Nick Southgate,  Ph.D, Behavioral Economics consultant, account planner, faculty member at The School of Life in London. I first learnt how to write briefs at Ogilvy & Mather when I was a graduate trainee.

The briefing form in those days began with three admirable simple questions – What do we want people to do? What do we want people to think? What do we want people to feel?

Reading Howard’s book reminded me of my first experiences of brief writing. Writing a brief isn’t just filling in a form – even if it’s made to feel that way. It’s about making sure all the information on that page earns its place and makes good work more likely. That’s what I’ve leant over the years writing countless briefs.

It is true that creative always skip ahead to the proposition. It’s also true that many planners pride themselves on being able to turn a good proposition. It is the planner’s most creative moment of expression: a perfect headline that no-one ever sees (and if they do, you won’t get the credit for!)

However, the response to the proposition is even more important. When briefing teams I’ve always tried to emphasize the experience of responding to the message. That’s where those three questions come in and it’s why they are so important.

This experience of responding to a message is made up of what people think, feel and do. However, what I’ve come to understand is that the most successful work brings these three things together. Bringing these together will start with a good brief and a good briefing. I think the challenge is to create a moment of intuitive realisation. That’s when you think and feel something at the same time. It’s a moment when something just makes sense. That’s when you end up doing something. Let me explain what I mean.

I recently wrote the Institute of Practitioners of Advertising’s submission of evidence to a House of Lords enquiry being held in the UK into how to bring about Behaviour Change to improve society. We were very keen to show how advertising and marketing could be part of this. In preparing it I reviewed many case studies. One of the earliest IPA Papers concerns crime prevention. It’s a great example of how feeling and thinking need to be bought together to make people do something. (The paper is ‘Home Protection: How Advertising Helps Fight Crime’ by Chris Cowpe of BMP from 1982).

The campaign wanted to reduce burglaries. It’s very easy to make people feel fearful of crime. This is what the TV ads did very well. They showed how easily burglars can exploit unlocked and open windows. However, just making people feel scared merely made them think burglary was inevitable and to feel ultimately helpless. An emotional message alone was not enough.

To prevent this the campaign also used press and posters to show people how easy it was to fit window locks, how local police will give advice and where they could buy locks in their area. These made people think it was a good idea to get window locks without making them feel very much. The rational message alone was also not enough.

The success of the campaign was having both parts working together. What people felt motivated them to do something about securing their homes, what they thought made it easy for them to do so. Thinking and feeling worked together so people knew what to do.

This combination is an intuitive realisation. When you receive the complete message you know what to do. It’s both felt and thought. These changes in thought are the strongest in changing behaviour.

Good briefs are written with strong connections between what we want people to think, feel and do. When writing the brief, consider how the emotional response and rational response will add up to something greater and how that will lead to action. It is not enough to create a rational response (i.e. something you can measure in a comprehension test where people play-back the message) and wrap it up in an emotional response (i.e. create a story people say makes them happy or sad). These must work together. When briefing a team talk about how the two will work together. Their intuitions will help make it work and the creative will be a lot more powerful.

The intuitive realisation is what a good proposition aims at. A great brief has both parts. Creatives know this. Get those three questions about feeling, thinking and doing right and you’ll succeed in getting teams to look past the proposition and write better, more deeply grounded work.