The act of listening

I've heard many definitions of a creative brief: It's a contract between a client and its advertising agency, or between an advertiser and its creative team. It's a road map. It's a guide. They're all good definitions.

But I think I heard an even better definition spoken by someone who knows more about the subject than most people: Jon Steele. If you've read this blog, you know I've quoted him before. He's a planner at WPP in London, and the author of Truth, Lies and Advertising.

This time I came across some remarks he made posted on YouTube in which he said that what we do as makers of communications (and here I think it's safe to include anyone in the professions of advertising, PR, marketing and the Web among others) is all about listening.

Let me repeat that: It's about listening.

I was struck by that comment. Because I think that's a great definition of the creative brief. It's a listening tool. It's a repository of what the writer has heard and absorbed about a product or service from many sources: the client, which includes marketing people, product experts, sales representatives. And most important, what consumers say about the product or service, in the form of consumer insights.

All this information has to be distilled, or reduced, to be useful directions for the creative team.

Yes, this is where the writer gets to show off what she has learned about the product or service. But that can happen only after she has done some serious listening.

The best, most inspired creative briefs come from collaboration and creativity—of that there is little doubt—but to arrive at the moment of inspiration requires something as simple as letting it all settle in.

There's nothing mystical about it I assure you. In his seminal book on creativity, A Technique for Producing Ideas, James Webb Young outlined the five steps every human brain follows to produce that "Ah-ha!" moment. The third step is to walk away. To allow your brain to go quiet and to distract it by changing the subject.

In other words, to listen.

Creatives will tell you that the best ideas come after this step. After they've stopped thinking so hard and just went off to do something else.

The creative brief succeeds best, I think, when it's used in the same manner. The brief writer has to first absorb all the information available, distill it, talk it over with creatives if that's now part of the process (and it should be), then synthesize it to create the brief.

If, as a brief writer, you truly allow yourself to pay close attention to all the input at your disposal about your product or service, you'll produce a creative brief that accurately reflects the essence of the brand. You'll have produced a valuable document that creatives can use as a catalyst for great communications.

All this from a document designed to be an effective listening tool.