What Are You Packing Into Your (Creative) Briefs?

Your Creatives Want Clear, Tightly Written Objectives

By Published on . 14

Howard Margulies Howard Margulies
You are an advertiser, an account director, brand planner or an ad agency executive. And you have come to the conclusion that something is fundamentally wrong with your creative brief.

Your suspicion is confirmed by that gnawing sensation you feel in your gut when evaluating the advertising created in service of the deficient brief. The work feels indistinct or generic, crammed with information, yet devoid of a differentiating message; its tonality is either too quiet or patently overbearing in its desperate need for attention.

Blame must be assigned: It's got to be the brief.

Changing an organization's creative brief can be a politically charged, time-consuming ordeal; but that aside, choosing a new form is a fairly simple task. Put the words "creative brief" into Google, and with a little digging, you will encounter 117,000 links, many pitching their own idealized construct. Some forms are verbose, others elegantly concise. Choose one that feels right and run with it. Related: My doctor once observed that if a wide range of products exist to treat a medical condition, one might assume that none of them work notably better than another. What's true for poison ivy is true for the creative brief. They will all sort of work, more or less.

Here are some guidelines for experimenting with a new, improved creative brief:

  • Think simple. The more sophisticated the brief, the simpler it should be. The more glissandi and grace notes the piece has, the harder it is to play.

  • More spaces to fill present a greater opportunity for bad poetry. Avoid theoretical definitions; keep the language at the 8th-grade level.

  • Write in clear, declarative sentences.

  • Test out the chosen version with products or services you know well. If you can get all the key ideas in, you're good to go.

  • Every fact or observation you add to the brief must be useful and actionable. If not, leave it out.

  • Does the final brief say what you want it to mean?

  • Write a couple of bad ads directly from your brief. What would the headline say? What would be the key visual? Is that the beating heart of your story?
The humbling reality is, regardless of the pedigree of the agency championing a particular style of creative brief, in practice it will fail to result in great advertising if the guidance it provides is merely factual, or unclear and unfocused. The format of your chosen creative brief may well be the least of your problems.

PROBLEM No. 1: Filling out the brief.
The very notion of "filling out" a creative brief should fill you with dread. Because if simply filling it out is the goal of the individual(s) tasked with its completion, it will not end well.

Too often, the creative brief is joylessly "filled out" as if it were the worksheet to an IRS 1040 Schedule C. Values are plugged into fields. Facts substituted for insights. Data dumped in a hierarchical, unfiltered lump. Keep in mind that at the end of this process, no matter how flawed or absent the thinking, it will look exactly like a creative brief.

When you write a creative brief, you're not filling out a form. You're crafting the story of your product and its reason to exist and thrive in the world. This is the first, and arguably the most important creative act of the entire process. And yet it's often approached with all the delight of passing a kidney stone.

Believe it or not, your creatives want the freedom of a tightly written brief. They're looking to you for inspiration. Man up. Make them care.

Peter Comber, creative director at Italy's DWA, wants "clear objectives, and clear targets." "Sell more," he insists, is not an objective any more than "everyone" is a target audience.

Dallas Baker, creative director of Freed Advertising, wants a brief "to connect [him] with the target on a level [he] wouldn't otherwise understand ... to be taken into a brand and ... the challenge that lies ahead."

It all comes down to this: Are you telling the right story to the right audience? The right story is not merely true, but motivating to any given audience. Often inarguable, self-evident truths are ladled into a creative brief under the guise of insight. This will not go unnoticed.

Your creative teams may dress like slackers, but they have been genetically bred to sniff out a con job. Oh, they may not immediately realize that your core leverageable insight is not really very insightful or leverageable. But know this: After they work with the brief for a while, they will arrive at that conclusion.

The creatives will scour the brief for a declarative message (anything!) delivered with clarity, something they can sink their teeth into. Finding none, in utter desperation, they will reach into their advertising bag of tricks and their instinctive knowledge of consumer motivators to create a marginally interesting way of stating the painfully obvious.

But ultimately, the smoke will clear and the creative work will not stand up to scrutiny. They will come to you for clarification, and you will be frustrated by their inability to crack the code. Be gentle with them.

It's not the format of the brief, but the story it tells.

PROBLEM No. 2: How will you know when you have written a good brief?
Brevity goes a long way to winning over some of your creative comrades. Creative legend Jackie End's litmus test for a good brief is "when you can read it without missing lunch and dinner."

Steve Capp, chief creative officer of Unit 7, has observed that if your brief is too long, "someone didn't spend enough time on it."

Surely, when your creatives begin to nod, rather than nod off, you know you're on the right track. But how do you know you have nailed it?

It's been suggested that you'll know you're onto something big when you can pitch the story in under 30 seconds. Can you deliver an elevator speech for your product? Are you writing it to be read?

Dave Dresden, director of International Promotions at Warner Bros., suggests that "actually speaking the words out loud ... lets one sense the potential for an 'a-ha' insight." Distance yourself from the brief, if you can. If you were hearing the ideas for the first time, would you buy in?

In a privately published 1998 monograph, "What's A Good Brief? The Leo Burnett Way," a "good creative brief" was defined as "brief and single minded ... logical and rooted in a compelling truth ... [incorporating] a powerful human insight." That opinion was echoed by several ad veterans I polled for this article.

Rich Solomon, creative director at C2Creative, senses that a brief is leading into fertile territory "when concepts start to come immediately after reading a single-minded benefit statement."

DWA's Comber thinks the clearest evidence of a solid brief is that when he's "reading it the first time, he reaches for a pen and paper."

Greg DiNoto, CEO of DiNoto Inc., knows when he's in good hands "when a brief is dense, when it commits ... and [he] can immediately and intuitively sense the truth in it."

DiNoto has it exactly right. When writing a brief, you must fully commit to an idea:

  • This is the time to fall on the sword. Commit!

  • Refrain from peppering the brief with ideas; a little bit of this or that. Layering ideas in a painterly way is dishonest. Commit!

  • Say one thing, and say it clearly.

  • Don't try to outshine the creatives, don't let your cleverness show; keep the language simple and clear.

  • Anything resembling a tagline should be deleted.

  • Support, amplify, clarify, stay on message.
If you have doubts that you have chosen the right path, find another. The universe has an infinite supply of paths; choose one.

It is a faulty assumption to believe that a killer ad campaign was the product of an unusually imaginative creative brief. Quite the opposite is more likely to be true. It is also not inevitable that any given campaign would result from any given brief. This is a deterministic function of the zeitgeist, the talents and disposition of the creative teams, the openness and receptivity of the target audience, and the ability of an agency and client to celebrate the power of a great idea and run with it.

The Goodby, Silverstein & Partners award-winning "Got Milk?" campaign was based on a powerful, single-minded insight: People wait until they're out of milk to realize that they need to buy more. The campaign's scenarios were highly entertaining, but the core message was: "Milk enhances the enjoyment of many foods. Don't wait until you're out. Buy some today." In Goodby's hands, advertising history was made. At another shop, the spots might've sounded like infomercials for the ShamWow!

A truly motivating insight is a secret bit of knowledge that you have about your target audience that you can exploit to make them do your bidding. Don't squander it.

Study the great advertising of the world. Dissect and reverse engineer it. But don't fall into the trap of equating the creativity or memorability of a campaign with the writing style found in the brief that got them there.

  • Keep your creative briefs free of clever turns of phrase, taglines, or ad-speak.

  • Fill your brief with brilliant market analysis and motivational insights into your target audience.

  • And most of all, write with clarity.

~ ~ ~
Howard Margulies is an associate creative director/copy at Palio, Saratoga Springs, N.Y. After spending 200 years in the business, he thinks he knows a good creative brief when he sees it.

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