Some Creative Ideas for Reinventing the Creative Brief

It Can't Be as One-Dimensional as It Used to Be, but It Can Be Adapted

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You could put the creative brief in the same category as old age. No one looks forward to it, but it's better than the alternative. Creative briefs have been the fuel for great campaigns from "Got Milk" to Volkswagen's "Drivers Wanted." They also have been the whipping boy for unhappy creative teams desperate for inspiration. Account people defensively cling to them when clients trash brilliant concepts. And clients may sign them like free checks, forgetting that they're launching teams of people on weeks of late nights and bad takeout meals.

To get any creative job done, you absolutely need a set of directions, and the brief fills in a lot of the basic information, but it can hardly guarantee success. The problem is that even the best brief leaves a huge uncharted void between the single compelling insight and the final work. At its worst, it can send a group of teams off in a hundred different directions.

I'm curious to discover how the creative brief can evolve and keep pace with all the other rapid innovations in the advertising industry. Why would we expect that a tool designed to create a pure advertising campaign would also work for more complex marketing campaigns that include social components, native advertising, a multitude of content types, and be distributed across paid, earned and owned media on a variety of devices?

I recently brought this up with three creative leaders whom I admire. Each of them had an interesting perspective on how the brief could -- and has -- evolved. I'll start with Conor Brady, chief creative officer at Critical Mass, who described a counterintuitive approach that turned the traditional creative brief on its head.

Rather than a document written by a planner and handed to the creative team, Brady's team has started to experiment with a verbal brief developed with the client in the room. On the surface, that approach seems to break all kinds of rules about simplicity and a streamlined process. Shaping the brief in real time sounds as crazy as inviting diners in to the kitchen to work with the chef.

Greg DiNoto, former partner and chief reative officer at Deutsch, responded enthusiastically to the idea: "Putting the client in the room for the brief is genius. It helps inspire teams, memorialize what's most important in a living, feeling way. And it puts client and agency in real partnership, real collaboration. But the potential for a Rashomon effect of interpretation worries a cynic like me. I would welcome my client in the war room, but ask us both to sign on the line, which is dotted."

DiNoto also made the larger point that the brief as we know it is really geared to creating a one-dimensional expression of a brand, when the real challenge is to map a complete brand ecosystem. "Briefs," he said, "should be less and less about pithy code for expressing the values of a brand. They should be more about programming a brand for its own behavior in, and relationship with the world.

"How about an uber content and context brief, with daily reassessment and updates? And a non-stop, newsroom-style delivery of creative and tactical ideas that spill from the brief, but bypass specific strategic briefing for each assignment."

What's ingenius about this idea is that it moves the brief from a static document to a set of instructions for how a brand operates.

A third perspective comes from Kim Snow, a creative director on the agency team at Google. "A really great brief is actually just a super smart insight around a very strategic opportunity. That's all I ever REALLY wanted. It's a secret weapon, Call it a brief, a manifesto, a pocketful of miracles. It doesn't matter.

"The result should still be a physical 'thing' -- a page, a sentence, something for all to look at, remember and map back to. It should feel like a mantra and battle cry, not a set of rules or restrictions. If it holds back versus liberates, you have the wrong thing in front of you."

It's a good bet that the creative brief will remain embedded as a cornerstone of how agency people come together to pursue ideas and seek inspiration. It's heartening to see people exploring how the form can and must evolve. Snow put it succinctly, "Kill the medium perhaps, but not the content."

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