Friday, March 2, 2012

A Whack to the Side of the Creative Brief

"Aside from our invoice, there is no document more central to what we produce as an agency than The Brief. The Brief is the contract between the agency and the client regarding the work. It is the interpretation of the client brief to the agency, the distillation of the agency’s strategic process, the input to the creative process and media planning. It's the mother of all agency documents, all right. The scaffolding you use to climb up to an idea. A concise means of organizing all the essential information about a specific communication problem -- so that you can inspire someone to do what we do best: create a big idea. And big ideas are how we keep our most valuable clients."
Patty Lyon, OgilvyOne
"Giving a creative team a poor brief is like pushing them onto a stage unprepared in front of an unfamiliar audience, and saying ‘Look, just entertain them, OK?’"                
Vanella Jackson, Abbot Mead Vickers BBDO
"Amongst the vast digital media of actions, we now need a clear articulation of what the heck we want people to do with our brand ideas. We need a brief that guides brand action and user participation, we need briefs guided by verbs. We need briefs that are robust enough to address action throughout a myriad of media."
Aki Spicer, Fallon Worldwide

Creative briefs are the essence of account planning, but there are very few tools to help planners build great briefs.  Yes, there are wonderful guides (check out Ed Cotton's Creative Brief Project, Charlie Robertson's "Creative briefs and briefings," in How to Plan Advertising, and Jon Steel's "The Fisherman's Guide: The Importance of Creative Briefing," in Truth, Lies & Advertising and Russell Davies 2007 attempt at the Perfect Brief) and there are reams of formats to work from (Richard Huntington provides a list and so does Leon Phang).

But what's missing is a simple set of practical questions a planner can use to stimulate thinking and inform each section of the brief.  Sort of the stimulative sort of questions offered by Ideo's Method Cards or Roger Oech's Creative Whack Pack.  Following is my attempt to put some of the questions I've collected over the years down in one place.

A quick word about document length: Many advise that the ideal length for a creative brief is a page and a half or less, i.e., "brief."  However, my feeling is that a brief should be precise and succinct rather than short.  It should be as long as it needs to be.  Nothing more. Nothing less.

Another quick word: collaboration. It is important to remember that the writing the Creative Brief should be a collaborative process. The briefing should not be the first time the creative team sees the brief.  Involving them early and often will result in a stronger, more comprehensive brief.


WHY.  The Objective.
The objective is the core nugget that explains WHY the agency is working on a project.  It is not the business objective or the marketing objective, but the role the advertising will play in achieving them. Incredibly important: understanding the real problem being solved for the client.

For most projects there should be one objective. If more than one is listed, they should be prioritized. Sometimes a bit of background on the project can help add context (especially useful for new clients or new creative teams).

Typical objectives are to effect improvements in trial, usage, awareness, image, reputation, conversion, traffic, engage customers, generate buzz or excitement, and/or response levels – although there are many other possible objectives of communications.

  • What's the big business objective?
  • What issue is holding our client back from reaching that objective?
  • Why is communication needed at this particular time?
  • Why does our client need to advertise?
  • Is there a clear agreed role for advertising?
  • Is this realistic?
  • What is the challenge for our communications?
  • Where are we now?
  • Why are we there?
  • Where can we get to?
  • What could we do?
  • What should we do?
  • How will we make it happen?
Note this important reminder from John Griffiths: "What makes messaging interesting is the way we construct the story or problem to which the message is the conclusion. If you want to make a creative brief interesting you don’t do it with the proposition but with the setup. Ask a more interesting question."

WHO.  The Target.
All communications are designed to elicit some form of response from a particular group of people. So, who precisely is our group of people? Get this right and the rest of the brief should fall into place around it. All target groups should be defined and prioritized as accurately as possible via demographics, lifestyle, product usage, attitudes, etc. Demographics are important, particularly when it comes to media, but the key is to define the audience by shared attitudinal characteristics rather than demographic similarities. The reader should be able to close her eyes, see the person, picture his home and yard (or office), know how he likes to spend his free time and understand what most excites and scares him in life.

I particularly like this example from Leo Burnett for Vicks:
Who are we talking to:  Cold sufferers. You know how you feel when you've got a cold—that pathetic little inner-child of yours suddenly wakes up and, before you know it, you're moaning & whining, you've gone all whiney & wimpy, all snivel, snot & slovenly; red raw puffy eyes, pale skin, lank hair—everything seems to be sagging! You feel like something from a Salvador Dali painting; you want to snuggle up in bed and dammit—you want your Mummy! But it's not fair, is it, because no one else takes your suffering seriously—"Good God, pull yourself together, man, we're not talking leprosy here! Don't be such a baby, get on with it, stop moaning!"
Yes, your instincts tell you to be a child, but you're not allowed to because you've "only" (only!) got a cold. And worse still—oh, the cruel irony!—even your attempts to retain your adulthood in the midst of your suffering betrays that sniveling little inner–child of yours: "oh don't worry about me, I'll be all right…", "…no, no, please, I don't want to sound like a martyr…", "…well, I'm feeling a little better now, thank you…"

I'm sorry, but when you've got a cold you're doomed to be a Child–Adult.
This one from Goodby for Nike Women's Basketball is also a favorite:
Who are we talking to:  We're targeting elite female high school players who define themselves first and foremost as basketball players.  They live, eat, breathe and bleed the game.  They are champions because basketball has become their obsession.  They give a year-round commitment to practice, off-season camps, weight-training and running drills.  Being an elite player demands dedication and sacrifice that often requires the girls to give up a typical teenage social life, wake up at the crack of dawn to complete their school work, and abandon other interests -- even other sports. 
Just to show that you don't have to be overly descriptive, here's a good example from BBH for Levis:
Who are we talking to: 15-19 year old males across Europe. Whilst they aspire to being independent, rebellious, sexually mature and worldly wise, they are in fact impressionable, easily led, inexperienced and naive. Their passage to manhood is all the more anxious in a world of AIDS, unemployment and no clear order. In the midst of all this, Levi's can still, excite and inspire them by being winners, distilling down the core youth values of rebellion and cool. Their expectations of Levi's advertising are high.
  • Who is the most valuable audience?
  • Who is the most impressionable audience?
  • What do we know about them that will help us?
  • What are the most insightful things we know about them?
  • What are the things they are talking about which may remotely relate to this market?
  • What do they believe before we tell them anything?
  • What are their cultural influences?
  • What kind of social currency do they have - to what extent do they share their brand experiences? 
  • What causes buzz in their world? What competes for their attention? 
  • What should be avoided in talking to this audience?
  • What do you want people to say about your brand?
  • Why should they say anything at all?
  • What is their shared emotional need or desire the brand can best address?
  • Are there particular moments when their thoughts and feelings are strongest?
  • How do they think and feel about the category? (It's important to separate thoughts and feelings that apply to the entire category from thoughts and feelings about our Brand. If we don't separate the two, the danger is that we'll produce work that promotes the category generally and not our Brand.)
  • What does our target audience really think about the key competitive brands? They might be sexier, more contemporary, and more accessible than our Brand. They might be for a different kind of person than our Brand. The better we understand what we're up against, the more likely we are to succeed.
  • How do they feel about our Brand? The strengths and the weaknesses please. There is no place in the brief for an idealized view of the current relationship between customer and Brand. If the relationship is strong, wonderful. But if it's not, tell us why. If we understand the barriers, we can overcome them.
  • What are the moments of truth? Is there a particular time or event that propels the category or the Brand to top of mind for the consumer? Is it a negative moment (which we can turn to our advantage), or a positive moment we want to leverage? Some of the most impactful work an agency does has been developed around a moment of truth.
  • Why aren’t they (the target) doing what we (you and the client) want them to do?
  • What attitudes must we establish or change?
  • What habits do we want formed? Do we want that person to know something new has happened, or become aware of additional product uses, or sample our product, or change a negative attitude or misconception?
  • How do our current customers find us?
  • When, where and under what circumstances will the target be most receptive to the mes-
  • What music do they like?
  • Who are their friends?
  • Where do they play?
  • What motivates them, frustrates them or makes them laugh?
  • What kind of house do they live in?
  • What keeps them up at night?
  • How do they behave as users, are they more a scanner or scroller or clicker or explorer or browser etc.?
  • Are there any secondary audiences? What is important to the secondary audience?
Consider a new target audience - the creative team.  The target audience for your brief is not the client, CEO, or marketing department, it's the creative team. It's not sales charts, or financial plans that motivate them (although it will some). Creatives must create. They live to devise campaigns that tug on the heart-strings as well as the wallet. Inspire them.

WHAT.  The Most Important Point.
Also known as the proposition, the main idea or the key takeaway, this is the single most compelling thing we can convey to get customers to think, feel or do what we want them to do. It is the central thought we want to bring to life. The truths that make the brand benefit indisputable. The one thing that is most likely to make people reconsider their views on an existing product or form new opinions about a new product, and take some action as a result. It's the culmination of the rest of the brief, and often the culmination of loads of hard work before we even got to the brief. It should be rooted in the human need. It should fight to be insightful, and inspiring. It should be motivating to the target audience.

It should be different from competitors; no other Brand should be able to say what we're saying, the way we're saying it. In commodity markets, it's often the way we're saying it that is different. It should be true - don't waste time on wishful thinking or vague claims. If it's not 100% supportable, drop it. It should be more than an offer or incentive.  People rarely buy something only because it's 10% off, or includes a free gift. Incentives are useful to strengthen the call to action, but rarely the basis for a great proposition. Offers often form the basis for the proposition, and act as essential support, but a motivating proposition must always go beyond 'Buy X’!

Ideally, it should be expressed in a single sentence. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be nuanced and complex. Consider, as Clay Shirky has written, that "media is less often about crafting a single message to be consumed by individuals, and more often a way of creating an environment for convening and supporting groups."  Great experiences don’t have a single-minded proposition. The most interesting brands aren’t about just one thing. Or, as Russell Davies once said, "The whole industry is obsessed with the idea of a simple message, endlessly repeated…What people actually want is stuff with complexity, some meat, some richness…Not stuff that’s distilled to a simple essence or refined to a single compelling truth. No one ever came out of a movie and said, 'I really like that. It was really clear.'"

Thus, make sure you look at the proposition in more than one way, to take both a broad view and a close-up view. A complex view and a simple view.  Look for ideas that are slippy, participatory and magnetic.  It should not just enable someone to see one idea, it should create the possibility of many.

Further, once you've taken a stab at the proposition, sit with it for a while.  I like this idea as related by Jon Steel in his book, Truth, Lies and Advertising: The Art of Account Planning:
"I once heard a planner ask John Hegarty, the creative director of the top London agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, what he looked for in a creative brief. He replied that he looked for a very simple, single-minded idea, which is usually expressed in the part of the brief that many agencies term the proposition. Hegarty said that it was his habit to take that one sentence and write it on a large piece of paper, above or below a picture of the product, almost as if the line from the brief were a headline. Then he would pin it up above his desk and ask himself first whether the juxtaposition of that line and that product made some rational sense, and second, whether it also started to suggest something interesting on an emotional level. If so, then he would think, 'There's the first ad in the campaign. It's my job to create something better.'"
  • What we want our audience to know or learn?
  • What do we want our audience to feel?
  • What do we want our audience to do
  • What is the best starting point to achieve our objective/solve our challenge?
  • What is the brand's ambition?  How do we convey it in this instance?
  • Why hasn't it achieved that ambition already?
  • How does the competition conventionally try to address/communicate the same issue? 
  • How do we disrupt that convention?
  • The sort of questions you might like to ask yourself about your market are these: Does
    everybody do 'funny' ads? Does everybody do ads with music in them? Does everybody
    do ads that are deadly serious? Is there a typical consumer in the ads? Is there a typical
    way to describe or show the product? Or (moving away from TV advertising): Why does everybody else use TV advertising, and is there another medium we can dominate and make uniquely ours?
  • What is the most relevant and differentiating idea that will surprise consumers or challenge their current thinking of the brand?
  • What's the consumer/industry insight that would drive us to think differently? 
  • Does the proposition have meaning, truth, and promise?
  • The question shouldn’t be “What can we tell the consumer to persuade them to buy more,” but rather “How can we help our customer?”
  • What's the brand's "safe" area?  Use that as an anchor and try moving out from there.
  • Look at a brand's most embarrassing details and amplify them.
  • When faced with a choice of ideas, try doing both.
  • If you could get one sentence through all the clutter, what would that be?
  • What is the psychological, social or cultural tension associated with this idea? What makes our target tense about the idea? Cultural truths are always moving, so tensions are everywhere. The most interesting tension needs to make you squirm a bit.
  • What is the question we need to answer to complete this assignment? The question should release the tension by shifting culture, making it controversial and related to the product truth. If it wouldn’t generate conversation over dinner, it’s not big or provocative enough.
  • Who else is competing for our target audience's attention with similar or related messages? How are our messages different to theirs?
  • How do we think this will get people talking about the brand?  Why might they talk about this idea? And how do they get involved?
  • Will this generate publicity for the brand?
  • What level of participation do we want or need? What's in it for the target; why would they want to participate?
  • Have we made it as easy as possible for them to participate?
  • How will it be remembered and retold? 
  • What are we really selling to our customers?
  • What results are we promising to our customers?
  • What taboos need to be avoided?
  • What do our customers love about our product/service? 
  • What touchpoints are most frequently seen or heard by our customer? Sales force? Company literature? Personal contact? Website? Call center? Retail?
  • How does the creative foster a social experience?
  • What is our experience? Why should our target take part? How do we make space for sharing and for new stuff to be created? What do we offer to make them spread our story?
  • How can we make this interesting?
  • Why should people care?
  • Is the creative designed to entertain, act as a branded utility, to challenge, to spawn user generated content? 
  • How will the audience encounter the communication? How might that change from the first encounter to later encounters?
  • What is the consumer benefit, not what the product is, but what the product will do for the prospect?  Where possible, an end benefit. 
  • How do we stay recognizable?
  • What would make a real difference to people if only they knew about it? 
  • Gotten stuck: I like Jeremy Bullmore's idea.  Writing in Campaign magazine in 2001, he had this to say: "There was once a bunch of creative people who were being more than usually bolshie about how tyrannical briefs crippled creativity and how they were being drowned in data and all that. So we plonked a can of engine oil down in front of them and told them to start writing a campaign for it."

The Support:
What is the rational and/or emotional support or reason to believe the proposition? What testimonials, endorsements, case studies, and product specifications are available to support this campaign?  We need to give consumers permission to believe in the proposition. Avoid laundry lists of every fact, feature and benefit. Instead, try supporting each word or phrase in the proposition with why? Make sure the support is as focused as the insight or proposition. One trick to try: Write the support as if it was the body copy for a print ad.

The Executional Considerations (Tone/Mandatories/Guidelines):

  • What's the overall tone? 
  • What will be the tone of the messaging and copy? Is it verbose? Short and to-the-point? Industry jargon? B2B? Plain English?
  • What adjectives can be used to describe the way the company should be perceived?
  • What specifically do these adjectives mean to the customer’s daily life or business?
  • What is the unique personality of the brand? You use a product, but you have a relationship with a brand. When defining personality, avoid generalizations - they are meaningless. Your target, for example, cannot be "everyone." Be as accurate a possible - the mood and tone of the creative will be based on this description.
  • What are some specific visual goals the project should convey? How will the visuals convey the message?
  • What are some common messages used to sell products or services related to yours? Any messaging you know will not work?
  • What must be included? What are the sacred cows?
  • Are there any limits, or major specifications, that we must incorporate?
  • Are there any companies that would provide a model or inspiration for the look and feel of the new project?
  • What branding and contact details? Telephone numbers, web addresses etc?
  • What are the corporate identity requirements? (Logos, graphic standards, Pantone colors, symbols, trademarks, signature motifs, or other graphic elements)
  • Is it clear from the client what must be in the communication, and what might be in the communication? What are the client mandatories versus client preferences?
  • List the creative assets that exist and ask yourself if new things need to be made to help communicate the role of the assets.  
  • Are there any technology issues to address? (Compatibility, operating systems, CRM systems, CMS systems? hardware requirements, etc.)
  • What is the total budget that has been allocated to this project and how does it break down?
  • What are key timings for this project? 
  • Who are we reporting to? Who exactly is approving this work? Who needs to be informed of our progress? By what means?
  • Don’t be too prescriptive. What has to be excluded? Simplicity is important.

The Call to Action/Success Metrics:

  • How will success be measured?
  • What do we want the target audience to do next as an immediate result of the advertising? (Call a number? Make a donation? Learn something? Tell someone?)
  • How do we want the target to think or feel as a result of our activity?  The emotion we want to create. Do we want them to feel reassured, surprised, joyous, excited, sad or angry? 
  • Which of our audience’s beliefs, ideas, behaviors or attitudes do you want to influence?
  • How will your audiences use this item? (Brochure, publication, website, etc.)
  • What can we offer to achieve the desired response? (You can think beyond promotional items, BOGOs, etc.  Perhaps some sort of game?)
  • This is the specific call to action, not to be confused with the ultimate behavioral objective. It also highlights other communication opportunities. For example: If we're driving click through, where are we taking them and is there any functionality on the destination site we can bring directly to the banner/ad unit? If the call to action is to telephone, can we improve the script to maximize conversion? If there's an incentive, include it here (phone by x date and get x% off / a free gift / etc) As part of the briefing, everyone should understand the overall contact strategy and the role of this communication within it.
  • What do we want the community to do as a result of engaging with this?
  • Will this piece(s) be used with any other pieces? (proposals, collateral, letters, etc.)
  • How will the piece(s) be used (online, leave behind, trade shows, mailed, etc.) and at what point in the sales cycle?
  • Will this tactic act in isolation?

According to Winston Fletcher, ex-Chairman and Chief Executive of the Bates UK, "Creative people are insecure, frustrated, inner-driven, stubborn, protective, follow instinct not logic, trust only themselves, love fame, are driven by their own standards and esteem, dismissive of others' opinions, irascible about criticism and often bad editors of their own work."  ("Tantrums and Talent," Admap, 1999)  Get the brief right, and you're on their good side.  Good luck.

  • “How to Write an Inspiring Creative Brief,” David Barker, Admap, July 2001.
  • “Creating the Agency Brief,” Merry Baskin, Warc Best Practice, June 2010.
  • “Writing a Creative Brief,” Elise Bauer, 2003.
  • Hoopla, CSP and Warren Berger, PowerHouse Books, 2006.
  • The Brains Behind Great Ad Campaigns: Creative Collaboration between Copywriters and Art Directors, Margo Berman and Robyn Blakeman, NY: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009. 
  • "Successful Creative Briefs: Linking Business Objectives and Creative Strategies," Emily Ruth Cohen, Aquent, 2009.
  • “How to Plan Advertising,” Alan Cooper, UK: Cassell, 1997.
  • “The Creative Brief Project,” Ed Cotton, 2011.
  • “The Perfect Creative Brief,” Russell Davies, 2006.
  • “Qualities of Effective Creative Briefs,” Geoff de Ree, 2007.
  • “How to Write a Creative Brief that Sets Creative Free,” Jeremy Diamond, Ogilvy Viewpoint, 2002.
  • "A Practical Guide to Creative Briefs and Briefings," Nick Docherty, APG, 2011.
  • Disruption: Overturning Conventions and Shaking Up the Marketplace, Jean-Marie Dru, Wiley, 1996.
  • “Writing a Better Creative Brief,” Allan Godshall, Second Wind.
  • “The Anatomy of Account Planning - The Creativity Behind the Creativity,” Henrik Habberstad, 2007.
  • "How to Write a Great Brief: A Guide to Writing Creative Briefs - The HHCL Way," Steve Henry, 2006.
  • “For What It’s Worth,” Richard Huntington, 2010.
  • How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief, Howard Ibach, 2009.
  • “The Creative Brief... Usually It's Neither,” Peter Kaufman, The ClickZ Network, 2000.
  • “The Creative Brief: 10 Steps to a Better Project,” David Leland, 2003.
  • “Onward to a Better Brief,” Heather LeFevre, 2010.
  • “The Brief,” OgilvyOne, Patty Lyon, 2003.
  • “The Client Brief,” Debbie Morrison (ed.), IPA, 2003.
  • Inspired: How Creative People Think, Work and Find Inspiration, Dorte Nielsen and Kiki Hartmann, Amsterdam: BIS, 2005.
  • “Creating the Perfect Design Brief: How to Manage Design for Strategic Advantage,” Peter Phillips, 2004.
  • “Truth, Lies & Advertising,” Jon Steel, NY: John Wiley & Sons, 1998.
  • Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: A Guide to Creating Great Advertising, Luke Sullivan, Wiley, 2008. 
  • “How to Write a Strong Creative Brief,” Shane Weaver, OgilvyOne Hong Kong, 2001.
  • “The Perfect Brief,” Faris Yakob, 2006.

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