Aristotle’s Creative Brief

PART 6 IN A SERIES ABOUT THE PRACTICE OF CREATIVE BRIEFING

The wonderful thing about business is there are so many ways to solve its puzzles. We can push the levers of finance, test the limits of supply chain, or bet on marketing and technology. Or all of the above. The value of strategy is often in discerning which path to pursue. But even within the confines of marketing there are so many options: influence, performance, transaction, awareness, loyalty, among the many. Where to start?

I’ve argued the creative brief is marvelous infrastructure for transforming business issues into a form addressable by creativity. Remember, a brief is not itself a solution; it is a guide, even a provocation — a document that both informs and inflames. Yet, there’s distillation to be done. What kind of brief? What approach?

Given the rich tapestry of creative briefs, why not begin at the beginning? Let’s jump back some 2,000 years ago, to the early eons of written communications, and welcome the Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle to the table. His analysis of the elements of drama offers an evergreen approach to the task. As always, the purpose of a creative brief is to inspire action. Much like a screenplay, the words of a creative brief are not the end but the beginning of a journey to uncover an idea. A screenplay must fire up its actors, production crew and funders to unite in making a story. A creative brief must equally inspire its designers, writers, coders or whomever in creating ideas.

So this fellow Aristotle lived long ago. Before TikTok. Before most people could read and write. But not before storytelling. And he developed some theories about story, about how it functions, articulating them into elements. And there appear to be anywhere from five to eight Aristotelian elements depending on who you want to debate with. (Side note: I’m not a classicist. That’s my brother, Christopher.) For the sake of getting to the point let’s say there are six.

Try using the following six elements as a framework for your creative brief, in this specific sequence:

1. PLOT

From a traditional briefing perspective, this might be the “big idea” — the conceptual insight that drives a creative team to deliver a behavior-changing campaign. The key learning here is to define something memorable. An effective brief strives to be both credible and astonishing. Think of it this way — a brief is delivered to an overburdened team. How can your plot trigger them to drop everything and focus, joyfully, on your brief? Shouldn’t your briefs be that potent?

Where to begin? Well, plot often begs us to illuminate an Objective. Which is another way of saying, do we have a clear understanding of the business issues which instigate the brief itself? Aristotle suggests an answer: all plots have a Beginning, Middle and End. Your results may vary. In writing a brief you might consider (but not necessarily spell out): From where does the underlying business issue begin? The answer could be inside the brand, out in culture, or in the background of your Character(s). The Middle of any story is more than just a passage of time. It is both inevitable and consequential. Consider author Jim Collin’s theory of the Flywheel that propels businesses like Amazon. The middle of a story is that flywheel: Can your brief discern Action A…and how it inevitably triggers Action B…which inevitably triggers C, etc.? Until the End. The end of plot has to be more than a period; it has to satisfy — it has to be relatable, authentic, even logical. Again, you might write out lots of detail in order to define a plot, but that doesn’t mean you’d share so much detail in the final draft.

Last point: Be dramatic. To the original point — if your brief’s plot doesn’t hook your creative team, if it doesn’t entice, the rest of the document is wasted toner.

2. THEME (i.e. Thought)

I love Dave Morris’ definition: “Plot is the reason you pick up the book; theme is the reason you take it to heart and recommend it to friends.” Think of Theme as adding nuance, or subtext. To be clear, this is not a dumping ground for bullet points. If the plot hooked us — this brief seems profound, worthwhile — the theme helps explain why that is so. What’s the reason the plot resonated with us? It’s probably due to the psychology of the Characters or the Setting. For example, consider Volkswagen. Look at its DNA and the actions of founder Ferdinand Porsche. In 1930s Europe only the very wealthy owned automobiles. Developing “a car for the people” suggests the psychology of an underdog bent on disrupting class structure. In writing this part of an Aristotelian brief, you want to reflect on why the plot moves the way it does. Name and defend your subtext. Your brief might actually be about sacrifice, or honor, or conviction…

3. CHARACTER(S)

In the world of film or theater this amounts to casting. (Pro tip: Effective casting is open minded, even unconcerned with demographics and thrilled to the point of obsession with psychographics.) In a creative brief we might frame this as proxies — who’s actions, who’s behaviors are we concerned with? Who are the agents of our plot? They must not be vague, or generalized. We need vivid characters with whom we can sympathize. They dress, they consume, they travel, they collaborate specifically. Can you bring us into their head? Can you describe their inner monologue?

Considering the Theme, what are they thinking? As Seth Godin puts it, all marketing is a change in behavior. Who are these people whose behavior we hope to effect? Indeed, we might be trying to influence a community, versus a specific character. In that case, it might help to define the core relationship that defines membership in the community.

4. SETTING (i.e. Language/Diction)

Where are we? Where does the circumstance of our brief take place? In the time of Aristotle a poet might refer to a body of water, or inside a temple. In our times, Setting could be a Facebook group. So in a traditional briefing sense, Setting could refer to How and Where. To Media. Or momentgraphics. Can your brief give color to the world in which Characters experience Plot? What is so defining about these circumstances that we should care?

Another way to consider Setting is through its elemental alternative: Language. What is the spoken fabric in which we are wrapped? Is this a story of motherhood? Automotive repair? Cryptography? Who is the most relevant voice driving the plot? Or consider the element of Diction: what tone of voice, what cultural cues, what dialects are most relevant to our character(s)?

5. STYLE (i.e. Rhythm, Music, Song or Melody)

In other words, do we have a recognizable formula? How might the variables of color, typography, motion, and/or design unite to help tell the story proposed by Plot, illuminated by Theme and lived by Character? The easiest answer, of course, is a brand’s visual guideline. But don’t just phone in this element. How does our plot flow? Is it operatic? Languid? Jumpy? Convoluted? Style can help us inform mood, urgency, culture and emotion.

6. SPECTACLE

In most synopsis Aristotle places Spectacle last in importance. But it’s still an element! In a traditional briefing, consider Spectacle as the summary of a remarkable experience. Or a reflection on it. Can you describe the impact of a change of heart? The influence of a surprise? Leave us, the briefing recipients, eager to get to work.

But. There is another way to define Spectacle in the context of creative briefing. If your Plot is overcomplicated, your Theme watered-down, your Character limp, Setting indistinct, and Style homogeneous — if all else fails to provoke — then by all means consider a request for Spectacle as a refuge of last resort.

The point of a brief isn’t to fully solve the puzzle. If it were, we wouldn’t need the brief. Instead, the brief suggests and instigates a creative act. Aristotle’s elements can be a poignant methodology for helping begin the journey.

Originally published at Useful Lunacy.

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Tim Brunelle

Tim Brunelle

I'm a creative enterprise leader, teacher, and entrepreneur living in Minneapolis.