The Most Important Document in the World?


Wouldn’t it be great if you could put some words on a piece of paper, give that to some artists, and they’d produce ideas with a profound, positive impact on your business or culture or history? Granted, it’s not as efficient as having a popular CEO who can, with a tweet, move markets. But still, effort for effort, syntax for syntax, a creative brief can be a pretty cost-efficient tool.

Consider Mars and its Snickers brand. Prior to 2010, the marketer needed to replace half of its buyers every year just to break even. A mildly expensive proposition. But then, for the cost of BBDO’s creative brief — in short, “hunger changes your personality” — and the resulting campaign, Snickers increased global sales by 15.9% and grew market share in 56 of 58 ad markets in year one alone. Within four years it had doubled share.

Or consider Wieden+Kennedy’s 1996 Summer Olympics brief for Nike: Just six words inspired a campaign that resulted in seismic changes to the multi-billion dollar Olympics sponsorship industry. Probably not their initial goal. But quoting George Orwell’s, “Sport is war minus the killing,” also helped sell a lot of shoes.

There is unfair advantage to be gained in writing a creative brief. Mostly because the practice of briefing is unevenly distributed. In 25 years at 11 agencies in six cities I can’t recall an instance where we offered brief-writing curriculum. Funny how agencies assume you just know? And it’s not for a lack of available tutors and materials. I suspect the problem lies in seeing the brief as just a document. Too often, too many practice the task of filing in blanks instead of concentrating useful insights.

Brief writing is as absurdly simply as it is vexing: Distill your business problem in a way that motivates certain people, and — fates and funding willing — you’ll receive revolutionary ideas in return. In this sense the creative brief is a kind of transaction. One side assembles a sort of potency, and the other side converts it into a tangible deliverable. Spoiler alert: Your results may vary. A creative brief is not a guarantee. Also, the creative brief itself is not the end result. It isn’t the headline, or the S1 or the press release, or the tweet. But conversely the brief is also very much not a recipe or an instruction manual.

In essence, a brief is:

Something that informs

Something that inflames

It’s a curious mix. Some assignments might need to be 90% informing and 10% inflaming. Others, the reverse. Still others a 50/50 split. Just the right words, the right temperament, nothing unnecessary. Unfortunately, you won’t quite know if your brief is the best possible mix of informing and inflaming until the resulting work hits the market. Which is part of the challenge in evaluating the efficacy of a brief — we view briefs in the broader context of their campaigns. If the creative work or the media work sucked, if the campaign failed, then the brief must have sucked, too. Even if it didn’t. Unfair, but then so is much of life.

Now it’s worth spending a moment considering the ridiculously obvious: Who is the brief for?

You should not be surprised to hear a wide variety of answers. This is the comedy of marketing; also, the reason so much marketing and advertising effort is inefficient. A very common reaction is, “It’s for the people paying for the work, the clients. To get them to agree before we make things.” And yes, clients could be the audience for a brief. But towards what outcome? What does a client do with a brief? Nothing. They do nothing. They do not make the things. (Okay, okay, okay — reacting to the correctness of words in a brief could be doing something. But that’s not the point.) I’m on Team The Creative Brief Isn’t a Client-Worthy Document. (Oh, and I’m a brand-side marketer.) Why are clients like me a less effective audience for a brief? Because receiving briefs and creating ideas isn’t our main focus. It’s akin to asking the client of an architect to review a wiring schematic. What’s informing and inflaming for a creative team can easily be confusing and process-halting for a marketer.

Better to share something not the brief itself with clients — a strategic distillation perhaps.

Other observations for the targeting of a brief might include “It’s to get everyone aligned.” And that, too, sounds like a noble task. But for project management, not a brief.

There is only one audience for a creative brief:

Those charged with creating something as a result of being briefed.

We write it for them, and no one else. This is the “in a way that motivates certain people” precept. We write it knowing certain people will take the brief, enter the Fog… muck about, perhaps benefit from the brief’s strategic infrastructure…and if the fates are merciful, exit with brilliant, career defining ideas.

Briefs are written for creators.

The brief is not written to get everyone aligned.

The brief is not written to assuage anyone’s concerns.

The brief is not written to organize the agency.

All the other audiences, all the other circumstances could easily be a memo, just not a brief. There’s great nobility in the memo. Witness Amazon’s process and success. Also, the manifesto. We don’t have enough manifestos in the Jerry Maguire school of change-making. The trouble comes in misappropriating the structure and ceremony of a creative brief to solve non-briefing business issues.

A brief is not a recipe.

A brief is not an instruction manual.

A brief is not a contract.

A brief is not an encyclopedia.

A brief is not a memo.

And it’s not a manifesto.

When we confuse non-brief audiences and objectives with the practice of briefing all sorts of nonsense ensues. We waste time. We muddy the water. And we don’t effect change.

So the first rule of briefing is to be very clear: The creative brief targets specific people.

On Targeting

Imagine you’re writing words to inspire a lawyer to aid your defense. Now imagine you’re writing words to instill admiration from a college applicant review board. Now imagine you’re writing to convince soldiers to put their lives on the line after you’ve died. You get the idea. Different audiences get written to differently. Emotions may be constant; you may write with passion. But the guts of the assignment require writing to someone specific. For some odd reason most creative briefs seem to be written for almost anyone but the people tasked with creating as a result.

A brief targets designers, art directors, copywriters, coders, artists, and creative directors among others — these are people who make new things from nothing, people who wrestle with subjectivity all day long. People who operationalize taste. You’re probably not going to engage this mindset with literalness. Neither will you appeal with frivolity. What this type of person yearns for is distinct, juicy opportunity. They’re looking for the most potential. They are not interested in wasting time on obvious or trivial matters. (Unless they’re procrastinating which is High Art in my book.) Try writing your brief to illuminate some quality of promise.

This is also not about writing for prima donnas. Reconsider your legal appeal, or letter to soldiers. To get the best from people with specific skills, write specifically.

And this writing for specific people should not be hard to do if you work inside an agency. Because the people you’re writing for sit right over there! You share the microwave in the staff kitchen. A brief isn’t written for creative people in general. It’s written for DeWayne or Lois, Carmen or Anthony, who’s process and work habits you witness daily. How could you motivate those people to bring you lunch? Turn that kind of thinking into a brief.

On Informing

In my previous post, I spent way too much time talking about the moment a brief is revealed. The (hopefully) life-changing minutes where you can sense careers beginning to flourish. (How could the art directors and writers at BBDO not feel the potential of “hunger changes your personality”?) I don’t believe you can consider the brief absent from the moment it’s revealed, or absent from those you intend to inform. The room, the time of day, the choreography — it all matters.

Consider Duke Ellington’s big band arrangements. Each part is written for a player he knew intimately. Ellington didn’t orchestrate for just anyone. The same holds true for briefs: They’re not written for just anyone — they are not universal; they exist to inform and inflame very specific writers, art directors and designers. Orwell’s quote had a unique resonance for the creatives at Wieden+Kennedy at that time. There’s a reason they felt it necessary to design and print that brief this way…

A strategist named Pete wrote some very insightful words on creative briefs here. That’s where I got this image.

No doubt there was all sorts of unwritten context and understanding which enabled those six words and that layout to make all the sense in the world. Its authors knew exactly what needed to be said to specific people in a specific moment.

Here’s the thing about articulating a business situation through the vehicle of a creative brief: It is personal. And highly contextual. You’re not writing the brief to be consumed by the masses. You’re not writing for posterity. You’re writing to inform and inflame people you work alongside.

I think I’ve been handed a few hundred briefs in over 25 years as a copywriter and creative director. I can count on one hand the few that felt written for me and my partners. Most felt written for some other audience, not someone tasked to go create ideas — as if the brief writers used the document to demonstrating the scope of their knowledge to someone else.

This is where briefs get lengthy. When the authors aren’t writing to inform, but to prove. To regurgitate all the facts and data points as evidence they attended their own briefing. Don’t make the mistake of confusing volume of information with quality of insight. The fabulous Bard of San Francisco advertising, Howard Gossage, used to posit, “How often do you need to be told your house is on fire?”

Some suggestions on informing:

Consider all the templates, and perhaps don’t use any of them. Are the traditional demographic and psychographic details motivating to the people you need to motivate? To that point, ask the people you need to inspire what parts of your typical template benefit them the most. Include only that.

• Resist formula. You have a distinct business issue needing specific creativity. Does it make sense to use the same creative brief template used for every other project? There’s a mistake in assuming a singular brief solves all.

• Win ugly. The tennis legend Andre Agassi’s coach, Brad Gilbert, suggested it doesn’t matter how graceful you move or how professional you look on the court — so long as you win the match. So why must a brief conform to any specific norms, so long as it triggers great work?

• Maybe write a succinct letter. Dear Person Who Has to Go Find a Brilliant Idea or We All Get Fired: “Here’s the most important thing you need to locate brilliance.”

• Skip the obvious. Or send it as a pre-read. Maybe the briefing itself doesn’t need to repeat what we all already know? If a designer designed the brand style guide, does a brief to that same designer really need to waste toner indicating the requirement to follow the brand style guide?

• Visuals might be a more effective tool. Especially when we’re trying to find ideas rooted in design or experience. If you had to rely on an image — a photo, a schematic, an illustration to convey your point — which would it be?

• Have you tried the Internet? Good grief there’s a lot of opinions about “how to write a creative brief.” Maybe one of them will work great for you?

The art of informing is an ability to do so as deftly as possible. It’s about the essence; the most salient words only. And it’s about personalization — no two briefs should act the same. A brief’s authors are never at a loss as to their audience — they ride the same elevators. Briefs ought to be written to inform those we know.

On Inflaming

To quote David Ogilvy quoting the Greeks: When Aeschines spoke, they said, ‘How well he speaks,’ but when Demosthenes spoke, they said, ‘Let us march against Philip.’ You can tell who I’d like writing my next creative brief. Alas, we’ve all likely seen more creative briefs written by the progeny of Aeschines. Or as Pat Fallon once put it, and I’ll paraphrase: “If the creative brief itself is not creative, then [no one] has the right to expect great creativity as a result.”

Yes, a creative brief ought to be creative! I’m not sure how else you do it, to be honest. This transactional document must conjure effort that changes the world. Why leave the tools of creativity at home?

This isn’t about faux urgency. Or a stereotype of motivation. Nor is it about exclamation points or underlining or large type. It isn’t about fonts or images or graphic design. To inflame is to know your audience so well, the few right elements do the trick. This is the “how” of crafting a brief, versus the “what.”

A brief fails if it can’t or doesn’t inspire. Informing alone won’t cut it. The more you know the craftspeople you aim to inspire, the easier it can be to inflame. Demosthenes knew his audience well.

All this could lead someone to propose: If the brief is so useful, so clear, so persuasive — aren’t we done? Just put the brief’s content in an ad-like form! I mean, you could? Nothing’s stopping you. And it’s been done, though I haven’t seen a “just run the creative brief as the ad” gimmick in a few years. As an advertising insider I always find those gimmicks amusing but I wonder how non-insiders react.

On Insight

I might have buried the lede. Amidst all the informing and inflaming is this one thing, one component of a brief that sets briefs apart specifically from other forms of marketing strategy documents.

It is an insight.

My favorite definition of an insight is it causes the reaction, “I hadn’t thought of it that way before.” Sport is war, minus the killing = Insight. Hunger changes your personality = Insight. An insight isn’t pure information. It’s not only stimulus. It’s a combination.

Every creative brief desperately needs a singular insight. For some reason the word “singular” often gets construed to mean “as many observations as can fit on the page.” All data is seemingly equal, when that can’t possibly be true. When I tell you your house is on fire, was it important to mention the yard needs watering? Or the house’s proximity to good schools?

If you’re writing a brief, maybe spend 90% of your time honing that one insight. This is not easy — generally because of fear. The fear of other people and their reactions to your decisions in honing that one insight. But you didn’t include X or Y or Z? But that’s kind of the point? Distilling the one most important insight is the part of the job where you earn your reputation as a writer of brilliant briefs. It can take hours. Or days. Or weeks, even. It takes an ability to navigate bureaucracy and politics and fear. That “singular” requirement requires saying “no” to less compelling data, which you know will bother other people because we can’t possibly not include all the data in the brief. Resist those voices.

You can sort of see why people just don’t bother refining, and instead vomit as much data as possible into a brief, making it not brief. Ha ha.

And this is a process that doesn’t have to be binary? It doesn’t have to be you writing alone in a tower, until the moment of the grand reveal. Creative briefs evolve in their creation. Bounce your approach to insights off people. See how it provokes. Is it, in fact, insightful? Getting this right is worth all the time you put into it.

As a frequent recipient of briefs, I likened an insight to the ball being placed at perfect height on a tee…the fence brought into around four feet away, my favorite bat handed over with the command to hit a home run. How could I not?

Again, all briefs are personal.

On Ceremony

Imagine walking into a conference room you’ve been in hundreds of times before. Someone left part of their lunch in the waste can so it smells a little. There’s a scrap of paper on the floor. A busted tape dispenser on the table. One of the chairs is broken, yet still available. Maybe the lighting flickers. And if we’re lucky, it’s 4pm on a Friday.

When and Where and How a brief is revealed makes a huge difference. I’ve suggested it’s a birthday party. Sure, you could convince yourself it’s just business and context shouldn’t matter and you’re not in control of office infrastructure and calendars didn’t align well and this place and time was all we could get. You could definitely convince yourself of this. Most creative briefings are just another meeting. And we wonder why most advertising and design and marketing is mere clutter. Effort for effort, a mildly good brief can come across as great in a brilliant setting. It’s “Will you marry me?” murmured in the produce aisle while shopping versus said with clear intent and obvious preparation in your potential spouse’s favorite venue.

If our purpose is to inform, then let’s consider user/audience experience. Optimally, we’d want the fewest distractions from our purpose. Does a messy conference room aid our effort? Would a 5-minute cleaning, and chair swap cause our briefing recipients to exit having retained 2% more information? Worth it!

If our purpose is also to inflame, how much does an overly familiar venue benefit our cause? One of my favorite briefings on the Volkswagen business took place in a parking ramp. If our intent is advertising or design or experiential work that changes people — why not think differently about the place where that work begins? Change the venue, change perceptions of what’s at stake.

There is no reason you shouldn’t or couldn’t curate a music playlist for the occasion. If for no other reason than to inspire those presenting. Or maybe you dress differently? Stand on the desk? Invite a surprise guest? Tour a relevant setting?

There are no rules, only ways to succeed at a task that is not always clear, filled with personality, and could change everyone’s fortunes. What have you got to lose by trying?

Sometimes a creative brief is a document. Sometimes it is also an experience. Whatever conveys insight and provokes action is what works best. The brief is but the start of a process, often abandoned as the work comes to fruition, having served its purpose.

A lot changed after Al Gore invented the Internet. Which is another way of saying a creative brief doesn’t have to be a document, or on paper. The form of the thing is only whatever works best for the people you need to inspire. And maybe that’s on paper, or in Slack or in a custom web app. I haven’t seen a brief delivered via TikTok but I suspect it’s been done. The informing and the inflaming can expand into all kinds of media if that’s what creates the best outcome. Know your audience and act accordingly.

Another thing the Internet came and blew up is the flavor and variety of briefs.

In the age of few broadcast channels + printed things, you could succeed with fewer more universal brief templates. One brief template to rule them all. This is no longer true.

The Internet codified what direct mail had birthed: Inter-action. We went from one-way, non-engaged messaging to a more conversational ecosystem with empowered consumers. (In theory. I get it. Lots has changed but really, not much has changed. I spent a good deal of the 2010s spewing words about inter-action.) And as media fragmented, and new ways of communicating expanded, so did the rationale for different kinds of creative briefs. A brief meant to instigate change via :30 network TV in a time when there was only network TV is radically different from a brief living in today’s media landscape.

Now we might have broader concept brand briefs, setting a dominant tone across a body of work. And simultaneously we have specific project briefs. The shake up in media and technology warrants more and more specific briefing — tuned for the moment, for the platform, for a unique inter-action.

Whatever works, right?

I also suspect briefing is becoming less of a grand opera and more of a podcast. What I mean is opera takes a long time to write between the libretto and the score, and then everyone has to rehearse and sets and costumes get built. Lots of effort is expended before you even get to a dress rehearsal. Lots of investment up front before you can tell if this thing is going to work. This was the drama of the creative brief from the era of Madmen up and into the arrival of the Internet. Effort upon effort. And it lead to iconic work! But today we basically have time for a podcast while also doing other tasks and it’s a podcast someone recorded and posted while also doing other tasks.

There are fewer people doing more work in less time in marketing today. Which suggests more regal forms of creative briefing might suffer? I wonder if the brief itself becomes a kind of ongoing conversation, a Slack channel, in essence. Certain truths might be pinned for quick reference, but the process is much less segmented and much more fluid. The brief becomes a digital place where the current task is curated and focused on, but not detached from all previous tasks. It’s a kind of concierge desk — always open, ever percolating, tailored to the brief recipient.

I worry how that quickly becomes just project management, however. The whole point of the brief is to shake up the status quo. To elicit change. I suppose if you keep the basic tenants in mind, it doesn’t really matter the tools or methodology used to effect change.

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.