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How to Write an Inspiring Creative Brief

David Barker Admap July 2001, Issue 419

Title: Author(s): Source: Issue:

How to Write an Inspiring Creative Brief David Barker Admap July 2001, Issue 419

How to Write an Inspiring Creative Brief


David Barker This article looks at one aspect of advertising creativity: the brief. Coming from a company with a broad view of creativity, I find that practically all the insights and rules important for briefing creativity in advertising seem valid for any other part of the business process. My title contains one basic assumption: writing a brief may not be the best way to get what you need. There are, however, two other assumptions, leading to the questions:
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Do you really need creativity? How does writing a brief help?

Only then can we go on to ask:


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How can you make sure the brief delivers what you want?

Is creativity important? Do you really need creativity? The question may appear heresy, especially from a creative, but there is a lot to suggest that you do not. What about using logic, proving clinically that your product is better? How simple that would be. Unfortunately, logic alone is not enough. That is why KwikSave, the cheapest grocery chain, is not the most successful UK grocer. It has failed to engage the majority of shoppers. Shopping is not just about price, despite an endless stream of price messages. Evidence shows that beans from one store are worth paying more for than at another despite being identical. Why is beyond the scope of this article: suffice it to say that we need to go beyond logic to engage customers in brands. But let us still challenge that assumption that creativity is important. Even if we accept the belief that creativity is about doing things in a different way, the question is, do you really want that? How about people's love of consistency, the comfort of routine, the love many have for order and the familiar? Shouldn't we give greater importance to doing what worked last time? No one wants imaginative changes made to their daily
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milk or favourite chocolate bar. We like Beck's beer to taste the same year in, year out. And imagine if people started rethinking the train timetable every day. But in truth, despite a need for constancy within brands, healthy brands need creativity to refresh or reappraise. Consumer questions Consumers unconsciously ask four questions when faced with advertising. The answers determine an ad's effectiveness:
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Isthismessageforme? Whataretheysaying? Howaretheysayingit? Whoissayingittome?

Relevance, content, tone and style, my feelings about the sender. Creativity plays a major part in two, if not three, of these factors. There is evidence that people's take-up of advertising messages is faster these days (although not as fast as some might imagine), so wear-out of message must be a factor. New messages are needed. What we say and how we say it is important. Indeed, according to Procter & Gamble, the difference between the most and least effective advertising can be over 4000%. Imagine if accountants worked to such differentials. We know, too, that media weight alone is not enough and media buying power is one ninth of what it was 15 years ago. To get stand-out, we need some difference from those around us, and that is where creativity matters. So if creativity is good for your brand, what should you expect? Be aware that creativity is not defined in any dictionary as being about selling, nor is it categorised as useful merely novel, unusual or different. We might sum up creativity as 'the power of thinking up novel ideas'. Or, as Bertrand Russell, the philosopher, put it, '[creativity comes from] conscious facts planted in the unconscious and allowed to germinate.' Conscious facts. A good brief for briefing, perhaps. However, there is also a very different interpretation of creativity: it's not what you do, it's the way that you do it. Dotcom irrelevancies Dotcom ads have been a brilliant example of advertising taking this view. Take the TV ad for Breathe.com, with a couple breathing food back and forth across a plate, and making the tide go in and out: a great example of creative freedom and standout, perhaps. But what about its relevance? What about its ability to change, confirm or form new beliefs? Uncharitably I might call it an overt example of greed and hypocrisy on the part of ad agencies, in taking advantage of clients and a wonderful example of the lack of common sense and business acumen displayed by most dotcom clients (and those who backed them). Ad agencies are like modern Dick Turpins: they take the money and run. And it is a classic case of heart leading wallet on the part of the financiers. But let's be charitable. Let's call this the result of a lack of good briefing.
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What can we learn from BeMe.com? The headline simply says 'Outrageous'. And the picture is just that a photograph of legs scarred by varicose veins and feet in high heels. The summing up is no more illuminating: 'Be whatever you want to be. BeMe.com'. What is it asking readers to believe? Why are they trying to shock them? Who are BeMe.com? What do they do? And more importantly, do they really imagine people will spend precious time finding out? How about Cahoot? Headline: 'Defy Convention'. A picture of a Scotsman wrestling with another, whose kilt has blown up to reveal he is wearing girls' knickers. And the summing up: 'Demand 0% APR on your credit card. Cahoot.com Interactive banking.' At least they tell us what business they are in. The evidence was everywhere in the world's media in the year 2000. A well-funded pursuit of the irreverent with the irrelevant. Could this abuse of creativity be one reason why dotcoms failed so spectacularly to create brands, elicit trust, gain differentiation or even impart any knowledge of what they did? Probably. They spent money and used creativity to gain awareness not all of it positive. They forgot important rules, like 'Tell me what you do and how it might benefit me', and 'it pays to establish trust, because people don't buy from companies they don't trust'. Creative fireworks cannot overcome natural caution. So creativity is not about Fire, Ready, Aim. That being so, we have arrived at the role of the brief. It is to get effective creativity. Creativity starts with good thinking and a brief. What's in the brief? Without purpose, creativity merely provides what Americans call 'eye candy'. This ignores the potential to deliver meaning and relevant content. This lack of purpose is why so much in ads, booklets and design insults our intelligence. So the first requirement is to say what you expect to happen as a result of the ad. Remember: only by changing belief can we expect to change behaviour. Seeing things differently leads to feeling differently, thinking differently, acting differently. If you need those changes, creativity is a great way to bring them about. Throughout history, key ingredients for change and invention are: accident; climatic change; genius; craftsmanship, careful observation; ambition; greed; war; religious beliefs; and deceit. So, to effect changes, we need some of that but maybe not all of it. Who is the brief for? If you think that list is challenging, consider the people you depend on to deliver. According to Winston Fletcher, 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.' (1)

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I would add one factor: creatives live with fear the terror of the blank space. But there's a lot you, as supplier of the brief, can do about that. We are building up a not-too-favourable picture of the creative on our team. But what makes creatives so commercial is their non-commercial outlook: it makes them different and invaluable. Indeed, if we believe a headline from the Daily Mail, January 2001, creatives could be more irreplaceable than surgeons: 'Heart bypass ops by robot'. So what should the brief be for these extraordinary people?
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A work order? Your dream? A set of rules? Guidelines? Evidence? A means?

Too many briefs contain long lists of objectives and attempt to reconcile the divergent views of too many people; but in communications, if you try to do too much, you achieve nothing. In briefs, three crimes guarantee garbage:
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The brief is vague, incomprehensible or wrong. This is sheer lack of care. 'Filling in' a brief is treated like filling in a tax form. More energy is spent getting key people to sign the brief than worrying about what is in it, who it is for and whether what it asks for is possible or desirable. Brief as if your future, your family, and other people's families, depended on it. Briefing formats become enshrined in organisations. They are more about getting agreement and consistency than getting good work. It does not help that often the client has one style of brief, the agency a totally different one. Sure, the format is important. But quality is vital.

How much information should be in the brief? Lots! Some years back, in a brief for Saab, I found buried the odd fact that they once made planes. In fact, that is how they started, and explains the name: Svenska Aeroplan AB. That brand truth became the basis of an idea that reorganised, and made sense of, everything they did. The shape of the cars, the ergonomics, engineering values, safety, the feeling of control the driver should experience. For potential buyers, Saab suddenly made sense. Within a few years, sales doubled, residuals hardened, margins increased, dealers prospered. Despite the takeover of Saab by GM, and the inevitable move to a GM agency, that fact continues to influence the brand, and even the product: witness the pull-out loading bay in the 95 Estate, described in the brochure as 'airliner inspired'. The actual briefing Are you demonstrating the importance of the solution? How can you expect the brief to be taken seriously if your signals suggest it is not important to you? Further, if you are not excited by the prospect of a great solution, how can you expect your
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creative team to be? And if they are not excited, can you expect them to excite customers? Make sure you leave the person answering the brief in no doubt that a really good solution is of prime importance. And why. Although it is great to have a very prescriptive brief, make sure that you do not confuse ends with means. Creativity can profoundly alter how you see things. So the measure of the work is not that it slavishly follows all the guidelines and uses all the learnings in the brief, but that it delivers a brilliant way of achieving the objectives. The brief is only a means to an end. So if it calls for an ad to dramatically increase awareness of your watch brand, do not get upset if the answer is not an ad. Look at the use of a giant model of a Swatch that was built up and over the CommerzBank building. Thousands of people were stopped in their tracks by it. Many more saw it on TV. It remains an example of how to create something that achieves the ends by rethinking the means. Take the 'press ad' for Becks we were asked for, to stress its natural ingredients. We turned a brief for a single-page ad into a two-hectare field, planted with natural ingredients growing to form a giant bottle and the line, 'Only ever made with natural ingredients.' Thousands everyday saw it from the train. It got national TV and press coverage for weeks for very little outlay. Less, in fact, than a single press advertisement would have cost. The point is that the creatives had a brief, but, more importantly, they had a clear idea of what was wanted. They were then able to use their creativity in an uninhibited way to achieve it. Without that, creativity runs riot. There is an Audi commercial, launching the A2. When I showed it at an Admap conference recently, few could agree what it was trying to get across, or what relevance it had. Certainly, it was 'creative'. For a manufacturer who has over the years inspired brilliant work, with brilliant product, what happened? Almost certainly, too much. Too many requests for inclusions, not enough thought put into what the single-minded idea about this car should be. The result? A well-conceived car, with its story buried in too many facts and gratuitous creative diversions. Great questions, great answers To get great answers we need great questions. Here's a list to provide creatives with the ammunition they need: questions that need vivid answers.
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Why this is important to me the clients needs to think how to share their dream. Why I need your help why creativity is paramount. Where I need your help what hurdles we need to overcome. Whom I need you to influence my target, my 'to die for' audience. How they currently behave the reality of my target audience's lives. What I would like them to do the whole team's task. What they currently believe the beliefs that drive their behaviour. What I therefore need them to believe the creative person's task. Things that interest them possible opportunities to engage them. Why what I have should interest them what the brand offers. Who is telling them different the competition, what they're pitching.
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What the obstacles are the problems well face. What has worked in the past and why the creative team's starter for ten. What I can afford time/money. What my commitments are promises I've had to make. How far I am prepared to go to solve this one how open-minded are you?

Given that often what we say is not what people hear, what is vital is that you make sure that the people who have to do the work understand what you want. There is only one way to do this. Ask them to tell you what you have asked for. It is a simple step, often missed. It does not take much imagination to see that miscommunication here does more than just waste time. It is also good to ask your own questions:
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What is your reaction? Are you engaged, excited, intrigued? What else do you need? Facts, information, access, more time?

Hopefully you can now answer positively my two original questions


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Do I really need creativity? How does writing a brief help?

Then you should ask yourself three more questions:


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Am I putting enough effort into making the briefing engaging? Am I demonstrating the importance of getting a solution? Am I surrounding the brief with lots of facts?

Finally, remember that a lot is expected of creatives. But a lot is expected of you. You'll be embarking on, approving, adopting, embracing and selling change. Scary stuff. Take heart, you are not alone! Hollywood currently spends, on average, 100 million a film, yet despite the best brains, huge salaries, extensive research and a risk-averse culture, only 50% of the films they make ever get screened. But as they know, the payback of getting the product of all those creative people right is huge. references 1. W Fletcher: Tantrums and Talent. Admap, 1999.

Copyright Warc 2001 Warc Ltd. 85 Newman Street, London, United Kingdom, W1T 3EX Tel: +44 (0)20 7467 8100, Fax: +(0)20 7467 8101 www.warc.com

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