What brief writers can learn from the U.S. Coast Guard

I’m a huge fan of Kevin Costner. A few years ago he made a film called The Guardian, a fun action romp that also happens to pay tribute to Coast Guard rescue swimmers.
I was watching the film again recently when a scene about Coast Guard training put a thought in my head regarding the creative brief.

A senior Coast Guard officer was addressing younger Coast Guard officers about his experiences in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. What he said struck me as a solution to a problem faced by creative brief writers.

I know this sounds like a stretch, so bear with me.

In the movie, the actor playing the Coast Guard officer said that the training he received as a cadet was the exact same as every other cadet. So no matter where he was assigned and no matter with whom, he knew he could trust his fellow officers to do their jobs and do them well.

Everyone received the same training.

That’s an amazingly prescient idea. An idea that serves as the foundation of my workshop on writing inspired creative briefs. And for the book that followed.

What creative brief writers need most and don’t have is:

A common vocabulary

In other words, call it the creative brief writer’s version of what every U.S. Coast Guard cadet receives at Basic Training.

What do I mean by a common vocabulary?

Generally speaking, all briefs ask a series of questions designed to help the creative team understand the task they’ve been assigned. The hope is that the answers to those questions provides inspiration for outstanding creative.

Everyone knows what those questions are: Who is our target audience? What are some key insights about this product category? What do we want the target to think? Feel? Do?

But we’re all left to scramble when we start writing the answers. The answers, after all, are the heart of the brief. Not the questions.

If every brief writer had at his or her disposal the same sets of words and phrases to answer those questions, imagine how much easier the task would become.

Before you gasp in collective horror at the notion of a cookie-cutter, “one-size-fits-all” creative brief, stop and think for a moment.

What is a brief anyway? It’s an act of reduction. It’s an example of the art of arriving at the essence of a product’s unique point of desirability.

If ever there was a document that demands the principle of K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid), this is it.

Trouble is, far too many creative brief templates look like over-designed ads. They appear to want to show off either their trendiness or their verbosity.

I took a seminar on creative more than 20 years ago by the legendary creative director Stavros Cosmopulos. I still love to quote from one of the little booklets he handed out, which I’ve kept:

“Make your ideas fancy and your layouts rough.”

It’s a notion lost today with the use of computers that make every concept seem like a finished ad.

But it applies to the creative brief.

Forget about the template. Forget about the questions. Focus on the answers!

That might seem mind-numbingly obvious until you read a typical creative brief and get pummeled by insider’s jargon, inane generalizations and cliches. Everything except useful information.

So the idea of having a common vocabulary starts to look appealing.

Think of it this way: The set of words and phrases I’m talking about do not constitute┬áthe answers on your creative brief. They are the building blocks to an inspired document, the first step in the creative process.

What are some examples of this common vocabulary?

I’ll save that for a future post.

NOTE: The Inspired Creative Brief blog is taking the month of August to recharge its batteries. Have a great summer. See you again in September.

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