5 classic creative brief-writing mistakes

mistakeI’ve read hundreds, perhaps thousands, of creative briefs in my nearly 30 years in the ad business. Certain mistakes always seem to repeat themselves. Follow this simple guide and you can avoid some of the more common ones that creative brief writers make everyday.

1. Don’t forget that a creative brief must wear its passion on its sleeve.

Brief writers sometimes forget that the creative brief is firstly a position paper. It serves as an advocate for the product or service. Ergo, it must be clearly partisan. 1355676754_1347_Cheesehead

Fortunately, I have never read a creative brief that wasn’t partisan. But I have read plenty of briefs that were decidedly unenthusiastic in their partisanship. Which is almost worse.

If you want to fire up your creative team, their fire depends on your fire. You must be fanatical in your advocacy. That fanaticism must come through in the words you choose, the ideas you express, the passion in the document itself.

If you want to inspire, remember that your brand zealotry must be on display from the first word to the last.

2. Don’t forget to make your communication objectives clear and inspiring.

I’ve identified three boxes or questions on the creative brief that serve as the heart of the document. Any one, or more, of these three elements that are weak and the document suffers.

The first of these three questions is, “What are the communication objectives?” There are variations on this question, but this spot on the brief is where the client and the agency have agreed on the main selling points of the product.

Typically, you don’t want more than three messages in any communication. Realistically, you want only two: the most important benefit of the product, and then a reminder of the brand message. I call this a “brand reinforcement.” Sometimes the most important product benefit and the brand reinforcement are the same thing, so you have the perfect storm for a communication: one clear idea.

Whether you have three messages or one, the classic mistake at this spot of the creative brief occurs when they are fuzzy, soft, uninspiring. This situation typically results when the language the writer uses lacks the element of zealotry I mentioned in #1 above. But it also comes about when the writer struggles to simply be clear.

My solution is to focus in on your choice of verbs. Verbs are the John Wayne of words. They’re all about action. The creative team is looking for inspiration they can act on. When you choose the precise verb to describe your objectives, you hone in on specific emotions.

John-Wayne-p15For example, what if one of your communication objectives reads like this: “Describe to the consumer how Brand X will make her feel…”? Is that clear? My answer is, compared to what? It’s an easy enough idea to understand, but where is the brand zealotry? Nowhere, in my opinion.

Now, what if you wrote this instead: “Seduce her with Brand X’s …..”

What’s the difference between “describe” from the first version and “seduce” in the second? An entire world of possibility. Both are verbs, but the second verb, “seduce,” is deliciously specific, entertaining, and far more inspiring.

So what’s in a verb? Plenty. Take the time to think about what action you want the creative team to make and choose your verbs accordingly.

3. Don’t forget to make your single-minded proposition clear and inspiring…and truly single-minded.

Box number two on my all-star list of three boxes is the single-minded proposition (SMP). It’s the hardest question to answer on the brief. And the one that carries the most weight. Rightly so.

The SMP emerges organically from your (short) list of communication objectives. When that list is boring and vague, chances are the SMP will be a chip off the old block.

Bad idea.

Now understand that the SMP isn’t merely a “cut and paste” from the list of communication objectives. It’s not that simple. You need to revise and massage the one communication objective that stands out into something of its own. Sometimes a truly well-written SMP can become a product tag line. Or even a concept.

The temptation for the brief writer to play it safe with the SMP can be irresistible. It can end up reading like either a laundry list of everything in the communication objectives, or a generic statement like this: “There is no other product on the market like Brand Y.”

Which may be true. But so what? No one cares that it’s unique. No one will buy it just because it’s the only one like it. They might buy it if they had a reason!

The SMP must provide that motivation.

4. You don’t need a research budget to find an insight about your product user.

These days, there simply is no excuse for not having some insight into the thinking and/or buying habits of your product’s user. Data is everywhere.

Even if you don’t have a research budget, simple Socratic questioning can lead the average advertising professional to remarkably astute deductions about the product’s users. And, therefore, a usable insight that creatives can employ as a springboard to a winning idea.

My technique is called a Deep Target Dive™. It’s nothing more than a laddering system that asks one pointed question over and over. Begin by asking, “Why would the SMP appeal to Ms. Product User?” When you arrive at the answer, ask this question: “Why would that be important to her?”

With each new answer, ask the question, “Why would that be important to her?” again. Ask it as often as you can. In a matter of minutes, you’ll arrive at an answer that is both credible and unique. This is your educated insight. Brought to you by a dead Greek. Socrates_Louvre

5. Don’t forget that you should not write the creative brief by yourself.

This is a relatively new concept, but one I’ve been advocating for years. Some agencies are adopting the idea of pairing an account person with a creative person to write the creative brief.

If this isn’t happening where you work, step up and suggest it. Better yet, just do it. If you’re the brief writer, find a willing creative and recruit her. If you’re a creative, no matter what level, volunteer to work with someone in the account management department.

Don’t stop with just writing the brief together. Team up and present the brief at the briefing session. You’ll turn heads and the creative and account teams will look at both the document and the briefing itself with new eyes.

The first four points are common mistakes. The last is a mistake only in the sense that writing a creative brief should never have been a solo effort in the first place. The very idea demands a team approach in the same way that the best creative comes from a copywriter/art director collaboration. In time, I hope everyone will see the inevitability of this step.

Happy brief writing!

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