When a creative brief writer forgets empathy.

I am a fan of the Columbia University linguist John McWhorter. I came to know about him seven or eight years ago when I discovered the online debate website called Intelligence Squared (intelligencesquaredus.org). He was a regular debater. Sometimes he took the “pro” side, sometimes the “con” side, but always he offered cogent, thoughtful arguments. I don’t know if he argued from conviction or for the professional challenge, but it never mattered to me. I watched in fascination at both his poise and command of the facts.

What impressed me then, and now, was McWhorter’s insatiable curiosity about language, which I think gave him the springboard for his interests outside his own. His subject area, linguistics, is far broader than mine. Language covers, well, the world, life, everything. A creative brief, the writing of one, breaking it down and understanding its components, is a sliver—okay, a sliver of a sliver—of McWhorter’s world. But we share a driving curiosity.

A linguist is someone who studies language, its structure, syntax, and semantics, among other things. Every spec the human mind could explore begins with the ways in which we use words to describe the thing. The choice of words requires context. Who are you? Where do you live? What do you believe? Context emerges in part from the culture in which one lives. Are your neighbors just like you? Are your friends just like you or do they come from different backgrounds? Culture thrives, or not, within the organism of a society.

McWhorter studies language to reveal our humanity. A creative brief tries to do the same thing but admittedly is far less ambitious. But where I find kinship with McWhorter is in his unflagging belief in the power of language to reveal. Reveal, full stop. Language can hide, can obfuscate, can embarrass, as anyone who has tried to be funny in an email has discovered to their chagrin. But it can also shine a bright light on whatever it touches.

The pre-requisite, I think, is empathy. You must want to see language as the revealer, the opportunity to bridge. McWhorter demonstrated his empathy, again, in his column today in the New York Times, titled “A coarsening in our language? No, I hear a flowering of deference.” A linguist could defensibly take the snob’s position and object to any perceived offense to the mother tongue. I love McWhorter’s far more generous take, grounded, I am convinced, in his, well, empathy. He opens with:

“It’s easy to suppose that the way we talk to one another is steadily coarsening in our modern America. The grand old four-letter words seem to be used as punctuation. To many, younger people’s speech sounds messy and unconsidered, a kind of linguistic equivalent of bedhead. Twitter is full of perfectly normal people being recreationally nasty.

“Yet in truth, when I listen to America talking in our times, I hear an encroaching sweetness, a flowering of deference.”

He proceeds to lay out a persuasive argument that our (mostly) spoken quirks and twists display a reaching out rather than a pushing away.

His point is politeness. English, despite its limitations, is “a delightfully considerate language if you know where to listen for it — in informal language.”

Brief writers can learn from McWhorter’s observations. I’m not suggesting that our briefs are impolite. Rather, that brief writers must be ever vigilant about empathizing. Lack of empathy leads to impoliteness, which leads to rudeness. Which leads to a failure to communicate. 

The brief speaks for, sometimes as, the customer. Brief writers must never forget that the people whom they represent are often different than they are. Vastly different. From different contexts, different cultures, even within their own country. I am reading more and more about a disconnect between the work created by agencies and the public to whom this work is addressed. Disconnect is perhaps being generous.

This development is dangerous, not only from the perspective of creative briefs. But also, perhaps primarily, because the job of advertising is to sell. “We sell — or else” are the words in the lobby of every office of Ogilvy & Mather. Or they used to be. I remember walking into the Chicago office of O&M and seeing them, bold as the old Sears Tower, right above the receptionist’s desk.

In his deeply researched book, Can’t Sell Won’t Sell, Steve Harrison describes the seriousness of the disconnect. The failure of brief writers to empathize with the people for whom they speak and who they describe in their briefs translates into failed communications. This spells disaster for our industry.

Our claim that we can build brands falls on its face if we lose the ability to resonate with Americans of every stripe. Failure to empathize renders advertising mute.  

I can teach you how to write a brilliant creative brief, but if you don’t, can’t, or worse you won’t, relate to your customer, my work is pointless.



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