What not to expect from a creative brief.

My video podcast co-host, Henry Gomez, often says on our show, The Brief Bros., that an inspiring creative brief doesn’t guarantee inspiring creative. But it vastly improves the odds.

His comment inspired me to ruminate on what great creative briefs should not be expected to do. I file this under “intellectual honesty,” which everyone, regardless of profession, should practice regularly. I know what I know, but I also know that I don’t know a lot more than I do know. I know a lot about briefs, but not everything.

Let’s start with expectations about a creative brief.

First, don’t expect a creative brief to solve the problem.

Brief writers with an elevated self-regard may fall prey to the false belief that their brief is or even can be the creative solution. That their brief can be the source of the headlines, the brand tagline and much of the copy. That it’s all in their brief. Beware this brief fascist.

But more importantly, beware this mindset. The brief was never created to solve the communication problem. It’s hard enough to even figure out what the problem is. When I do my workshop on writing a creative brief, the group often goes down many rabbit holes trying to put this beastie into words everyone can agree on. We spend a lot more time answering this one than we do when we write a single-minded proposition. Strange, but true.

A brief should articulate the problem. Get that part right first. The rest of the brief will be a whole lot easier.

Second, don’t expect a creative brief to answer every question you might have.

Think of a great brief as a conversation starter. The best brief “templates” always ask open-ended questions.

If your brief produces no response, no comments, no questions, don’t mistake that for a perfect brief. You don’t want to walk away thinking, “Well, I left them speechless. My job is done.”

If your brief sparks questions, don’t panic. Pay attention to the kinds of questions. There are good questions and bad questions.

Bad questions, in my experience, arise when the brief is vague, unfocused. “What do you mean when you say….” and “I’m fuzzy on who we’re really talking to…” and “Did you really intend to have more than one objective here?” The questions will tell you more work is needed.

Sometimes, the brief is too focused and backs the creatives into a corner creatively. Your brief is more prescription than inspiration. The questions that arise in this situation may sound defensive. “Why can’t we…?” and “Would it be okay if we…?” and “It doesn’t sound as if I have a lot of room to… Is that what you intended?”

Good questions relate to possibilities, not limitations. If creatives ask “What if…?” questions or, even better, look at each other and start asking questions or blurting out ideas, that’s a good sign.

The best briefs are not intended to render creatives mum. You want a reaction. You want the right kind of reaction.

My buddy Henry Gomez finds that he can eliminate the wrong kind of reaction with one simple gesture: Always loop in his creative director with an early draft of his brief. Always. Never spring a brief on your creatives at the briefing. They have skin in the game. Let them help you write a better brief.

Third, don’t expect a creative brief to point you in the only direction.

This one is closely related to #2. A great brief should encourage conversation. A great brief will also point creatives in a specific direction. But it’s not the only direction. Think instead of the brief as the starting point. It says: Based on the research I’ve done, I think this is a way to take your first steps. After that, I trust you to know where to turn next.

This is an example of intellectual honesty I mentioned above. Smart and humble brief writers understand how the creative process works. As a former creative, but one who still works in the creative world as a writer, I also know that when I take a step, then another, I may know where I’m going, but sooner or later, I trust my instincts to take additional steps. I don’t have to know how or where. I know I need to not stand still.

Henry is full of wisdom on this subject. As a brief writer, he knows that sometimes his creative teams will go somewhere he never imagined. Sometimes their ideas end up being superior than his own recommendations as spelled out in his brief. He is experienced enough, and humble, to know a good idea when he sees it. He welcomes the surprises and is never put off by them. This is the sign of a great brief writer.

Fourth, don’t expect a creative brief to be your only source of inspiration.

I think this one should be obvious. We put a lot of pressure on briefs and the writers who conjure them to dazzle us with their inspirational and aspirational language. That is part of the job.

But the truth is simpler: Creatives must find the inspiration from within. We can and we do. With or without a brief. That’s why we’re in this business: to tap our conceptual thinking and solve a twisty problem with an unforgettable piece of work. We long for a great brief and we rarely get one, but when we do, we cheer (silently, with the door closed).

But we find the inspiration where all great inspiration comes from. Inside us.

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