Why the “one-sentence creative brief” is a false idol.

Who writes a one-sentence creative brief?

More to the point, who wants a one-sentence creative brief?

I don’t. I doubt creatives want one. Not truly.

Oh, I’ve read a few comments on LinkedIn promoting a one-sentence creative brief, pleading for such a creature. But has anyone ever actually read one, worked from one or possessed one they are ready to share? Not to my knowledge.

I have never seen a one-sentence creative brief. I’ve read more creative briefs than most people in the ad industry and I can assure you, I’ve never come across a one-sentence creative brief.

The great and powerful Bob Hoffman says that every brief should be three words. He can afford such pontifications. He’s retired with no brand responsibilities.

One or two creatives I know re-write the briefs they’re given, but they re-write them for clarification, not to reduce them to a single sentence.

So why would anyone think a single-sentence creative brief is valuable?

Here’s what I think. When I was a working creative, I looked first for the brief’s proposition, the “one key thing,” the USP. Whatever the term or phrase or question, that’s what I’d read first. I know many creatives who do this.

Sir John Hegarty is famous for having said that he takes the brief’s proposition, writes it on a blank piece of paper above or below a picture of the product, then asks, “Is this a good ad?” If the answer is yes, he says, his job is to make it better, to make it great.

In other words, Sir John tests a brief by extracting its proposition and subjecting it to this exercise.

But this is where Sir John starts. He never said he does not read the entire brief. Nor does he ask for only a single sentence.

If I were handed a one-sentence creative brief, you can be sure I’d push back. I’d have many questions. And those questions would by definition mean I was reading an unfinished creative brief.

Even if that one sentence were brilliant, it would not be enough. I would want to know more.

I define a great brief like this: It’s an inspiring argument that supports its claim (the proposition) with evidence. So by my definition, a brief cannot be a single sentence.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say your one sentence is brilliant. Maybe it’s enough so that creatives start riffing on ideas. But still, you could not help but ask more questions.

Questions such as, Is this a problem or an opportunity? Why are we advertising? Who are we talking to? How do we know this is our customer? What does she think now? What do we want her to think when she reads/listens to/watches our communication?

If you ask even one of these questions, you have proven that your brief is incomplete.

I teach workshops on writing creative briefs by using examples of great briefs. They’re hard to find, but I have more than a few.

Not one of these great briefs is a single sentence. Yet they are great briefs. They would be lesser briefs had they been reduced to only their single-minded propositions. They would have been unfinished briefs.

Once you read these examples of great briefs and understand their propositions, you might fall into the trap of believing that, alone, each proposition would be enough to constitute a complete brief. But that’s the trap. You cannot un-read the rest of the brief. The rest of the brief supports the proposition. The rest of the brief is evidence to support the argument.

There’s a reason we creatives complain about briefs. They tend to be too long, too vague, unconvincing, uninspiring, CYA rationales.

A great brief, by comparison, is a well-told story. It is an exercise in clear, concise writing. It is a writerly document. It is never a first draft.

Here’s just one example of what I mean. Below is the elegant and polished answer to the question “Who are we talking to?” on a brief written by a planner at Leo Burnett for legacy brand Vick’s NyQuil. I cited this example in my book How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief, 3rd Edition:

Cold sufferers. You know how you feel when you’ve got a cold — that pathetic little inner-child of yours suddenly wakes up and, before you know it, you’re moaning & whining, you’ve gone all whiney & wimpy, all snivel, snot & slovenly; red raw puffy eyes, pale skin, lank hair — everything seems to be sagging! You feel like something from a Salvador Dali painting; you want to snuggle up in bed and dammit — you want your Mummy! But it’s not fair, is it, because no one else takes your suffering seriously —”Good God, pull yourself together, man, we’re not talking leprosy here! Don’t be such a baby, get on with it, stop moaning!”

Yes, your instincts tell you to be a child, but you’re not allowed to because you’ve “only” (only!) got a cold. And worse still — oh, the cruel irony! — even your attempts to retain your adulthood in the midst of your suffering betrays that sniveling little inner–child of yours: “oh don’t worry about me, I’ll be all right…”, “…no, no, please, I don’t want to sound like a martyr…”, “…well, I’m feeling a little better now, thank you…”

I’m sorry, but when you’ve got a cold you’re doomed to be a Child–Adult.

There isn’t an individual alive who would not be able to “see” this cold sufferer after having read this beautiful word picture.

Would a brief without such a description be missing something? Yes. Does this admittedly verbose passage add clarity to the brief? Yes.

I think people who claim that they write single-sentence briefs are outliers. I applaud them for their singular focus. Maybe the creatives they hire and work with thrive with one-sentence briefs. But I doubt creatives accept these briefs without asking questions such as the ones I asked above. If they’re honest, these one-sentence brief writers will admit to having to answer many questions.

If they’re honest, they will admit it. Why? Creatives are inquisitive. We always want to know more. I would push back hard if someone—a planner, my creative director, my client—handed me a single-sentence brief. I would be impressed at the audacity, but I would not go quietly from that briefing.

A great creative brief is rare. It should be a single page, and with one or two exceptions, the briefs I teach from all fit on one page. A page and a half is acceptable.

But only one sentence? Thou dost protest too much me thinks.

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