Every brief should be written in first-person singular.


Eighteen months ago, I wrote an essay in this space titled, “Why ‘I’ is better than ‘we’ on a creative brief.”

Back then, it was an idea. Today, I’m making it real: I will teach brief writing using “I” from now on. I’ve talked about it in my workshops. I’ve demonstrated it. In large groups and small, we’ve written drafts in this fashion.

Now I’m making it official.

The rationale is compelling.

The change in a brief’s tone is dramatic.

The impact on creatives is unambiguous.

It’s as if the customer were writing a letter to the brand saying, “This is who I am. This is what I want. This is how you can connect with me in a way I’ll believe. And I’m doing it in my voice, not yours.”

I’ve seen this technique on creative briefs, but it’s used only sparingly. It’s used to answer one, maybe two questions.

But I want to take this first-person singular approach a step further.

Let’s change the template so the questions are framed to match the first-person responses.

These are the 10 questions on my current brief template:

  1. What is the problem we’re trying to solve?

  2. What is the communication objective?

  3. Who are we talking to?

  4. What do they currently think?

  5. What do we want them to think?

  6. What emotional insight have we discovered about them?

  7. What is the single-minded proposition?

  8. Why should they believe it?

  9. What is the tone of voice?

  10. What is our brand’s enemy?

Now change the framing from third person to first-person singular.

  1. This is my problem with you.

  2. What are you asking me to do?

  3. Show me you know who I am.

  4. This is what I think now.

  5. If you’re relevant to me, this is how I’m prepared to think.

  6. Why are you important to me at an emotional level?

  7. What’s in it for me?

  8. Why should I believe you?

  9. How will you speak to me?

  10. This is what’s preventing me from using your brand.

The biggest difference between the third-person approach and the first-person approach is that questions sometime become statements by necessity.

Or rather, taunts. Which I like. A lot.

When I teach brief writing workshops for the ANA, we review examples of inspiring briefs written by the inventors of the creative brief: advertising agencies. They’re all written in third person (with occasional exceptions). But I ask attendees to do a bit of simple on-the-spot editing by changing everything to first person.

Instantly, you’re no longer speaking about someone. You’re listening to someone.

A real person talks to you. You can hear her. She pops off the page. She’s no longer an abstraction, but flesh and blood.

This approach is also a reality check: Are you addressing a business problem or a human problem?

If the answer is about your business, this first-person perspective doesn’t work.

Even the best briefs written by ad agencies could benefit from this simple change.

One of the best I’ve read was written by Leo Burnett for Vicks. The answer to the question “Who are we talking to?” is written in typical third person. The answer is laugh-out-loud funny, and spot on.

Here’s a small excerpt:

“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! … ”

This is delicious. If only all creative briefs paid this much attention to detail about the customer.

I can’t complain that it’s written in third person.

But do the mental exercise. Change it to first person. In your head. I’ll wait.

It was real before.

Now it’s personal. Isn’t this how you feel when you get sick? Especially if you’re a guy. We’re such babies when we get a cold.

First person takes the brief to a new depth of believability, authenticity, understanding.

This is what creatives crave. This is what inspires them to think big.

When we do this exercise in my workshop, creatives — in fact everyone — respond viscerally. The effect is palpable.

Brand zealots (my term for brand guardians who eat, breathe and die for their brand) find this eye-opening.

Suddenly, the brief becomes accessible, an exercise in close people watching, a deep study of someone we know.

If writing the brief were once a chore, it’s now — dare I say it? — fun, easier. Not easy. Never easy. But easier. It’s becomes a collaborative party.

It’s time to inject something new into the process.

Start here:

“I … ”

Then remember to listen.

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