Advice to brief writers from two copywriters and an art director.

Two copywriters and an art director walk into a bar. Well, no they didn’t. But they did each write about writing and they all have something to say to brief writers about how to write better briefs.

First, a tangent: Two kinds of people tend to show up for my workshops on creative briefs: marketers and creatives. I occasionally see strategists and account folks, but it’s mostly the first two. Marketers want to know what a great brief is and how to write one, creatives want to know what a great brief is so they have ammunition to tell their brief writers why their briefs suck.

This last paragraph is instructional because the two copywriters and the art director I refer to in the headline have something to say to both the marketer and the creatives who attend my workshops.

Forthwith, their advice. Oh, and allow me to identify to whom I am referring. The two copywriters are David Ogivly and Luke Sullivan. The art director is Stavros “Steve” Cosmopulos, co-founder of Hill, Holiday, Connors, Cosmopulos in Boston. I took an Adweek-sponsored workshop on copywriting from Steve in Chicago in 1992. I interviewed Luke on a podcast I co-host called The Brief Bros. in 2021 just as Luke’s 6th edition of Hey Whipple, Squeeze This was published. And I worked at Ogilvy LA as a freelance copywriter from 1999 to 2001.

David Ogilvy is famous for having many thoughts about advertising and not a few on briefs. Perhaps his most famous line is, “Give me the freedom of a tight brief.” But I dug into Ogilvy On Advertising, now in its 40th year in print, and found something not quite as oft-quoted. In fact, the passage I decided to share is a quote from his partner Joel Raphaelson. And it is this thought, brought to us by Ogilvy, that will be valuable to brief writers.

“In the past, just about every advertiser has assumed that in order to sell his goods he has to convince consumers that his product is superior to his competitor’s.

“This may not be necessary. It may be sufficient to convince consumers that your product is positively good. If the consumer feels certain that your product is good and feels uncertain about your competitors, he will buy yours.

“If you and your competitors all make excellent products, don’t try to imply that your product is better. Just say what’s good about your product—and do a clearer, more honest, more informative job of saying it.

“If this theory is right, sales will swing to the marketer who does the best job of creating confidence that his product is positively good.”

I’m not a marketer so I will not argue the validity of Raphaelson’s theory. But where he helps briefs writers, especially marketers who write briefs, is when he says, “…don’t try to imply that your product is better. Just say what’s good about your product—and do a clearer, more honest, more informative job of saying it.” These last words in italics are the advice brief writers should heed.

Writing a brief is easy, but writing a great brief is hard. All creatives hope for a brilliant, inspiring brief, but, speaking as a former copywriter, I promise you we will settle for a clear brief. We can all work with a clear brief, a brief that knows what it’s about, what the objective is, that is narrowly focused and points us in a purposeful direction.

Here, Raphaelson gives brief writers wisdom worth remembering. He’s talking about what good advertising must accomplish, but he could as easily have been talking about what a good creative brief should accomplish as well.

A brief is a creative document. It’s the first step in the creative process. Treat it accordingly. It is not a thoughtless form. Clarity is its first requirement.

I did not know who Stavros Cosmopulos was when I attended his workshop in Chicago in 1992, but when I left, I never forgot what he had to say. And I kept both the little 4 and 5/8″ by 4 and 5/8″ black and white pamphlets he handed out. I still have them, 31 years later. The one I pull out and quote from most often is titled, “Make the layouts rough and the ideas fancy.”

It’s a bit archaic because today’s art directors don’t do “layouts” the way they used to do before we had computers. I got my start in the ad business in the mid-1980s, and I worked on a word processor, the predecessor of today’s laptops. But art directors were still hand-kerning type and using big sketch pads and foam core to produce presentation boards, and we carried around ginormous pizza cases stuffed with these boards when we traveled to meet clients. I still remember the difficulty of getting those pizza cases into the over-head bins on airplanes. Those were the days.

But Cosmopulos’s point remains as relevant today as ever, and brief writers need to pay attention. The creative brief is not so much about information, although the right information is critical. The brief lives and dies on an idea. I’m not talking about the “big idea” that we hope the brief inspires. I’m talking about the idea that inspires the idea.

A brief is singular: one product, one objective, one clearly defined target, an insight if we can find one and—here it comes—a clear, cross-your-fingers-and-hope-for-gasp-inducing single most persuasive idea. The one thing creatives look for in every brief. Some call it the North Star. Some call it the One Key Thing. I like to call it the Single-Minded Proposition. Whatever you call it, Cospopulos nailed it in the title of his little booklet with his directive on producing great creative: Make Fancy Ideas.

Brief writers: tattoo that on the insides of your eyeballs. Your brief must contain a clear idea that creatives can take and build on. Whittle away the detritus, pare back what is unnecessary. Cut the BS and find the idea creatives crave and live for.

Finally, Luke Sullivan: teacher, writer, idea maven, advertising legend. When I met him on a Zoom call for our podcast recording, I confessed that I was a bit nervous. Like so many other ad creatives, I’d devoured his book. And to prepare for this interview, I bought his new book, heftier than the first or second edition I’d owned for many years.

I cringe now as I write this because, as this essay is advice to brief writers to write better briefs, the passage I’ve chosen to cite from Luke’s book assumes that the “most persuasive idea” or “single-minded proposition” I alluded to above is “that boring key message on the brief.” He refers to it as a “lump of clay and you’ve got to sculpt it into something interesting.” He’s speaking to us, creatives, copywriters and art directors, who read and work from the brief.

So what is his advice that I think can help brief writers? It’s not specifically addressed to brief writers. Instead, his advice is to creatives, but I’m appropriating it and re-directing it back to brief writers. And it’s brilliant for its simplicity, which is what most great ideas are.

He cites three examples of ads that used only a headline and a logo, which I’ve taken from page 85 of his book:

Call in rich tomorrow. (Mystic Lake Casino)

We hear you need a new muffler. (Korman Muffler Shops)

For more information on lung cancer, keep smoking. (The Lung Association)

Here’s what Luke has to say about these ads:

“Okay, so what is it about these lines that makes them kinda cool?

“They’re clever. And yet you understood exactly what the writer was tasked with saying. You understood them because the writers all knew they have to be both clever and clear.”

I’ve said many times in this space and on the podcast that a brief is a thinking document and a writerly document. It’s a creative document. It demands creative thinking, not just factual information. So Luke’s advice to creatives applies to brief writers as well: stretch a bit. Swing for clever. Swing for language on your brief that makes your creatives sit up and take notice. Surprise your creatives with your, well, creativity.

If your brief is not creative, why would you expect the advertising to come from it to be creative? One deserves the other.

Ogivly, Cosmopulos and Sullivan. Writers, creative directors, great thinkers. They have taught generations of creatives to be better creatives. They can and do teach brief writers to be better brief writers, too.


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