Why brief writers must also be historians.

In 2018 I traveled to San Francisco to lead a creative brief-writing workshop for a high-tech brand that was a member of the Association of National Advertisers. I cannot name the member, but it is a well-known brand most of you would know.

I worked with a group of about 25-30 people, most of them marketers, to sharpen their brief writing skills. I was especially keen to work with this company because almost 20 years earlier, when I was a working creative, I had freelanced for Ogivly LA as a copywriter and I had been hired to work on this high-tech account.

Coming to their San Francisco office felt a little like a reunion with a brand I had admired and reminded me of the good work I had contributed to as a freelancer. The campaign I worked on, launched before I was hired by Ogivly, had garnered much national attention and not a few awards. This happens a lot, especially for freelancers: You are asked to jump into the deep end of an existing brand campaign and are expected to keep it alive with fresh thinking. I was delighted to be part of it.

When I showed up at the San Francisco office of this brand to begin my training, all these years later, I regaled the attendees with my story about playing a role in the creative that enhanced their brand in the early 2000s.

But what I saw on their faces surprised me: blank stares. They had no idea what I was talking about. Not a single person in the room had even heard of the campaign. Not one.

It turns out that no one in the room had been working for this brand more than five years. That part was not so surprising. What astounded me was not only the lack of historical awareness of their own brand on the part of these marketers, but worse, I sensed an absence of curiosity about anything that had preceded them. Their world, it seemed to me, began at the beginning of their tenure with the company. Whatever happened before they arrived was irrelevant.

I have discussed at great length in this space the qualities required to be a good brief writer, first and foremost a skill at writing. Empathy is a notable skill, as is the ability to listen with both your ears and your eyes.

But also on this short list of attributes a brief writer must possess is brand historian. You must know your brand from its beginnings. Failure to understand its place in the market, its growth, its challenges and successes, leaves the brief writer without either context or perspective to address the next problem or opportunity the brand faces and thus how to approach the brief.

Paul Feldwick has addressed this brand agnosticism in his must-read text The Anatomy of Humbug. It is an alarming phenomenon to witness when you’re standing in its midst, and I still recoil just at the memory of the moment.

More and more marketers are tasked with the responsibility of writing briefs for their creative partners, on top of other tasks they must accomplish. In in-house ad agency situations, this is often unfortunate and unfair because the task of brief writing has typically been assumed by strategists. But in-house agencies do not always have strategists on staff, sadly.

Historical brand knowledge is as fundamental to writing a great brief as is being a good writer, a good listener, an empathetic human and a collaborator. Brand history often sheds light on where to take the brand next. Smart brands discover that returning to a historical idea or a historical look often wins them new customers. Here is only one example, from the U.S. Army.

Great brief writers are also brand historians. That is a lesson worth remembering.



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