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Creating a brief that sets creativity free

August 19, 2021

I’m Nelett
You're powerful, way more than you might think. And in this cozy corner of the internet, I'm all about keeping you inspired, pumped, and ready to take on the world.
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Before I started KunsHuis, I worked for Ogilvy in Namibia for five years. This article I found in my backups from then – still reigns so true and needs to be shared.

Article by: Jeremy Diamond ( Ogilvy & Mather – New York ) 

If the Pope had simply asked Michelangelo to paint the ceiling, it is unlikely he would have gotten the result!

Pope Julius II directed Michelangelo in his painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling by explaining that he wanted a creation that would sanctify and celebrate the glory of the Lord. The Pope did not tell him to simply paint the ceiling.

Likewise, the best creative comes from a clear, focused brief. A strong brief states a clear objective and defines a target audience and its needs in attitudinal rather than demographic terms.

A brief should also define the role of the brand in meeting those needs, leading to a clear, relevant, and well-supported proposition that suits the customer.

A brief can inspire creatives, as it appeals to the strategic impulses all good creatives share. Involve them from the start. Furthermore, a complete, face-to-face briefing can make the written brief more vivid and actionable. Finally, the tight, focused brief gives the courage and the time to think beyond the ordinary.

The agony and the ecstasy.

A lot has been written about the creative brief, but the debate continues. How important is it? What is its role? What should it contain? Who is it for? Is anyone going to pay any attention anyway?

The reality is that the debate is mainly semantic. Whereas fine art is about unfettered self-expression, commercial art always has to start with an objective and a strategy. What do we need to achieve? How are we going to do it? And at some point, this challenge needs to be brought to life for the benefit of the people who have the not-inconsiderable task of turning a sound strategic idea into a captivating creative one.

When Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, he didn’t just ask him to paint whatever he fancied. If he had, he might have ended up with a lovely landscape or a beautiful still life, but that wouldn’t have delivered against his objective of wowing the blase Roman churchgoer. Instead, he asked Michelangelo to create something that would sanctify and celebrate the glory of God, which led to an image that has awed millions, believers and heretics alike, for generations.

Whatever we call it, whether written or verbal, a meeting or an ongoing dialogue, every creative journey has to start with understanding where we are and where we want to get to. In other words, it has to begin with a creative brief. The example of the Sistine Chapel makes several other important points.

Firstly, great creative ideas are media-agnostic. The Church was an early and influential proponent of 360 Degree Branding. Get the brief right, and it should act as a springboard to creative ideas that can be executed across every medium and touchpoint between the consumer and the brand.

Secondly, everyone remembers the ceiling, but no one remembers the brief. No one ever built a great brand by writing great briefs. The truth is that there is no such thing as a great brief — only a brief that leads to a great creative idea.

There are no rules that guarantee a brief can do this. But there are some principles that, if followed, maximise the chances of getting to an outstanding creative solution. Before we look at these principles, let’s review the ingredients of a good creative brief.

The essential elements of a good brief.

There are many different styles and formats, but most briefs ask the same essential questions:

  • What is the objective and role of communications? What do we want people to do differently and why? How do we expect communications to impact attitudes and behaviour? What are people doing now instead? What are the category conventions we can challenge? What do competitive communications look like, and how can we avoid imitating them?
  • Who is the target audience, and what is the shared emotional need or desire the brand can best address? Get this right, and the rest of the brief should be placed around it. Demographics are essential, particularly in media, but defining the audience by shared attitudinal characteristics rather than demographic similarities is vital. For example, when developing a new campaign for American Express, qualitative research suggested that many Card members have the same restless and driven attitude towards life as golf star Tiger Woods, an insight that led directly to a powerful new campaign for the Green Card.
  • What is the role of the brand? Once we understand the emotional need, we can define the brand’s role in addressing it. We can then use this “brand promise” as the lens to define the whole of the brand experience, including but not limited to communications. In the case of Procrit, a drug for the treatment of anaemia in chemotherapy patients, behavioural research conducted by OgilvyDiscovery/New York revealed that many patients were in denial about the effects of anaemia, which led to a reluctance to treat it and defined a role for the brand in helping sufferers to come to terms with their condition.
  • What is the proposition- the single-minded thought that communications will bring to life provocatively and compellingly? It should build on our insights into the target audience and the role of the brand and crystallize them into a focused idea that captures the essence of what we want to say.
  • What is the support or reason to believe this? We need to give consumers “permission to believe” — something that allows them to rationalize, whether to themselves or others, what is, in reality, an emotionally-driven brand decision. Avoid laundry lists. The support should be as focused as the insight or proposition, the truths that make the brand benefit indisputable.
  • What is the unique personality of the brand? People use products, but they have relationships with brands. As David Ogilvy said, “The manufacturer who dedicates his advertising to building the most sharply defined personality is the one who will get the largest share of the market at the highest profit.” When defining personality, be provocative and avoid meaningless generalizations such as “The mood and tone of the communications should reflect the brand’s unique personality. The brief that led to British Airways’ classic Manhattan commercial described it simply as “big, warm, goose pimples.” Try using photographic images or collages, tapes of research groups, video, music or other stimuli to bring the brand to life.

One final observation. When preparing a brief, consider that different creative people may find inspiration in other parts. In Truth, Lies and Advertising, Jon Steel observes that legendary copywriter John Webster used to describe one inspiring minute in a two-hour conversation as a “good briefing.”

Maximising the chances of the brief leading to a great creative idea.

Treat every brief as an opportunity to do great work.

There is a tendency in some agencies to divide assignments into those with creative potential and those without. The reality is that the health of an agency depends in considerable measure on the quality of its creative output, so no agency can afford to miss an opportunity to do truly outstanding work. Given the critical importance of the brief to the resulting work, every brief must be treated as an opportunity to help build the brand, the business, and the agency’s reputation.

As David Ogilvy said, Raise your sights! Blaze new trails! Compete with the immortals!”

Moreover, like all of us, creative people do their best work when they believe that there is determination and passion for doing something truly remarkable. Make them think that “this is the one”, and they are much more likely to give it their all.

Understand your audience.

The audience for the brief is not the marketing department, CEO or even the apocryphal housewife in Peoria. The creative team faces a blank sheet of paper and a deadline. If you want great work, start by understanding the needs and motivations of the people responsible for creating it. What motivates creative people is not sales charts or share points. It is the opportunity to create something that tugs at the heart and the wallet. If you want advertising that inspires consumers, start by inspiring the creatives.

Involve the creative team before you brief them.

A planner or account person may lead the strategy development process, but the creative team should be their partner from the very beginning. Not only will it ensure that they agree with the strategic direction, but the best creative people are intuitive strategists with a natural feel for consumers’ attitudes and needs.

Dont confuse the brief and the briefing.

A written creative brief is valuable for marshalling thoughts, but it can never replace a face-to-face briefing and the ongoing dialogue surrounding it. Its role is as an aide memoir to ensure the key points from the briefing stay fresh in creatives’ minds.

A creative briefing should bring the key message or theme alive in a way that will inform and inspire. Get out of the office. Go to where the brand lives. Brief a beer campaign in a bar, an athletic shoe campaign in a playground. In one case, a swimwear brief was laminated and thrown into a swimming pool for the creative team to recover (presumably, they were advised to bring a change of clothes.) In another example, the team was blindfolded to help them understand what it’s like to be blind before being briefed on a fund-raising campaign.

Be maniacally focused.

Try this test. Throw someone five or six tennis balls at the same time. Chances are they’ll drop all of them. Throw them one, and they’ll probably catch it.

The best briefs always focus on one key message. Creatives usually perform best when given free rein to push the execution in one clearly defined strategic direction. As David Ogilvy said, “Give me the freedom of a tight briefing.” Don’t fudge the brief; expect the creative process to clarify unresolved strategic decisions. It won’t.

Ensure that the focus runs through the whole brief. Does the main message address the insight? Does the reason to believe support the main message? Will this deliver against the desired objective? Even market research company Millward Brown supports the need for focus. An analysis of Link results found that executions that focus on one message consistently outperform those that are more ambiguous.

Be brief.

It’s not called “brief” for nothing. A quick poll around the creative department suggested that brevity is valued above all else. Creatives should have access to as much information as they need, but the essence of the argument should be expressed in the fewest words precision allows.

There is a story of an examination candidate who answered the question “What is courage?” (for which 40 minutes had been allowed) with the one-word answer: “This.” We, too, should aim to be this concise and this means. Use the language of the living room, not the boardroom.

There’s no substitute for original thinking, but too often, corporate jargon is used to disguise a lack of it. Briefs should use the living room language, not the boardroom (unless you are targeting CEOs).

When Karl Marx said, “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” people understood what he meant. When Einstein said “E=MC2,” they didn’t have a clue.

Write the first ad.

A simple test of a brief is to try and write the first ad. Don’t craft detailed words and images, but develop a creative idea demonstrating its executability.

John Hegarty takes it a step further. He describes the brief as being the first ad. Does the argument captivate you and make you want to buy? He suggests taking the proposition, visualising it and pinning it next to your desk. If it makes a good billboard, then the brief has potential.

Start with an interesting strategic idea.

The last principle is, in many ways, the most important. If you want your creative work to be fresh and exciting, then you are best off starting with something new and interesting to say.

As David Ogilvy said,Unless your advertising has a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night.”

The best strategies and briefs take a radically new perspective on a familiar problem, reframing it in the minds of consumers and prompting them to reappraise their own needs and the role of the brand in addressing them.

An example of Ogilvy London’s repositioning of Lucozade, a long-established glucose drink: Lucozade had been positioned for years as an aid to recovery for sick children, but sales had been declining for some time, a situation not helped by a shabby image. Ogilvy’s solution was to create a sports energy drink category in the UK and then dominate it with Lucozade.

Another example is the recent “mLife” campaign for AT&T Wireless from Ogilvy, New York. Rather than compete on generic benefits in an increasingly commoditised category, the team recognised that technological developments would fundamentally impact people’s lives and how they connect to others and set out to own this. The creative idea, “mLife” (or “mobile life”), sprung directly from this vision.

As Brian Collins, Executive Creative Director of the Brand Integration Group at Ogilvy New York, says, “Define every opportunity as big as possible.” Or, as Steve Henry puts it in Excellence in Advertising, “Write every brief to change the world.”

A final piece of advice: Be open-minded and courageous.

The best creative teams don’t work to a brief. They work from it. Working to a brief implies limits and constraints. The brief is a starting point, a springboard to something new and more significant. It should be directional but never prescriptive. We must be open-minded that creativity will take us to a place we may never know existed. Indeed, we need to embrace and encourage this rather than fear it because it is the source of competitive advantage for designers and our clients.

Ultimately the role of the brief is to give us the courage to take a step into the unknown, knowing that what we find there can make the difference between the success and failure of our client’s brand.

The English poet, Christopher Logue, described the process of creativity thus:

“Come to the edge,
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!

And they came
, and he pushed
, and they flew. “

The creative brief can give us the confidence to take that step over the edge.

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Hi there, I'm Nelett, and I'm a designer just like you. Life's always changing, and being a designer can feel like a wild ride. But we're more than that, aren't we? We're caregivers, friends, and life lovers who find joy in more than just our work. We're all on this journey, each in our own way, but somehow, we're together in it.

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