Sex, Thai Food, and Stabbing Things To Death
Or: How to get better work out of a creative team. You already know how to write a brief, and that the whole point is to help creative people make great ads. What I offer here are a few suggestions on how to angle your work a few degrees this way or that to get a little bit more out of the creatives.
Believe that writing the brief is the first act of creativity. “Creativity” is the act of issuing forth a useful thing or idea that wasn’t there before. Writing a brief, then, easily qualifies as creativity. So let’s look at it as the first of many creative steps toward a recognizable item of advertising. Since it’s the first step, it’s arguably the most important. It’s not difficult to see why. To write a brief you take statistics, insights, experience, common sense and so on, and sculpt them into a unique and inspiring document. A creative document. Not to overstate it, but everything that follows hinges on the brief. In other words, the creative process doesn’t begin after the brief, it begins with the brief. (But I wouldn’t strut around the agency saying it right out loud; not everyone is ready for the idea.) When more people believe the brief is the first step in the creative process, a couple great things can happen. One, the responsibility of writing the best brief will weigh a little more heavily – in case it’s not already heavy enough. Two, it will coax the best work out of the (official) creative team.
Don’t make a monk of yourself. Great briefs draw inspiration from a hundred sources, and information-gathering can be highly social and collaborative. Then, when it’s time to sit down and churn out the actual document, you may feel suddenly alone. It’s just you, a laptop and that stack of research. But don’t toil away in monkish seclusion. I hereby invite you to rise up and walk around and talk to people. Talk to everyone, of course, but talk especially to the creative team who will be working from that brief soon enough. Good creatives are naturally strategic and are usually happy to pitch in, knowing that a good brief is as much in their interest as yours. Swing by and bounce around a few thoughts from time to time. Bring crullers. Chances are your brief will improve. Plus, you sneaky devil, nothing motivates a creative team quite like a brief they already feel some ownership in.
Stop the ooze of jargon. Thou shalt not kill. I think, therefore I am. I have a dream. Gigantic ideas all, and not a big word in the bunch. Funny how the bigger the idea, the smaller the words become. But you’re writing a brief, not the Bible, so by the time you sit down to write that brief you will have been exposed to jargon, tech talk and boardroom-speak that will ooze into your work if you’re not careful. Like all normal people, creatives are allergic to that junk. Keeping the language on a human level and simplifying your thoughts on paper is not always easy, but the process of doing so may also help clarify things in your own mind. That clarity of thought will shine through in your work. So when the brief lands in front of the creative team, you will have already burned off the jargonistic fog. Now it’ll be easy for them to see what you’re talking about. And getting creatives to see what you’re talking about is the entire point.
A tight brief is creatively liberating. Creatives will balk at a brief crammed with facts, figures and product features. And no wonder. That’s more a shopping list than a brief. It’s bad, but far from evil. Evil is the vague, open-ended brief that masquerades as a gift to the creative department. It’s the one asking for unbridled creative exploration, tauntingly called the “challenge”. It’s the one with the multi-minded proposition. The one devoid of human insight. Might as well attach a Thai take-out menu because there are going to be some late nights while the creatives smoke out a strategy for you on that bad boy. In contrast, a tight brief knows what it wants and how to ask for it. It’s refreshingly direct and creatively liberating. It gives the team confidence knowing they’re pushing ideas in the right direction. They’ll get to the good stuff way sooner. Still, some briefs will have loose parts and missing bits, and that’s okay as long as you discuss it up front. With that approach I wouldn’t be surprised if the creatives say never mind, we can work with this. Because now you’ve given them a reason to trust you, and staying late to make things wonderful won’t be such a problem. Good things happen where there’s respect and trust.
Breathe life into your main character. A good brief tells a story more about people than products. Which makes your target audience the main character if not the only character. It’s all about her, and David Ogilvy tells us she’s not a moron. Don’t lump her in with all women of a certain age, education and household income. Include such stats if you must, but also describe her personality and her life. As if she were a real person. Because that’s what she is. The more lifelike you make her, the more you help the creative team. That’s because of the way creative people tend to work. It’s their habit to write ads with an actual person in mind – their sister, bank manager, high school French teacher. You can help implant that mental image, or they’ll be happy to create it for themselves. Your choice.
Everything is sexy. One of the best briefs I have seen in recent years was for the deadliest, dullest product imaginable: Potash. Remember that from Geography class? Few things are less likely to stir the loins. But the brief was so thorough and thoughtful and inspiring that the creative team couldn’t wait to paper the walls with ideas. If someone can make Saskatchewan mining products sexy, then whatever brief you’re working on should easily steam up windows. Anything is sexy if you look at it the right way. At the other extreme, I’ve seen stunningly feeble briefs for fast cars, booze and tropical resorts. As if these products were so bonerific the ads would write themselves. Sure, there are lazy planners who write crap briefs. But I wonder if the flaw in the process is more likely found elsewhere. How often are planners granted the necessary time and latitude to do their work properly? In our haste to appear productive and efficient, how often are creatives being asked to do their jobs without planners first being allowed to do theirs?
“Bad” ideas are a bad idea. The briefing is just as important as the brief itself. This face-to-face meeting is your chance to do two things: To get the creatives to buy into your work, and to get the creatives to buy into you. Make it less a one-sided presentation and more a lively discussion with the equal sharing of creative thought-starters. These are simply a bunch of blurted-out notions, scenarios and what-ifs that may or may not lead somewhere. Everyone should have a few. So please resist the urge to preface your ideas with, Here’s the [air quotes] bad ad. It’s too early to call anything [air quotes] bad, even in an attempt at modesty. Unrefined, sure, but not bad. But wait! What if you have a good idea? Not [air quotes] good but hey-that-could-seriously-be-a-cool-ad good. And what if the creatives were having a similar thought at that exact moment? You just stabbed it to death by calling it [air quotes] bad. Oops. Good ideas often lurk in the shadows of [air quotes] bad ones. Please don’t kill them before they’ve had a chance to become good.