The punters haven’t read the brief

When Frank Lowe was CEO of CDP, he asked Ron Collins to come into his office. He said they needed something really special for a new client.

Frank said it had to be something really outstanding, something absolutely amazing. Ron said, “Okay Frank, where’s the brief?”

As Frank walked Ron to the door, he put his arm round his shoulder. He said, “You don’t need a brief Ron. I don’t think a brief will help you.”

I think Frank understood that sometimes a brief can actually get in the way. It can actually harm the creative process. Especially if what we’re trying to do is bigger than just conventional advertising.

If we’re trying to get into the language. Competing against television programmes, films, the Internet, music. None of those start with a brief. They start when someone has an idea.

Someone thinks they’ll write a book. Someone else reads the book and thinks it’ll make a great stage play. Someone else sees the play and thinks it will make a great film. Someone else sees the film and thinks it will make a great TV series.

In the case of all really great mass-market pieces of entertainment, the idea appears before the brief. Of course we can’t do that.

We can’t have an idea about something and then go looking for a client to sell it to. For us the opportunity to do advertising, the brief, comes before the idea. So naturally we start from there.

This means that, over the years, briefs have become formulaic. Worse than that, they’ve become documents that cannot be deviated from.

Before an account man, planner, or client looks at a piece of creative work they say, “Let’s just remind ourselves of the brief first.” Why is this? The consumer won’t have read the brief before they’re exposed to it. So we’re judging the work in exactly the way the consumer won’t.

Why not experience it the way the consumer will? Look at the work first. Then you can ask yourself the really important questions about it. Will it stand out? Did I enjoy it? Do I know who it’s for? Do I know what’s it’s saying?

When you’ve got those answers, then you can look at the brief. Then you can see if the ad does what the brief says it’s supposed to do. Because, if you read the brief first, you’re not judging what the ad does. You’re judging it against what it’s supposed to do.

And here’s a really shocking thought. What if the final work was BETTER than the brief? What if it’s worth relooking at the brief in light of the work? Because what will be judged by the consumers is the final work, not the brief.

But the brief has become the limits of creativity. If the work doesn’t tick all the boxes, we don’t want it. The brief was always supposed to be a springboard for great work.
Not a straitjacket.

But about 75% of the creative opportunities have been taken away before the brief gets anywhere near the creative department. The marketing strategy has been decided. The communication strategy has been decided. The research methodology has been decided. The consumer insights have been decided. The brand personality has been decided. The proposition has been decided. The media has been decided.

What does that leave the “creative” department? Words and pictures. Oh yes, and they can pick a director.

There’s really not much room left for any truly creative activity. All that has been taken away and handled in a not very creative way. What this leads to is departmentalisation and silo-thinking. Real creativity happens when different people from different disciplines get together to overlap and have ideas about what each other does. That’s how we get fresh thinking.

We don’t always have to use it, but it will help jog us out of our rut.

These are my personal rules for briefs:

1) Read and sign off every brief before it goes into the creative department. Then forget it.

2) Don’t re-read the brief before you look at the work.
Come to the work fresh.

3) The wrong brief early is better than the right brief late.
Often the original thinking is right, if it isn’t you can always put a better brief in later.

Stay open to possibility. The brief should be the floor, not the ceiling. Mainly, lighten up. This is supposed to be fun. Fun in, fun out.

  • Great view on what works. Have you worked with the new flavour of marketing? Test to death, kill possibilities to protect yourself from making a mistake and then roll out a convergent ad. “Hey it works for the competitor, we must be on the right track…” I agree with Mr.Trott (and I write briefs). Intuitive thinking however is Greek and Frith Street circa early 90’s. The modern client is early 30’s, career minded and that means “risk mitigation”. Altruistic thinking encourages creativity but with a hint of unreality. The idea in the back of a car coming back from a client is the often right. Perhaps we should simply post-rationalise to fit the comms strategy and “prospective consumer” response. Hey is that not cheating! I can name a dozen agencies in the top twenty that do exactly that, so I think accidents happen, and a good client will not only accept that, but embrace it. Sadly most will not.

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    CDs and creative groups can always demand a re-brief if there are unnecessary restrictions. Let’s also not forget, the creative idea can be completely off-brief as long as it can be justified. I think a brief is important. As CD and, before that as copywriter, I have always written my own brief in the absence of one in exceptional circumstances. Briefs vault creative teams directly on to what they do best.

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    Hi Dave,

    Yes, a brief can be like a priority pass or parking ticket.

    Priority Pass

    I had a priority Pass for Charlton FC one season, and at the last minute, decided to take my son to see them play Bristol Rovers away. Getting to the ground in a rush, flashed the pass at the gate, nipped into an available space and went into the ground. Having won, we returned to the car. Bristol Rovers fans were giving me really dirty looks. I’d parked in one of their director’s parking spaces with a Charlton sticker on the back of my car. It’s taking the advantage of what you call predatory thinking.

    Parking ticket

    I can see a baker’s lorry parked on a double yellow line in the middle of London. His hazard warning lights are flashing and he’s getting a ticket. Everyone looks at him because he parked where he should not have done.
    The traffic warden is ambling up the road, his name is “Joe Public”
    A policeman named ‘ASA” peers across the street.
    The driver’s mate, called “Account Man” moans:
    “I told you we should not have parked here, now we’re going to get a ticket”.
    The Driver says: ” Shut up and read The Sun”.
    The client’s not happy.There’s a kerfuffle outside his shop.
    Customers are leaving, and they are going to “Dave’s Cafe” on the other side of the road. Their delivery van also parked on the same double yellow lines, but he arrived two hours earlier. All the customers are laughing.

    As you say:

    1) Once the delivery van has left the depot, good managers can forget about it.

    2) Delivery vans deliver. They dont waste time optimising parking restrictions.

    3) The first van out is usually the first van back.

    Last time I got a parking ticket I did not lose my sense of humour either.
    I addressed it to:

    Lord Darth Vader,
    Death Star,
    c/o Bexley Traffic Parking Offences Division,

    They couldn’t see the humour and sent me another ticket which went in the bin.

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    Dave, fact is the world of marketing is now run by spineless, box ticking, logical people who don’t understand marketing, let alone creativity or the customer. The average account person is tasked to make money not great work. Agencies are run by accountants. As an industry we are not producing as much good works as we did 10 years ago. Fact. Now add testing and research. Another killer. No client dares to run anything unless it’s been tested (usually badly). Sadly, the good old great days of advertising are gone. I really doubt if you launched GGT today you’d have even 20% of the success you had then.

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    Hi Darian,

    Exactly. The Punters haven’t read the brief. So why should the client?

    All it does is make the client read into something which may not be there
    because he is preconditioned. Preconditioning can win business, make money, (but not as much as it could if it was a brilliant award-winning idea).

    We’re back to the patient with the broken leg who has discovered now that both legs are broken, but refuses the expertise and professionalism of an ad agency or creativity over bean counters.

    The bean counters will say:
    “Oh you’ve got no legs…hey, that’s too bad…
    here’s a novel idea…walk on your hands! (You’ve got two of them!)
    while other companies are running rings round you with two feet in plaster!”

    How many bean counters do we know who have won awards?
    Answer:- None.

    This whole industry is fired by imagination, and when imagination itself has been fired, it’s a dire situation because nothing was achieved by being an Ostrich other than a sandy beak and eggs you can’t cook in a frying pan.

    Never say Die.
    Never, Never, never say Die.
    Fight to the bitter end, and then return from the grave!
    Never surrender to…
    SFX: Hitchcock thriller music “The Traffic Warden”.

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    I was teaching some creative students last night, and I was telling them why they need to learn how to write a brief (basic thinking).
    Because if you can’t do that, how will you know when you’ve had a bad one?

    If you can’t write a brief you can’t have an opinion about a brief.
    If you can’t have an opinion about a brief you can’t spot a bad brief.
    If you can’t spot a bad brief you can’t change a brief.
    If you can’t change a brief someone else controls your career.
    And that’s not smart.

  • You hit the nail on the head there, Dave. The writing of and the preparation for the writing of a brief is (or should be) a creative process in itself. As CD at Wunderman, before the brief was written, I would meet with planning and client services to discuss ‘the problem’. From this discussion alone, even at this early stage, I would often think ‘I know what the creative idea is already’. That sometimes happens when you are still sitting in the client’s office. Of course, if I were to declare ‘I’ve got it’ the client wouldn’t trust the idea and the account team would freak out because we didn’t make it look like ‘an extremely challenging and complex task’ that we’d have to bill many hours for.
    Sometimes, the brief is simply a prop in the ‘theatre’ of pitching an idea. A great brief makes exciting reading and usually leads to great work. A poor brief, as has been said above, deserves to be ignored before it has chance to kill what you really know will work. By tolerating a poor brief you deserve the misery it brings you.

    Bob Ashwood

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    Dave: I like the way you are going with your students on this, and I think you are underscoring in your last comments what Bob says concisely just below, namely that “the writing of and the preparation for the writing of a brief is (or should be) a creative process in itself.”

    The value one brings to the task, whatever task, is the creativity one brings to it. No matter at which level that task is. This is not merely begging the question, it is thinking upstream. Which we like.

    The “requirements document” (or “brief”) directs our software design, and is therefore of higher level importance to the direction the work takes, and bringing value to the requirements document flows downstream through the entire process. And I couldn’t agree more with you and Bob on this (often the design is already known and included in the requirements).

    What we do here at our shop is back it up one more level and put energy into building the *process* whereby great system requirements (i.e. briefs) are produced. Getting to the “brief on briefs”, so to speak. This is something like the hackneyed practice of “best practice” navel gazing. But it is also, like one of your earlier posts addresses, a natural intergenerational dynamic of teaching principals how to teach. This is not merely begging the question, it is thinking upstream. Which we like. The main point is to put your corporate creative energies into developing *repeatable* higher level processes in order to realize greater benefits downstream. The point is also to create a more efficient factory, which produces better work *more often*.

    I wonder what you think about the notion of more mass produced creative work; great ideas coming off the line like Model T’s. Or are all new ideas unique? (N.B., a University Style answer hovering in the wingson this one.)

    But your best point of all: as a professional, if you don’t think the brief works, toss it out! Roger that.

    Enjoying your posts and the ensueing conversation very much; keep it up!

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    Great story – reinforces that creative guys remember briefings – not briefs
    Misses the point – briefs are not for ‘punters’.
    80% of most things are poor – briefs are no exception
    Could not agree more that briefs as ‘prescriptions’ are are a huge hindrance.
    Evidence suggests – tighter focus on the task – greater the chance for creative breakthrough. How to get there – the creative process – as enigmatic a journey as it has ever been.

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    Ah Charlie, you speak directly to the point. Is the creative process (now speaking of composing briefs…) an enigmatic journey; or is this journey (I admit it, an adventure) a trail, well marked or no, upon which we can repeat our steps – ah, perchance upon which to run. Speak for yourself. Is the creative process something new under the sun each time you approach it? Is there something common, at the least, in how you summon it “come what may”?

    I will hold that it is a repeatable process, and see what arguments might come. Or else how are we as professionals to face each day? With blind luck and a bagged lunch the only thing in our briefcase? A talent for stumbling upon solutions?

    I think not.

    What then IS repeatable in producing great ideas?.

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    Charlie and Michael,
    I think it depends whether you think the creative process begins before the brief, or after.
    I think with the 80% it’s after, with the 20% it’s before.

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    Great Stuff,

    I’ve been in Bob’s situation where you know you’ve cracked the brief before it’s been written, and had to sit through miles of bla bla bla to wait for everyone to play catch-up.

    I have also trained myself to walk away from a client meeting and force myself to write a brief about the solid facts and deliver it to the creative department (having checked it out with the account group) and asked everyone to have a look at it and see what they come up with. Some amazing stuff can appear if others are given the freedom to become involved. I believe it’s the responsibility of the creative director to make his / her agency the moste exciting place to work in.

    If a brief is crap, it should be written to excite and inspire. I was told Alex Taylor won her first award from doing great work on a beermat. That tells me ‘nothing is impossible”. If the will to succeed is there, it will happen because it cannot be stopped. It’s a pleasure to work on a great brief.

    I was trained on the “come up with 20 ideas scenario” and it’s a good exercise to prove that no one idea is ‘The winner’, there are plenty of winning ideas, and they don’t all have to come from me, or a select team, or anyone.

    I get most excited when the brief is so open I know anything can happen, and even (as Paul Arden would say) the cleaner can come up with a great idea.

    Then it becomes a challenge, and everyone knows it, and when everyone know’s it, there’s a smell of anticipation in the air that something great is going to happen, but nobody knows who or where it is going to come from. Oooooo….

    This was the feeling eveyone got when a Silk Cut Brief landed on our desks at Saatchi. It was open to 50 creative teams. Everyone was competing against everyone, and the feeling was electric because we all wanted to win !!!!

    Openness in creativity meant I would hand in layouts which I knew sometimes were not quite there, but I submitted them all the same, because I had faith and belief in my creative directors that if there was a great ad in it, they would call me up and give me a tip on how we could make it brilliant. I loved em all.

    It’s called working together, and I fear many creatives have lost this valuable gift.

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    I think Ken has pegged one of the elements of efficient, repeatable process (my “brief on briefs”) here: teamwork. I hold that the upstream goal for regularly producing good work is in the wetware; teamwork, fun (kudos Dave), training, pro-active recruitment (pro-active termination), trust. An all wet skill set. And (here comes the Yankee flag-waving) it really comes down to individuality; finding, hiring, teaching, keeping, re-teaching, growing those individuals. This is why I liked Dave’s “teach the teachers” so much. It is so true.

    When I was coming up I thought that Sir Paul McCartney was the absolute best there was. He just kept producing great pieces, one after another. Each song as good or better than the last. But I don’t think I am that much out of the mainstream in thinking that his work, post-Beatles, has been on the whole absolute crap. What happened there? Clearly we have some evidence that the creative well can run dry.

    Who posted recently that they think there should be a time limit on creative duties, and once the clock strikes, bong, promote that man to management. Maybe Sir Paul should have been promoted to management. Maybe his team broke up, or it wasn’t fun anymore.

    On the other hand, I recently read DeWolfe’s new biography of J. S. Bach (recommended). Bach has like 1500 works attributed to him, but the glaring mind-boggling fact as presented in this book is that experts agree that maybe only 20% of Bach’s work survived him. Just a cement mixer of a genius cranking out masterpiece after masterpiece. (I think Picasso can be grouped in with this kind of *fecund* creative genius. What is it with these guys?)

    Bach was the consummate professional. He could manage a payroll, teach, consult on organ design, repair cellos, copy documents, present himself to royalty, the whole job. He also managed a family business which cranked out product, literally, on a daily basis in an assembly line fashion. All of it of the highest quality. But Bach never wrote a lick of classical or romantic music, no rock or jazz, nor Cajun stomp, etc. Everything he wrote was of a distinct style and place. He wrote from formula – his formula. The Beatles (and Miles Davis also comes to mind in this regard) were all about an aesthetic of moving *past* their defined styles and continually overtaking their own self-defined avant garde, an aesthetic of constantly discarding formula. Maybe this is not the sort of approach one wants to take if looking at a long haul?


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    I meant Kev, not Ken.

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    Hi Michael,

    Yep, it’s all about cut-through in a world full of crap and a few top guys. First it’s a case of cutting through the crap, and I think that’s why Dave is so sharp. He crosses swords with young fresh minds constantly. Many CD’s are probably fearful of that type of full-on approach because they just can’t do it. I’m happy to put my hand up and say I could probably do it a few times, but constantly??? That takes some serious effort and dedication.

    It’s even been a struggle to respond constantly to some of the posts, but I enjoy it so miuch, I keep coming back because it sharpens me too. I bet he’s enjoying it even more now than when he started, and so are the students when the penny eventually drops that we are not about putting people down in this business (although beware, some are) the good guys are about getting the job right, and that means answering the brief, and to get the right answer, it’s a lot easier to start with the key question. Is the key question ‘Whats the idea?’ because the punters haven’t read the brief. ( but they could write it if the ad answers it correctly).