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Simplicity, Inspiration & Truth (or How to Write Better Creative Briefs)

There’s a been a lot of talk about Elton John recently. Rocketman, the movie which tells the story of his colourful life, is garnering good reviews and the man himself is about to embark on another ‘last ever’ tour. I’ve yet to see the film, but one thing which has always struck me as remarkable about Elton’s story is how, in the telling of it, Bernie Taupin rarely gets a mention.

In case you don’t know who Bernie is, he’s the guy who writes Elton’s lyrics. Candle In The Wind, Tiny Dancer, Your Song, and hundreds of others were created by Bernie first writing the lyrics and then sending them to Elton to compose the music, often in another country.

 
Bernie & Elton

Bernie & Elton

 

Without Bernie none of Elton’s hits would exist.

He’s the unsung sung hero, if you know what I mean.

And so it is with creative briefs. Great advertising begins with a great brief. You simply can’t have one without the other. Of course the work itself will garner the attention, the plaudits, the awards, and, if it’s good enough, make its way into our cultural consciousness - before doing 100 nights back to back in Vegas - but the work would never have become the work without an equally brilliant brief.

The brief is the most criminally overlooked aspect of the creative process. And as Euripides once said, a bad beginning makes for a bad ending. So here are some thoughts, from a creative’s perspective, on the three qualities of a great brief.

Truth

‘A simple truth told in a surprising way’.

I don’t remember where I first heard this description of what makes a great advertising idea but I still think it’s the most succinct definition there is. However, in order to be able to tell a truth in a surprising way you first need that truth, and in the context of briefs another word for truth is ‘insight’.

A great insight has two characteristics …

Firstly, it shouldn’t be the kind of thing which could have been guessed at by the creatives before they read the brief. If it is, then it’s not surprising enough.

Secondly, it should feel a little uncomfortable, like a new pair of jeans. You know over time you’ll come to love them. But off the peg they feel stiff, even a touch abrasive.

One of my favourite examples is from Avis, the car hire company. In 1960’s America the number one name in car rentals was Hertz, with Avis a distant second. In a brilliant moment of strategic gusto Avis decided to make the problem the solution, to acknowledge the truth that they were only number two, but with the insight that because they were number two they would always try harder. And so one of the most effective campaigns in ad history was born …

 
Screen Shot 2017-09-22 at 14.53.32.png
 

The ‘we try harder’ line has now sustained Avis for decades, even during those periods when it’s taken them from being number two to number one.

Simplicity

Recently I was asked to run a creative workshop for a major TV network. Before the session I sent out a survey so I could better understand the issues they were having. Below are the rather revealing results to a question about briefs …

 
The responses to a recent survey at a major broadcaster when respondents were asked about issues with the briefs they receive.

The responses to a recent survey at a major broadcaster when respondents were asked about issues with the briefs they receive.

 

Zero per cent of people surveyed thought the briefs they received were too short. And I’m not sure anyone’s ever complained about a brief being too, well, brief. Your brief should only ever be as long as it needs to be, no longer, the minimum relevant information. The simpler the brief, the better the creative.

And any good brief should include a single sentence which is the essence of the brief encapsulated. This sentence is often known as the single minded proposition and usually it’s the place where aspiring brief writers come unstuck.

Think about it like this. Let’s say you and your creative director have gone out after work for a beer to talk about the project on which your brief is based. But the sun is shining, the beer is tasty and you’ve got lots of other stuff to catch up on. Before you know it you’re both on the tube home. Just as she is getting off you remember what you were supposed to talk about … before the tube doors shut what’s the one most important thing you can tell her about the project?

Whatever it is, that’s your single minded proposition.

The best single minded propositions are not only elegantly single minded, they flow naturally from the central insight. They should be both motivating to the audience and inspiring to the creatives. If yours isn’t, then it’s back to the drawing board.

The old ad man John Hegarty used to evaluate the proposition he’d been given by typing it up in a large font and sticking it to the wall beneath an image of the product. First he’d look at whether it made rational sense. Then he’d consider whether it made emotional sense. Then he’d see whether the line together with the image could conceivably work as a press ad, albeit a very rough one. If the answer to all these questions was yes then – bingo – we have a proposition. If not, then the planner had more work to do.

 
John Hegarty resting his foot on a black sheep. What else?

John Hegarty resting his foot on a black sheep. What else?

 

Inspiration

The brief is a stepping stone from strategy to creative. And the best briefs are a little bit of both; they are a compelling blend of incisive strategic thinking brought to life with creative flair. Yet very often whoever is writing the brief goes big on strategy and small on creativity.

If you’re writing the brief, take a point of view. And communicate that point of view with passion, ambition and conviction. Avoid marketing jargon. Write clearly and concisely in language your mum and dad could understand.

Active verbs are good in a brief. Words like excite, inspire, empower, educate, encourage, motivate. They bring drama to your writing and convey the level of ambition you have for the project.

Keep in mind too that your audience are real people. They’re not demographics. So describe them, paint a picture with words, talk about how they behave and think now and how you’d like them to behave and think in the future, without resorting to ABC1’s, C2DE’s, age ranges, male female splits and all the other tortuous data that baffles and bamboozles creatives.

Below is one of my favourite short films. Created by the artists Lenka Clayton and James Price it presents us with a series of individuals at every age from 1 to 100 in all their diversity and detail. Your audience is in here somewhere. Try and make your description of them as vivid as a vignette from this film.     

Finally, when your brief is down on paper, take the time to read it out loud. It’s a great test to see whether it flows and a good way of spotting typos. In the words of speechwriter to US presidents Peggy Noonan, ‘Where you falter, alter.’

Writing a great creative brief is tough. And the funny thing is that despite its huge importance in the creative process it’s a skill that is hardly ever taught. You’re just kind of expected to know what to do.

So next time you have to turn your hand to a brief work hard to make yours as simple, true and inspiring as it can possibly be.

And remember … without Bernie, there’d be no Elton.

richard holmanComment