The 4 most common mistakes in creative briefs

I’m not the first person to write about creative briefs. Nor will I be the last.
But I still find it astounding how many bad creative briefs are written.
And briefs are important. They’re a linchpin for the work an agency does.
The brief largely dictates if the creative work that follows is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

I’ve seen planning departments and suits fall in love with briefs and celebrate them, almost as if they themselves are the final product or output of the agency. They’re not. I’ve never seen a brief appear on a billboard or a TV screen or any other medium. The brief isn’t the thing that’s seen by the consumer; it’s simply a map to help get there. It’s best thought of as a quasi-contract stating what we need to achieve, and what we need to say in order to achieve it.

Many times, a bad brief is put into the creative department in the hope that it will be sorted out there. And that’s fine, if the timelines and assignment of resources reflect that (they rarely do). Putting a problematic or unresolved brief into the creative department can be a bit like jumping into a taxi without knowing where you’re going – you just drive around aimlessly, hoping you arrive at a suitable destination. It can be highly inefficient and expensive.
More often than not, the quality of the creative work reflects the quality of the brief (or what some people may crudely refer to as ‘shit in = shit out’).

Here are the 4 most common mistakes I see on creative briefs:

1. They’re not ‘brief’.
A creative brief should be short and to the point. It isn’t a process of adding stuff; it’s a process of elimination. If the brief is long, you haven’t done enough work to remove stuff and distill it into a single thought or message. Longer briefs indicate that you’re trying to do too much, and you lack focus. Do one job. Do it well.

As the great Twitter feed @leeclowsbeard says, “‘Well, we got it all in’ should always be said with a great deal of sadness.”
Einstein simple

2. The Single-minded Proposition isn’t one.
I’ve written about propositions before. So has my friend, Simon Veksner.
The proposition is the most important part of the brief. It clarifies the message that you’re being asked to convey.
That communication is never going to be more clear and concise than when it sits within the ‘proposition’ section of a creative brief. It’s here that it’s most pure. It’s naked. It’s not dressed up with creativity. It’s plain. It’s simple. It’s as straight as it possibly can be.
The proposition isn’t a quasi-headline.
It’s not meant to be tricksy or clever (that’s the job of the creative work). It’s not meant to inspire; it’s meant to inform. Far too often, I see propositions that are trying to be headlines.
It needs to be single-minded.
Here’s a tip: if your proposition contains the word ‘and’ or a comma, it’s a good indication that it’s probably not single-minded.
Quite often you see people try and use weasel words to sneak extra stuff into a proposition.
For example, I once was given the following proposition for a tourism destination: “Adventure beyond your ordinary”.
I asked the planners and suits if they wrote ‘adventure’ as a verb or a noun. They replied, ‘That’s the beauty – you can interpret it both ways’.
Well done, you’ve just diluted your message by 50% and made it open to interpretation. Not the kind of foundation you want for great work.
A proposition is no place for double entendres.

3. The Support that doesn’t support anything.
The support points are the reasons to believe the proposition. You’re justifying the proposition by backing it up with facts.
However, I’ve often seen the ‘support’ section of a brief filled with stuff about the client that has nothing to do with the proposition – it’s irrelevant.
If you can’t back up your proposition with hard, believable facts, then the proposition is going to fall over.
Fix it now, rather than throw squillions of dollars and resource at it.

 4. Counter-claims.
When you write an ad, the legal department will be very quick to tell you if you’ve written something you can’t actually say. Sadly, it still happens in creative briefs.

For example, the proposition might say something like “we’re the fastest”, and somewhere else (support points, mandatories, considerations), the brief will say “we can’t actually say we’re the fastest”.
I’m not sure what the author of such a brief is expecting.
If you’re not allowed to say something, why is it in the brief as the very thing you should be saying?

Overall, briefs should be given a little more respect rather than seen as something that is churned out hastily in order to get the wheels turning.
They’re the foundation of ideas, and ideas are the foundation of our business.

Why all copywriters should be art directors

I’ve spent a large chunk of my career thus far working alongside one art director. He was a brilliant South African art director (on a side note, I only know 3 South African art directors and they’re all brilliant at their craft). However, we did tend to blur the line between ‘art director’ and ‘copywriter’. That’s not to say we interfered with each other’s craft, but we did offer each other an opinion.
And that brings me back to the heading of this post.

I’ve seen bad art direction murder good copy. And likewise, I’ve seen copywriters that have little consideration for art direction. This is the very reason why you need to have knowledge of the other’s craft.
I never gave it much thought until I worked with a few different art directors.
I thought it was weird when they were surprised by my interest in the line breaks of a headline, or the choice of typeface, or if the look of the ad was suited to the tone of the copy.
It struck me that some teams must still work in a fairly disparate way, with the two crafts somewhat divorced from each other.

For example, look at the following outdoor ad I noticed recently.
Okay, so it’s not going to keep any advertising award juries up at night*, but just look at that line break in the headline.
outdoor ad 1It completely reads the wrong way. The first three words have to sit together for the the intended flow and rhythm.
However, the art director would then be left with ‘LIVE’ as a widow.

So what’s the lesser evil? A weakened headline, or bad art direction?

This is where the team should have worked together. Maybe they could have bumped “LIVE” up in size so it looked ‘less lonely’ on a line all by itself? Maybe they could have amended the copy to have an extra word or two? Maybe they could have indented the word “LIVE” to make it look like it was an intentional art directional move?

Either way, an ad is always stronger when both crafts work together.

*a favourite saying of one of my old creative directors, used when he was less than impressed.

Making advertising into a factory

Recently an old memo came into my news feed (attached below).
It was written by the late, great David Abbott in 1994.
According to Creative Review, it’s genuine.

I think it’s amazing how, within 20 years, Abbott’s worst fears have now become common practise. And unfortunately, the work is lesser for it.




What’s your day rate?

Poor quality, low priceIf you’ve ever spent any time as a freelancer recently, you’ll be familiar with this question. It’s usually the first one asked. I guess it’s quite reflective of the commoditised market we now live in.

Rather than any number of other fitting questions, like: ‘Do you have experience with <insert target market>?’ or ‘Do you have experience with <insert brand category>?’ or ‘Do you have experience with <insert media channel>?’ or ‘Can I see your portfolio?’, the very first question is cost. And many people see cost and value as the same thing. They’re not.

However, the bigger problem here is the whole ‘time for money’ conundrum. Are we really selling ‘time’? If so, where can I buy some? (as I never seem to have enough of it)
I thought we were selling solutions – creative answers to communication or business problems.
That said, we’ve never really worked out how to charge for that. The value of an idea is so subjective. But is it any more subjective than the value of someone’s time?

I was once at an agency and heard the traffic person negotiating over the phone with a freelancer. He was looking at it through the wrong lens.
In his negotiations, I could see him quickly doing the calculations:

day rate
5 days per week
52 weeks per year
Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Even if you were working on that very ill-fitting equation, he needed to consider the following:
annual leave (take 20 days off in Australia)
public holidays (take another 10 days off in Australia)
sick days (another 10 days of allowance in Australia)
time spent invoicing and doing book work (all non bill-able)
superannuation contributions (this is actually a grey area that the Australian Tax Office is trying to tighten up)
down-time (no freelancer is booked 100% of the time. Sometimes the time between paying jobs can be considerable)

However, going back to the original question, what was the traffic person really buying? What was the value of the idea or piece of work they required?

A friend was recently contacted by a prospective client who said they didn’t have a very big budget and could only afford to pay $X per day. I asked him, ‘how does she know how long it will take you?’ My friend responded with the proposal of a project fee.

Another thing some agencies try and use as a bargaining chip is GST (Goods & Services Tax – you English readers will know it as VAT). In Australia, you must register for GST if you run a business or enterprise and your turnover is $75,000 or more ($150,000 or more for non-profit organisations).

In laymen’s terms, you simply add 10% to your invoice amount. You collect that on behalf of the tax office and pay it to them quarterly. Then, provided the client was a GST-registered business, they simply claim it back.

However, some clients try and use it as a bargaining tool, as if it’s actually costing them something. It isn’t. They claim it back. Don’t let them include the GST within your fee – it’s kept strictly separate.

When did the industry become about ensuring nobody else actually turns a profit? Was it the rise of the procurement department that gave birth to this behaviour? Was it the death of media commissions? Who knows?
But putting all that aside, we just need to remember that, as with most things in life, you ultimately get what you pay for.

How some marketers are still operating in the 16th century

Way back in 1543, a Polish astronomer named Copernicus published De revolutionises erbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres). In a nutshell, it suggested that the Sun, and not the Earth, was at the centre of the known universe. Many decades later, an Italian named Galileo picked up the idea and ran with it. The Catholic church didn’t like this idea too much, as it was in direct conflict with their beliefs.
They firmly believed that the Earth was the centre of the universe (and I’d imagine it quite a blow to one’s ego to be told otherwise). Anyway, for his trouble, Galileo was sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life (which happened to be 9 years).

Screen Shot 2014-06-27 at 9.28.22 AMSo what does this have to do with marketing?
Well, to be blunt, many marketers like to think their brand is the centre of the universe. And, as we all know, it’s not.

In a blog post by Marius Donnestad, he recently wrote the following:

“Brands suffer from an inflated self-image that agencies and their research partners are only too happy to keep inflating.”

I tend to agree with Marius. Agencies have turned into ‘yes men’. Like an entourage hanging around a star, they’re only too happy to tell the client how great their brand is. This is usually driven out of a fear of losing the business. But, really, is the client paying you to give them excessive praise, or to fix their marketing problem?
After all, a client getting angry at you for telling them the truth (based on your professional expertise) is a bit like someone getting angry at their personal trainer for telling them that if they eat pies every day, they’ll get fat.

It seems the more serious we take this advertising business, the less effective it actually becomes. Yes, I know it appears foolish to be flippant when large budgets and profits are at stake. However, the less worthy and more irreverent you make your communications, the more it will resonate.

Think about the great success stories:

The list goes on.
The point is, lighten up. It’s only advertising. Have some fun with it, and you’ll have more success. The universe won’t grind to a halt, the sun will still rise tomorrow (unless, of course, Copernicus was wrong).

The Idea Catchers

Well played, DDB. Well played.
I salute you for making this.

Selling snake oil

snake-oil-salesman-big When things are uncertain, it’s very easy for charlatans to capitalise.
That’s always been the case, and probably always will be. That’s because when nobody really knows the answer, it’s easy to listen to someone shouting that they do.

I’ve seen this in advertising many times over the years – most notably in the digital space. People come in, throw around enough buzzwords to bamboozle people and make themselves sound like an expert.

People get caught up in trends, themes, and ‘the next big thing’. Andy Flemming’s summary of a day at Cannes this year captures it perfectly:

“1:00pm. Seminars. The agency model is changing. Do more digital. Tell stories. Be brave. Dream more. Technology will change everything. Content is king. Thank you, you’ve been a great audience.”

Many of these conversations still intrigue me because of the way marketers flock to them as if they were something new. In most cases, they’re not. If you need evidence, just take a look at where the term ‘Soap Opera’ originates. Content, anyone?
It seems that the more things change, the more some things stay the same. Advertising Hall of Famer Howard Gossage (1917–1969), said the following in the middle of last century:

“The real fact of the matter is that nobody reads ads. People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.”

So, you can call it ‘content’, ‘engagement’ or whatever you want, but the simple fact is you have to make your message interesting. Now, that may mean making it newsworthy (PR?), or entertaining (ads?), or useful (platforms, utilities?), but nothing has changed since Gossage’s day – only the means in which we deliver it.

Sure, some may throw conjecture on what the media and marketing landscape might look like in the future. However, we do need to consider the fact that very, very few marketers are willing to grasp the concept of making engaging content. They’ve had six decades to make great TV ads, but how many TV ads are great?
Often, in a bid to ‘make the ad work harder’, they slip into over-playing their hand. And when that happens, it usually ceases to be interesting and turns into someone trying to sell you Amway.

And here’s another thing to consider. In today’s world, it’s the bean counters who have taken control of the marketing industry. As John Zeigler writes in his article, The Demise And Rise Of Our Industry:

“The finance department likes predictability of performance, so their default option is to view investment in creativity as a luxury, compared with the necessary investment in media exposure. Media spend can be controlled, modeled and predicted in a way that creativity cannot.”

So, it would seem that as people are crying out that creativity and branded content is the future, in reality, aren’t we drifting further from it?

Is the Cannes advertising festival an alternate reality?

Well, it’s that time of year again. When thousands of advertising people flock to the French Riviera to look at advertising, judge advertising, talk advertising, and listen to presentations on advertising.
But (and I’m going to throw the cat amongst the pigeons here) how much of it is genuine? No, I’m not talking about the scam work, although that’s a strong talking point (as shown here, here, and here).

I’m talking about whether Cannes has become more about the sizzle rather than the sausage. It seems to be more veneer than substance. I think Micah Walker summed it up pretty well when asked about his judging experience a few years ago. He said he spent the whole week watching case study videos which were, ultimately, an ad for the ad.
Isn’t that a bit like watching the trailer to decide which movie wins an Academy Award? Or  which author wins the Man Booker Prize by watching the movie adaption?

In some cases, the actual work doesn’t even get judged. For example, if you had a campaign consisting of 4 TV ads, 3 radio ads, and a couple of print ads, the judges would probably only see how you presented that within a 2 minute case study (the TV ads alone would take that much time if they were 30′s).

And then there is the criteria. Sure, judging things like ads is highly subjective.
But let’s just take a look at one of this year’s big winners – the Live Test Series for Volvo Trucks. (I’m not picking on this campaign. For the record, I like it a lot. I’m simply using it to demonstrate my point because most people are familiar with it, and it won a heap of Lions, including 2 Grand Prix)

Firstly, there’s nothing particularly original about carrying out extreme demonstrations to highlight relevant product features. Just a few years ago, Cannes awarded Google for their Chrome work, and there is always Abbott’s famous print ad (also for Volvo).
Volvo print ad

However, the thing that I find the most profound about the Volvo Trucks case study is that it doesn’t mention the sale of a single truck.
The results section of the case study cites the following:
– 100 million views on YouTube
– 8 million shares online
– Thousands of spoofs (spawning an extra 50 million views)
– The Volvo Trucks fan base grew on YouTube by 1870%, 1375% on Facebook
– Earned media to the value of $170 million
– A 46% increase in consideration amongst truck buyers

I know I’m taking a very simplistic view of things here (like the purchase cycle of a large investment item like a truck, the limited time an awards jury has to view and assess work, and the obvious cultural differences that may not translate well). However, I do know that companies can’t pay bills with Facebook likes. Sooner or later, this kind of stuff has to have real, tangible results.

Sometimes, you can lose sight of that, particularly in a place like Cannes. Don’t get me wrong. It is is a great place. However it’s easy to take a warped view on reality there. The weather, the people, the cars, the yachts.
When I first went, I found the talks and gallery of work to be truly inspiring. But I also remember walking through the finalists on exhibition in the Palais and thinking, ‘Wow, Amnesty International must do more advertising around the world than Proctor & Gamble’.

Do brainstorming sessions really achieve anything?

6a00e54ee2334e8834013485dfaefd970cThere are plenty of people who are fans of brainstorming sessions, but I have to say I’m not one of them. Further to this, I suspect most people in the creative department don’t  like them.

Why? Well, I reckon it’s a bit like putting a comedian on the spot by asking him to ‘say something funny’. Sure, he might manage to get a smile, but it will hardly be his greatest work.

In my experience, the ones who most like brainstorm sessions are those who don’t have to do ‘the heavy lifting’, so to speak. Their theory is you get a whole heap of people in a room and bash out some stuff on a given topic or task. You usually end up with a variety of stuff scribbled on sheets of paper.
Then most people walk away from the job, and some poor bastard has the task of converting those pieces of paper into a working solution.
It’s important to note here that this is a generalisation – some brainstorm sessions do provide fruitful solutions and ideas, however many merely give the appearance that work has been done.
The real problem is that all too often, the person who called the meeting treats the end of that meeting with a ‘Job done. Tick’ mentality rather than a ‘Okay, this is an interesting starting point. Now the real work begins by exploring if any of these ideas have legs’.

Great creative work is very rarely ‘bashed out’ by a group of people. Sure, two heads are often better than one, but too many chefs and too little time just makes a mess.
The brainstorm workshop never allows for any depth of thinking. It’s like the fast-food equivalent of idea generation – it might suffice momentarily, but it’s not really a healthy way of living.
What’s your opinion of brainstorm sessions?

Where does the power lie? And where will it lie in the future?

A couple of weeks ago I was introduced to this online video (below).

It’s funny because at some stage we’ve all sat in a meeting like that – where things don’t quite make sense but people insist on pushing ahead regardless. (Note to anyone who has worked with me before: you’d probably know this as the time I ask something like, ‘Are we confusing momentum with progress?’ or ‘Are you sure we’re not trying to build a house on sand?’)

Anyway, I think this video is a great representation of where the power lies in most business transactions. But more importantly, it can also make you wonder how things will work in the future.
So let’s just look at that.

Meeting LabelsThere are 5 people in the meeting and for the sake of this article, I’ve labelled each of them.
The actual transaction is happening between Person A and Person D.
Person A is supplying the product/service that Person D is seeking.
However, Person C owns that relationship and has positioned A as his commodity.
E is a minor stakeholder in D’s purchase.
B is simply training to be like C in the future.

This is how business has tended to work throughout the industrial age.
In most cases, the power has always rested with ‘the gate’ rather than the expert.
For example, Apple doesn’t make music but by owning the means in which people access it, they take the biggest cut.
Likewise for Google. They don’t make the information, but they facilitate access to it.
Supermarkets don’t grow food, but they control the gate by which people obtain it.

However the dynamics of this model are being challenged and this can offer up a number of scenarios for how the advertising business (and many others) will operate in the future.
It’s now easier than ever for Person D to directly contact Person A. This doesn’t paint a pretty picture for Person C (or B) as it cuts them out of the loop.
However, new opportunities exist for people to invent themselves as a ‘Person C of the future’ (like the creators of Airbnb being a gate to accommodation, or LinkedIn being a gate to labour).

Whichever way it plays out, one thing is for sure – there are too many people at that table.
Only one person is doing the work.
Two people are making the arrangements.
One person is the major buyer.
One person is a minor buyer.
In a world that is always looking for greater efficiency, where do you think the axe will fall?