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.

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One response to “The 4 most common mistakes in creative briefs

  1. Ohhhhhhh….do I agree with this.

    I once had a brief that said – “be creative”. The owner of this agency saw it sink without trace some time later.

    My creative partner used a little story with the Suits who struggled to understand why a single-minded proposition was so crucial to the briefing.

    He would paint a fictional scenario of a client having been asked what the strongest single selling proposition might be responded with a list of them. The Suit would then write each one down onto a tennis ball until he had about ten in a waste paper bin. He then tells the client that he is going to communicate them to a sales prospect. He then threw all ten balls in the direction of the client at the same time as asking – “how many do you think your prospect would catch?” I have stolen this and found it to be a foolproof way of instilling the need for the SINGLE-MINDED proposition and wished to share it with whoever might be interested.

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