A Blue Sky And A Box

this is a blue sky shot, with a nift black box!

blue sky. box. dig it.

So many creatives within agencies have come to believe the creative brief is a complete waste of time. That’s because most of them never see a quality strategic brief, and that’s a shame. You can blame this on agency leadership for two reasons: It’s up to leadership to help clients understand the real value of a brief, and it’s up to leadership to generate a brief that inspires great communication.

Contrary to what a lot of people across disciplines must certainly believe, a great brief does not manifest itself as a brain dump. That kind of brief is a waste of everyone’s time, but the ability to write any other variety is seldom taught. Young account side people too often see their roles as that of messenger, and don’t feel empowered to lead clients. They end up defaulting to the idea that if they just tell Creative everything they know, someone will come up with a solution. It certainly can happen that way, but at a real cost to productivity. When there’s no direction, there’s no understanding of the communication opportunity. Worse, it means the client hasn’t bought into a plan because the agency hasn’t offered one. Consequently, chaos ensues within the agency and the creative staff struggles to create meaning from a giant body of random brand facts. Is it freeing? Maybe. It’s certainly permission for us creatives to do whatever we want with the project, but only temporarily. The chances that the client won’t like it increase dramatically, because no time was spent identifying a smart consumer insight that would lead to a powerful strategic communication. The client has no ownership of an insight or conclusion, and that means the agency ends up trying to sell both a strategy and creative work on the same day. That’s a tough way to go.

I once read where an advertising professor at an influential university related his view on the importance of the creative brief. For the life of me, I cannot find reference to this on the web or I’d cite him as a source. However, he said that without fail, if he gave his ad students complete freedom to do absolutely anything they wanted to do, the results would be weak. On the other hand, creating very focused parameters within a brief would elicit initial groans but eventually result in strong work. It’s a bit of a paradox, but as a Creative Director for a number of years now, I can tell you it’s true. Blue sky freedom seems like the recipe for limitless creativity, but it actually allows too much unfocused thinking. The real recipe for great work is a suffocating strategic box that forces the team to sweat bullets as they try to solve a single, infuriating problem. This is the kind of thing that demands innovation and invention, and it’s where the best work in the world comes from. Although everyone in the business of marketing tends to randomly spout the phrase “out of the box thinking,” the truth is that the box has to first be defined in order for that to happen.

Building the box is deceptively simple. Yes, there are variances between mediums – for instance, experiential websites often have a need for both an experience definition and a communication strategy. But at the end of the day, there are only a few key components to a good brief. Collectively, they’re worth everything.

• An insight. This is an epiphany distilled from all the market dynamics and demographic/psychographic data that tends to make its way into a brief. It represents an actual conclusion on the part of the author of the brief, and no amount of data can take its place. In short, this is the definition of the opportunity. If you don’t have it, don’t bother writing a brief.

• The most powerful thing we could possibly say. This is the message, people. I’ve seen maybe 200 different brief formats, all using different language. But the ones that work all call for a singular message that represents the most powerful thing the brand could possibly say, based on the insight that has been uncovered. This is the heart of the brief and it’s pretty much the only thing a creative team is going to care about.

• Reasons to believe (in the single most powerful thing). This is what grounds the message in truth and keeps people from torching the brand for being a bunch of liars. Three reasons are plenty, and sometimes they make up supporting copy points. Bottom line: if you can’t come up with a couple of reasons a consumer should believe what you’re saying, don’t say it.

Communication has changed dramatically over the last two decades. No longer do brands have sole province over communication with the masses. A brand must communicate with consumers, and consumers can communicate right back. Those same consumers can also turn around and communicate their feelings about a brand to the world, whether those feelings are good or bad. Despite all this, the brand must still communicate its intentions and its truths to the consumer. Singular, focused communication is the best way to do that. Great communication is always born of a great insight and a great brief, and those good at expressing them will always be valuable.


  1. EmmyTheBeth says:

    As a student, this is all very true. In one class, the products are assigned to us without a creative brief. Students choose their own direction but many forget to make a direction for the product. The creative brief supports a direction, it’s more than just making it shocking, pretty, or funny. There thens to be a reason for selling and a reason for buying.

  2. I like the first point you made there, but I am not sure I could reasonably apply that in a postive way.

  3. garden pests says:

    Ciao. Good job. I did not expect this on a friday night. This is a great story. Thanks!

  4. garden pest says:

    Please, can you PM me and tell me few more thoughts about this, I am actually fan of your blog…


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