Creative briefs: some thoughts from an Account Executive

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No other subject (apart from increments, perhaps) generates as much heat in an advertising agency as the Creative Brief. While the brief as we know it has been around for decades now, there is rarely an occasion where an agency team feels that the brief process is working. The creative team invariably cribs about the quality of brief, irrespective of the format.

In large agencies where the planning team is responsible for the creative brief, the problems are minimized. When the onus is on the poor Account Management team there is mutual contempt and disrespect for the process. The creative would either blame the brief format or the quality of the brief (‘it lacks direction’, ‘uninspiring’) and the team writing the brief sees it a chore…an unpleasant task, or they feel that the creative team pays no heed to the creative brief.

In my experience, the best of the creative brains are usually great planners. They have the skill to question brand strategy, have a business perspective, device the right thing to say and craft an idea that takes the proposition forward. Unfortunately, the process cannot be left to chance and great advertising has to be ‘engineered’.

Most agency networks have the same questions to be answered – only the ‘packaging’ is different: why are we advertising, who is the audience, what is the advertising objective, what is our proposition and the support. Some of the tips I have gathered over the years from books and personal experiences in writing good briefs include:

– talking about the issues at hand with the creative team prior to even formulating the thoughts and writing down the creative brief. Whenever I have involved the creative team from the beginning and evolved the brief together it has helped in developing a brief that the creative team finds exciting

– make the proposition interesting. Work hard at it but resist the temptation to write a creative headline. Propositions that sound like everyday conversation are always better than jargon-filled ones. Even if it is a one-page brief, the creative team invariably reads the single minded proposition (‘the one thing we want to say’) first and sometimes its the only thing they read in the brief. So keeping the information economical yet relevant is the key. Very often the writer meanders about several things irrelevant to the brief and packs in all the information he knows, instead of focusing on information that is relevant.

– the brief is not sacrosanct. This may sound contradictory but a robust discussion on the issues at hand and possible solutions is more important than someone filling in a form solitarily. Very often, creative teams get hung up on the lack of a printout called the Creative Brief.

– one must ‘want’ to write a good brief. This may sound simplistic but the belief that one ‘engineer’ a good communication plan must come from within. My ex-Agency called a good brief ‘An ad for an ad’. It implies that making it well thought through, relevant for the problem at hand and inspiring is like writing an ad – only its for an ad. Good briefs usually have the creative teams pulling all stops to take a crack at it.

– Present a challenge to the creative team. Make a production out of it. Leland Maschmeyer, a former Account Planner suggests that we pose case-study like questions to the creative team. Example: “How do you launch an unknown ring tone provider among marketing-savvy adults in only 6 weeks when you are outspent 200 to 1?”. Or, “How do you change the public’s perceptions of a stock market whose named has become synonymous with volatile tech stocks?”.

– Get out of the format. Again, being different but relevant helps. I have heard this story about an Account Director who took his creative team for a pitch briefing to the Maruti Suzuki office. He packed all of them in an Ambassador only to be cursed by them. Halfway through to the client’s office he switched them to a Maruti Van (as it was called then). The idea dawned on the creative team that this van is about ‘space’ and Maruti Omni was born.

– In this day of integrated marketing, it may be a great idea to motivate the creative team to come up with a ‘media neutral’ idea first – rather than a TV script or hoarding. Leland suggests that we ask a question like: “What kinds of experiences will create the right conversations?”. This may encourage the creative team to come up with experiential ideas

– Never be satisfied with the first draft of the brief. I often sleep over the written brief and when I look at it the next day, I can see several areas for improvement. It also helps to show the brief to a person outside the team and see if the brief is clear and inspiring.

– Don’t confuse the features with benefits – they are not the same thing. ‘ A chocolate with half the calories’ is a feature . The benefits could be several – ‘guilt free chocolates’, ‘eat twice as much’ etc.

– Make the target audience singular and pack several insights about her and her equation with the category. But don’t expect for those insights to be captured in the ad

One of the critical aspects of training in agency, specially when non-planners are left to writing a majority of the briefs, should be the Creative Brief. The role it plays in ‘getting it right the first time’ cannot be over stressed. It could be the difference between pointless iterations and happy productivity.

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