The creative brief has lost too much mojo

Shoreditch, we have a problem

a elephant in a room

Whenever I ask those charged with writing or working on briefs if they love the job, they tend to fall into one of two camps: completely confused or apocalyptically angry. Confusion reigns on the writer side… why in the name of all that is rewarding in life would anyone love polishing that elephant-sized turd of a task? On the creative side, anger inevitably turns into a series of anecdotes about being carelessly dumped on (presumably by the same elephant) by people who don’t know shit from Shinola about creative. This then, is my ode to both camps. A story about how I developed sympathy for the confused and assuaged the angry. It all started when a very unexpected elephant and associated minions came trampling into my room.

Do what boss?

Attractive young bearded guy shaves with hatchet

As a freshly minted creative director caught in the brutal vortex of merging four major agency teams into one, I was, without warning, asked by the CEO to swing the new company axe he had surreptitiously given me and drastically reduce headcount in response to falling profits. My unethusiastic response did not win immediate praise from the CEO and his gasping entourage.

Rather than show people the door, I would increase productivity in the creative department. As the laughter died away, I could tell he was now wondering if he should have given the job to someone else. The minions were openly sneering.

Better people than me had tried and failed to solve the sausage factory v campaign palace problem. Why would my attempt at herding the bag of rabid cats (his phrase not mine) be any better?

My idea, I said, was to improve briefs. In my opinion, the cut-and-paste briefs that were being fed into the creative teams were an embarrassment. “I mean, what idiot signed those sacks of shit off?” Turns out he did. My bad. I have a tendency to self-harm in meetings.

I had already talked to account teams and planners who wrote the briefs and discovered that they hated the process because clients often supplied them with little more than generic soundbites, platitudes and delusional clichés to go on.

Road trip

bearded traveling guy waiting along side empty american road in nevada

I then got off my arse and talked to clients only to discover that they often relied on the wishful thinking of aggressive commercial directors who appeared to base their marketing objectives on watching episodes of mission impossible. (Those who remember cassette players that set themselves on fire after a briefing will get the pre-Tom Cruise timeline.)

What we needed, I suggested with all the take-it-or-leave-it passion of someone expecting to call the head-hunter in the next few minutes, was a briefing system that informed and inspired everybody involved in the process.

To me, the current approach; the one that engendered all the excitement of filling in and responding to a tax return, was actually killing the business. There were other issues that needed fixing, but the briefing process sat at the core of the inefficiencies that were undermining progress in the newly stapled-together agency.

Over the years, I had worked with and researched innumerable examples of briefing processes used by different clients and agencies. I don’t recommend it. And please, never let anyone outside of our gullible industry suggest you write a book on them. Out of context, they make us look like incoherent self-important dullards.

The offending articles, ranged from documents akin to mind-numbing technical specifications to vague expressions of a general intent to wax lyrical. No sense of context. No clearly defined objectives. Nothing of substance on the target audience. Nothing truthful on the product. No sign of an actual proposition. The term ‘creative’ often seemed like it needed an Anchor Man-style question mark after it. Creative?

Enter the foolhardy

Hand in sea water asking for help. Failure and rescue concept.

In this guileless landscape, where other Creative Directors would be judged on a mixture of awards, behavioural quirks, sartorial exoticisms and accumulated loathing by the account teams, I opted to be judged on productivity, consistency and results.

Surprisingly, the greatest opposition was from the Senior Creative teams. Up to this point, they had been left to their own devices. They believed only complete creative freedom would give them the artistic licence and budget-abusing scope necessary to win awards.

Account teams were initially bemused. Why would a Creative Director appear to be on their side? They had always been told over late night Jeroboams of Bollinger Special Cuvee Champagne, that genius was like a piece of string that could not be tied to a deadline dear boy.

Clients thought the idea was well-intentioned but wondered if it would slow workflow and were apprehensive about increased costs. They, like all sensible clients footing the bill, would reserve judgement/give me enough rope… you get the picture.

The data and media planners thought the fact that someone in the creative department had even noticed the existence of their departments outside of a pitch situation was a breakthrough moment.

Bizarrely, the biggest champions of the idea came from the production team, who had come to regard the Creative Department as a lawless no-go-zone staffed with egomaniacs blissfully unaware of the financial ramifications of their self-interest.

Now, at this point, anyone involved in a transformative process with rabid cats et al is faced with two options: to listen or to lead. Most gurus suggest you we must listen twice as much as we lead. Frankly, that is bollocks. The process needs a creative director to lead from the front. They must be able to demonstrate how theory turns into practice under massive amounts of on-the-spot pressure. This is not an academic exercise.

Young creative business people meeting at office.

I started at the top with senior clients and managers and said “We are going to use the briefing process to increase personal productivity.” You will notice the use of affirmative, action-orientated language. If you can’t commit, why should anyone else? I then showed how effective briefing was going to streamline our entire processes with almost immediate effect. I then talked about my workshops and the processes that would facilitate development and delivery of briefing process that had form beyond function

In the workshops, which involved teams assembled from every client and agency department, we explored a whole range of possible approaches, stripped them down to essential characteristics and developed work from them. note: we worked on the problem on live jobs.

We did this for each client and eventually we ended up with 10 common elements that when put together seemed to increase productivity:

  1. Long-term objective
  2. Short-term objective
  3. Product analysis
  4. Target audience analysis
  5. Competitor analysis
  6. Proposition
  7. Channel
  8. Call to action
  9. Budget
  10. Specifications

Let’s delve a little deeper

Little boy and the magic book

Long-term objective:

Here we gave voice to the vision, culture and position of the brand.

Short-term objective:

Here we explained how the immediate objective must also deliver to the long-term objective.

Product analysis:

Here we explored the product or service from the brand, market and consumer points of view.

Target audience analysis

Here we got to know the target segment from a mixture of demographic, psychographic, behavioural and environmental factors

Competitor analysis:

Here we explored how the competition went to market at a nuts and bolts level


Here we defined the single-minded target audience benefit we were delivering for each segment


Here we explained the channel attributes and touchpoints we wanted to exploit and how they related to the customer journey

Call to action:

Here we detailed the impact response mechanism and our testing elements


Here we stated the allowable marketing cost. Exceeding it was not an option.


Here we detailed the timing and technical aspects of the task and any political factors

To inform and inspire  


While these headings constituted the ‘inform’ part of the briefing equation, the ‘inspire’ was more difficult. There is more to creativity than structure. The job to shift minds from a cut-and-paste mentality required much more than nifty wordsmithing.

To set an example, we spent every morning for three months in what is now known as a stand-up meeting. Everyone from different departments came prepared and contributed what they knew on the spot. Each briefing continued to be a live event. Yes, for some people this was like giving birth in a public space but briefs were often cracked before they left the room.

To maintain momentum, each day’s work was checked on the ‘To-do, Doing and Done board to identify issues and deal with them on the fly. Sometimes we’d get the creative hoard involved to bypass a block or pick up the slack when someone hadn’t made it back from lunch.

Shocked man covering his mouth with hands

I can hear many creative purists thinking this sounds more like manufacturing than art. That’s because it is a mixture of both. Creative isn’t something that happens in the creative department. It starts when product and service developers start asking questions like, “How do we serve the needs of customers better than the competition?” It continues, when marketers start asking questions like, “How do we efficiently target specific audiences with the right message at the right time in the right format and on the right device?” If these questions are not asked and answered in the briefing process, then no amount of creative inspiration is going to make a silk purse out of the proverbial British Saddleback’s hearing aid.

Of course, business for many souls working in the marketing and advertising business isn’t all about business. It’s about those intangible qualities such as job satisfaction and those tangible ones called awards. The answer is balance. Without it things tend to fall over. As illustrated in the special diagram below:

man down

The only way to make this process work is to ensure every team gets on a combination of bread and butter and gongable gigs on their worksheets. I did away with the old Senior Creative and Account Handler habit of cherry-picking the best projects and leaving the junior staff scrapping over the scarps. As a result, we improved productivity, increased profitability, made our client’s look good and, who would have thought, won more awards than ever.

The long and the short of this ramble is that I discovered the source of all creativity is hidden in the hearts and minds of consumers. The closer we got to them. The less filtered the process. The faster we got to the end product.

Developing a new briefing process is a useful process in itself. It must be an inclusive and iterative process that includes the confused and angry end-users. As anyone who has built a website without a proper UX process in place knows, the end result is rarely something that works.

In terms of delivery, stand-ups have become sit-ins and slacker-hackathons where content is as much phone-ins, video uploads and web links as it is text on 90 gsm multipurpose inkjet paper. Some have even tried AR hangouts where carefully crafted fantasy avatars combine with claustrophobia, screen-lag and bad lip-sink to all but nullify spontaneity.

The key to creative briefing is not technology but asking questions. To ask what is a brief for is not enough. It is necessary to ask for whom it is intended. The answer to that is us. We all have different contributions to make and preferences to be addressed.  The creative brief of the future might appear as a video, a dashboard, a storyline, an excel spreadsheet, UGC, AR or any number of dynamically optimised and user-defined options all at the same time.

Whatever the shifting form of briefs, from paper to cybernetic implant, its function will be to inform and to inspire human creativity. A unique phenomena that no AI system I am aware of comes close to matching. After close to 40 years of being on intimate terms with briefs from both client and agency side, I remain convinced that it is still a task that most regard as a necessary evil (like filling in an insurance application) rather than a creative act in itself. Many perfectly capable professionals still believe that creativity and productivity are mutually exclusive. That is more fiction than fact.

As Vincent Van Gogh said, “Great things are not done by impulse, but a series of small things brought together.” Combine a hint of information with a hint of inspiration in a creative brief and great things happen. As if by magic.

Aspiring sorcerer