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The perfect creative brief? A deadline and a dream

by | Jan 19, 2018

What are the essential ingredients of the perfect creative brief? A killer brief can make the difference between good and great creative work.

It must tell your team where you are now and where you want to be.

“A deadline and a dream” – two essential components of the ideal brief according to illustrator Maira Kalman.

Of course the brief is where we start our own creative endeavours, and it provides the roadmap for any collaborators.

And whilst it simplifies things, for me Maira’s quote reflects the sense of inspiration and possibility that a great brief opens up. John Boiler, CEO of renowned LA-based agency, 72 and Sunny, says that for him “a brief is an open statement of ambition for a brand”.

By definition, a good creative brief contains a bold hypothesis. To generate hypotheses you need to speculate: you need to progress from the known to the unknown

I spent time researching and talking to designers, creative directors and clients about what makes a great brief whilst writing my e-learning course. I love WPP stalwart Jeremy Bullmore’s advice. He says: “By definition, a good creative brief contains a bold hypothesis. To generate hypotheses you need to speculate: you need to progress from the known to the unknown. But you cannot paint the future in the colours of the past.

Other people’s imaginations need to be engaged, excited, signed on as accomplices. And the choice of the language you use is not arbitrary and inconsequential; for an insight to have real potency, the language in which it is couched is at least as important as the inner truth itself. For an insight to have real potency, literal accuracy is less important than its power to evoke.

I love this idea of accomplices and bringing people along with you. And the point about language is of course fundamental. The way we phrase a question can pre-determine the outcome and influence the results. In the same way and open or closed question can direct the way we think.

The prolific writer and essayist Arthur Koestler said that, “Words in themselves are never completely explicit; they are merely stepping stones for thought.”

We can think about the brief as providing those stepping stones. The IPA has great advice in their free ‘guide to a brief’.

They use a bridge-building analogy and say that one should “forget that you are briefing an agency and instead pretend you are standing on the bank of river about to build a bridge instead”.

There are two ends to a bridge: Where are we now? Where do we want to be?

Around you are a variety of experts that can contribute. What information should you give them?

Where is ‘point A’? They need to know that.

And what about where it should finish? Where’s ‘point B’? The destination.

Maybe you’d give them some ideas on what the bridge might look like, what vehicles will need to cross it, what size boats will need to go underneath it etc. But you’re not going to tell them how to build the bridge. That’s their job. You’re going to sit back and wait to see the drawings.

Of course you also need an idea of your metrics – what will success look like? And how will it be measured? If you’re looking for a checklist of what should be included then the guide provides that too.

Here’s what Grey London’s Joint Chief Creative Officer (and one of CR’s Creative Leaders 50Caroline Pay has to say on the subject:

So, a good brief to me is pretty much no brief. I grew up at Mother. I never had a brief, a written brief, until I got to BBH. Here, we have a fantastic brief template but really I have just briefed a pitch this morning and the brief is just one word. Because, that is all I think you need …because I saw a brief the other day and it was impenetrable. It was so wordy – I was like ‘I don’t even know where to start with this brief – what is the gist of the brief?’. And, then, the business director was just ‘do this’ and I thought that’s a brilliant brief. And, then a briefing can be enriching and inspiring and full and really set your world on fire. But a brief, for me, is one word or one line; a job to do or a problem to solve.”

If you want to engage those ‘creative accomplices’ think about the following:

  • What’s the insight that will “speak to your heart in way that your gut already knows?” (Sarah Watson, Global CSO, BBH)
  • How can you help your team get under the skin of, and empathise with your audience?
  • Can you use images as well as words?
  • Can you do the actual briefing somewhere relevant somewhere out the field if it’s appropriate?
  • Distillation is a creative superpower – can you articulate your challenge or problem in one word?

Rather than being just a tick box exercise, writing the brief and sharing it can be a creative act in itself. Abraham Lincoln is often quoted as having saidIf I had five minutes to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first three sharpening my axe.” Save hours of wasted time and frustration by getting the creative brief right in the first place.

This article first appeared in Creative Review in November 2017.

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