how a brief becomes an ad

The ad creative process can be just as circuitous and political as the classic Schoolhouse Rock video about how a bill becomes a law.

Creative briefs often read like peace treaties between the client and agency that pack in everything about a brand (except for a meaningful point of difference). When advertising falls flat, the root cause is often a vague and watered down brief.

This dynamic creates a lot of frustration all around, as R/GA and Beats by Dre voiced in presentation at last week’s Cannes Lions Festival (provocatively titled, “F*** Briefs”). They caused a stir by proposing to do away with briefs entirely, particularly when there’s such a need for real-time marketing and no time for navel-gazing or “numbing consensus”.

Rather than kill the brief, I think marketers need to kill the “numbing consensus”. A brief is simply a container. It’s a reflection of whether there’s a real story to bring to life in marketing communication.

I like how BBDO CEO Andrew Robertson framed it after the R/GA talk:

“Precisely because you want to be able to move in real time, you have to have had a really crisp, well-thought-through, well-articulated strategy. If everything just becomes an impulse, instead of creating a stronger wall, you’re just going to end up with a pile of rubble.

“You don’t restart every time you start another piece of work, because you know what you’re working with. You take Snickers—’You’re not you when you’re hungry’ is so precisely defined, we could, right now, write a Snickers ad set at this table in this location because the idea is so crisply defined.”

Taking the time to get to a “crisply defined” central idea is the trick. And yet so often the brief lacks that kind of powerful hook, and instead recites time-worn platitudes about the brand.

I like how this Ad Age article illustrated the situation:

“When you write a creative brief, you’re not filling out a form. You’re crafting the story of your product and its reason to exist and thrive in the world. This is the first, and arguably the most important creative act of the entire process. And yet it’s often approached with all the delight of passing a kidney stone.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the role of the brief and how to avoid the “numbing consensus”.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed print of this week’s cartoon. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

Here’s a related cartoon I drew in 2011.

  1. Zeenat Rasheed says

    Agree – brands need crisp strategies to make real-time creative a reality. But the form in which we codify strategic thinking is critical as well. Agencies are brought in as consultants, and consultants need to deliver tools, deliverables, artifacts and other ways of saying “stuff” (I was an Account Management person, now I’m a consultant – so I know the drill).

    So I think the ‘brief’ as a formal tool/form/deliverable should be killed. Instead of providing structure to a strategic approach (every agency has a proprietary template but they’re all asking to define the same thing), it’s giving clients more ways to tangibly water down the message.

    Why not make the strategy the deliverable itself? Start off the creative relationship/process with a series of qualitative interviews between the Account Management, Planning and Creative leads and appropriate senior management at the brand? It’s the age of the customer and clients are agencies’ customers – let’s focus group them, apply our research and industry expertise, distill the message down into 1 core idea with some supporting statements, and TELL them what the brief is (based on their input), rather than ASK them.

    This will a) cut down on the inevitable watering down that happens on the business end; b) put agencies back in control of crafting the strategy, not just the execution; and c) take focus away from the artifact and put it on teasing out the realities that brand leaders want to highlight and focus on.

  2. Bill Stiles says

    Most creative briefs are similar to the briefs in my bedroom in that they have two conditions. They are either washed super clean or you really don’t want to touch them.

    I’ve struggled with the futility of the creative brief process, including the laundry list of attributes clients want, the fill-in-the-blanks mentality of the account manager, and the dismissive, any-idea-from-account-service-must-be-bad response from creative.

    I’ve discovered the process works best when it is collaborative–when the client buys into the process early, and then account service and creative approach the brief together. It’s not an extra step. It actually streamlines the process and results in greater focus and creative liberty.

    Nice cartoon, Tom. You and coffee perked up my Monday.

  3. Andy Thieman says

    WARNING: If the brief is terrible, your agency will smile, nod, hang up the conference call, grumble and simply re-write it. Assuming you (client/approver) don’t want your contribution re-written out of the creative process, craft the brief WITH your agency’s strategic lead. Arrive not at consensus, but at a few short statements that both sides agree are powerful enough to be shared (as is) with the actual, working creative team. PRO TIP: be sure one of those statements is ‘the problem you’re trying to solve.’

  4. Bill Carlson says

    I’ve written a lot of stuff over the years and it is clear that there are never any two people who take away the same information, point of view, findings, insights from the same language. Rearranging language often improves connectivity with one kind of reader but loses another. The process of getting to final language *should* be about being satisfied to get 2 of 3 but often ends up being driven by the bias of whoever is paying the bills…

    In the case of a creative brief, other than the objective data like target audience, overall brand positioning and strategies, etc., will 1,000 words come even close to painting the same picture in multiple minds? (And tangentially, not everyone on the team agrees with the so-called objective stuff and thus interpretation flows their their filters — i.e. bias — though that’s a different subject!)

    Consider the difference between reading step-by-step directions on Mapquest and how we still want to see the map, in my case looking at the whole route for context but zooming in on some specific steps where I am not familiar with the area.

    Creative is an iterative process starting with broad ideation and eventually funneling into final concepts. And I’m not even a creative person, go figure…

    Creative Briefs are all too often proactive attempts to be prepared for CYA at the end and rarely provide solid creative direction anyway. And the interpretation still ends up subjective.

    So… I say “banish the brief”! Of course there needs to be checks and balances, general direction provided, parameters, etc. Time and money are at stake, and so forth, not oblivious to that. But what needs to happen is a more interactive, engaging iterative flow through the funnel. Trade wasted brief-writing and editing and editing and editing time for immediately jumping in to the creative process, let the ideas flow and drive direction.

    That’s what happens anyway so let’s define an alternative approach which is appropriate to the constraints of business (time & money!) but legitimizes the realities of the creative process.

    Seems to me I’ve seen plenty of articles about the problems with creative briefs, maybe not connected to the right info feeds but can’t recall many articles in favor — or at least articles which claim a unique creative outcome was credited to the brief!

  5. DSprogis says

    Schoolhouse Rock jingles still resonate in my head sometimes – thanks for the memory! The one about how a Bill becomes Law is as great an analogy for the Product Development funnel as it seems for Creative Briefs.

  6. Jagan says

    Every year we massage, cajole, poke and prod our creative brief to perfect it thinking we can move it to the highest level thus achieving the greatest product. It’s like a recipe and the cake our product. Doing away with this recipe doesn’t get us any closer to the best product, just making the sale of this new product more important. The best salesmen may be able to sell this brown turd… but in the end, its still a brown turd.

  7. Jeffrey says


    Another delicious marketing cartoon flavored with wisdom.

    The brief isn’t the problem, it is often the lack of empathic thinking that needs to occur before it is written. How well do you really understand your tribe or community you are trying to reach? Do you understand it through reams of data or through the live pulse of human beings?

    I think a well-drafted brief should be owned by as few people as possible using a sort of RACI chart approach. Ideally, it should have one owner.

    One person is ultimately responsible (R), a few may be accountable (A), you have several people who share opinions and consult (C) and many who need to be informed.

    Like the multiple cooks over salting a soup, a brief needs an owner and not a committee. There is something wonderful to be said for a benevolent dictator.

  8. John says

    A brief is supposed to be like a poem. It is should be authored by one person who is inspired to capture the essence of an idea, using as few of the the best words possible. Briefs-by-committees are the opposite. They are compromises between diverse groups who want to include as much as possible about an idea, using watered-down phrases that mask their differences and indecisiveness.

  9. John says

    The ideal brief is a springboard: the jumping off point for creative leaps.
    The committee brief is quicksand: sinking muck that drags down anything original.

  10. Stephen says

    The brief is a fascinating and frustrating (and lots of other F words) part of the marketing world. This week’s post really hits home with me as I work at an agency and experience the methodical mediocrity associated with watering down a brief all too often. I’ve found that one of the biggest disconnects is that the brief is the compass not the roadmap.

    I think the brief is a necessary part of the process and one of the major components it needs is HONESTY. That may sound cliche but hear me out. A brief must be honest about the target audience… no product (ever) has been everything to everyone, and new flash, your product won’t be the first. When you go through the trouble of researching, interviewing and analyzing data to understand your target audience, you need to focus on them. Forget everyone else who may not dislike you or happen to buy your product by accident. A target audience is so-named for a reason, don’t set up a bullseye then turn around, close your eyes, and fling the dart over your head.

    In addition to the audience, you need to be honest about what you’re selling. The brief should distill the idea you want to project, but it also needs to act as a bullsh*t dector. Everyone wants to put their product/services best foot forward, but don’t claim that your new rubber band (now in emerald green!) is going to make anyone “Love life again.”

    Lastly, your brief needs to be honest about what you want to accomplish with your ad, app, or creative execution. Most creative isn’t going to drive people into the store to BUY BUY BUY! uncontrollably, but each piece builds a story that builds trust that makes people want to be part of what you’re selling. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be ambitious, but the brand is greater than the sum of its parts and each part needs to play a role.

    Beyond the brief, honesty needs to come back to the business relationship between marketer and client. Client need to be seeking candid conversations about their product and brief, and marketers (agency or otherwise) need to be willing to be honest with their clients. People are too concerned with proper etiquette and ego instead of getting it right and shooting straight. This leads to more money spent and a lower quality product… that’s a high price to pay.

    Ok I’ll step off my soap box now. Great post, Tom. These cartoons are so relevant to me and I really appreciate your thoughtful work.

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