Brief or Grief?

How to create inspiring Creative Briefs

It’s one of the most integral parts of any advertising or communications agency, almost as integral as the creative folk themselves; we’re talking about the Creative Brief.

How do we define the Creative Brief?
Putting it bluntly, “It has become the most sterile, unimaginative and ignored piece of paper floating around in the Agency”.

Randomly pick up copies of creative briefs across agencies and you’ll see what I mean. Speak to a cross-section of creative people and they’ll nod in agreement. Attend a typical briefing session and observe that creative people (the recipients of the brief), are yawing, dozing, you-tubing, doodling or drifting. The brief is the most junked, trashed and if you’re the more expressive kind (like David Droga), the most torn, shredded piece of paper today. Briefs have become Griefs!

Yet, there’s hope! Every creative person worth his salt is always quick to acknowledge and applaud a great brief. So, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the brief, it’s just in the way it’s being used, or abused. Putting together a good brief is a dying art, which needs to be revived and how.

Briefs are not just important, they are critical

A brief is actually the inflection point in creating advertising and communication. It’s the point where logic (the strategy) starts turning into magic (the idea). It’s where planning ends and creativity begins. We keep indulging in the over optimism of giving a bland brief and hoping to get exciting creative work in return. Garbage-in-garbage-out, is as true here as in computer programming.

Re-branding the brief

In an era where re-branding is fashionable, its time we re-vitalized the brief. Its new definition should read, “The most insightful, inspiring and igniting tipping point in the creation of advertising.”

Insightful – packed with gems and nuggets that bring the strategy to life.
Inspiring – makes the creative team go ‘Wow!’ and take ownership of the brief.
Igniting – triggers the creative to buzz with ideas that they can’t wait to get cracking on.

In fact, a good brief is like ‘an ad for the creative people’.

What makes a great brief great

While most agencies have their own briefing formats, based on their conceptual frameworks and creative philosophies, the basics of a great brief are fundamentally the same.

If you were the Pope briefing Michelangelo on painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, what would it be?

Grief: ‘Please paint the ceiling to cover the cracks.’
Brief: ‘You are commissioned to paint our ceiling for the greater glory of God and as an inspiration and lesson to his people, frescoes which depict the creation of the world, mankind’s degradation by sin, the divine wrath of the deluge and preservation of Noah and his family.’

Here are 5 key changes that can help re-energize our creative briefs and make them smarter and sexier:

From complex jargon to simple expressions

Don’t try to impress with how much mumbo-jumbo you know, try to simplify the task at hand.

Rather than saying, ‘Increase TOM and brand saliency’ it’s much better to say, ‘Make the brand famous’.

Instead of ‘Enhance width and depth of consumption’, why not ‘Get more and more people to use more’.

From long and winding to short and crisp

A good brief should be no more than a page, or two. Supporting information can be provided separately as documents or as links to the web.

When George Bernard Shaw wrote a longish letter, he began by writing, “I am writing you a rather long letter as I did not have the time to make it shorter.”

Stay focused and consistent in your brief and avoid overload.

From information to story telling

Don’t dwell on information, instead dive for gems that bring your strategy to life and help tell a story. Encapsulate your brief with evocative and powerful nuggets.

When Taj Mahal Tea Bags were being launched the nugget in the brief was to position them as ‘The Walkman of Teas’ to encapsulate the mobility, convenience, taste and modernity of the format.

Similary, when Dabur Honey was being repositioned as a health food from a home remedy, the brief summed up the task as moving the brand from ‘the medicine chest to the dinning table’.

Recently, for Virgin Mobile, a brand targeted at the youth, the learning was that Indian youth are not out and out rebellious, but work around problems to get their way. This was expressed evocatively as, ‘inventive thinking that breaks the firewall of sanctions’. Or as one teenager aptly put it ‘Jugaad’ is their mantra.

An ethnic beauty brand that needed to be made more chic, summed up the brief as ‘from Khadi Bhavan to Fab India’

Such gems are not only insightful, but get the creative juices flowing.

From target audience to target person

One of the biggest sacrileges in briefs is the vague and rather generic definition of the target audience. You really can’t get a handle of who are you talking to, in flesh and blood. Remember to distinguish your ‘marketing target group’ from your ‘advertising target person’ and describe him or her in a manner that helps your brand make powerful connections (and not about generalities of life).

This is how a bland brief will define the target audience for AXE Deo:
Young men aged 16-25, who are concerned about their appearance and how they interact with the opposite sex. They buy deodorants to smell fresh and feel confident when they’re in the company of girls; Axe with its masculine fragrance is the perfect choice when they not only want to look good, but smell good too.

Here’s a really sexy and inspiring definition of the AXE target person:
Imagine Benjamin… He thinks about women a lot. A lot, lot. But he’s not dreaming of romance, he’s a dirty boy who can’t stop thinking about sex with extraordinarily welcoming women. Yet in the real world, women are a completely different country – it’s somewhere he’s never been, it may be a while before he gets to go there and you’re guaranteed he won’t be able to speak the language when he does. Deep down he wishes he could just be himself around girls and that it wasn’t so complicated, that he didn’t have to try so hard. What he wants isn’t a deodorant at all, but a secret babe magnet.

From piece of paper to piece of theatre

A brief is more than just a written document, its one-on-one communication. The more dramatic and vivid you can make it the more engaging it becomes. Impersonal and e-mailed briefs are a strict no-no.

Think of the briefing as an ‘interactive event’ that makes the entire team charged up! Set the right mood and anticipation and ‘seduce’ the creative. Don’t barge in with your brief when they are not mentally prepared. Don’t shove briefs at them.

Great briefing is experiential marketing at its best.
Once, a bunch of creative people were packed like sardines into a cramped car and told they were being taken to the client’s office for a briefing. Midway, they were met by the Account Supervisor, driving a Maruti Van rather coincidentally (a move that was engineered). They were immediately transferred into the more spacious confines of the van and as they sprawled themselves, someone exclaimed, “Guys, this is the brief. “Travel in space.” How’s that for a powerful demonstration.

Here’s what a leading creative hot shot told me, “I once had an Account Executive give me a brief with a hole burnt into it. That got me curious. Then I noticed it was for Pizza Hut’s Fiery Pizza. Right there, she got me. It’s not the brief in itself that inspires you, but how i’ts presented. It must be filled with an opportunity to make you smile, to make you stop and think.”

It’s time we change the way we look at briefs, because more often than not great advertising is born out of great briefs.

It may be a good idea for the industry to introduce an annual award for the best briefs as an initiative to encourage and reward great briefs. Most agencies could also have internal awards for this.

Can we bring the glory back into briefs? Can we have more briefs than griefs?
Yes we can!

Author: Anand Narasimha

Anand NarasimhaAnand Narasimha, is Dean & Professor of Marketing at IFIM Business School, Bangalore. With over 25 years of experience in Brand Marketing, Advertising and Consulting, he describes himself as a ‘Brand Mentor’.


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