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Five Alternatives to the Creative Brief

Let me tell you a story about the very first creative brief in history. Legend has it, that after it was written and handed to the person it was intended for, it was immediately crumpled up and thrown away. The person who wrote it was similarly discarded, being fired on the spot. Wow! Problem solved, right? The creative brief in this story was for the Gettysburg Address, and the person who did the firing, of course, was Abraham Lincoln, lucky bastard. It supposedly went like this:

The Creative Brief For The Gettysburg Address

What is the problem this speech must solve?
Galvanize support for the war.

Target audience:
Fifteen to 20,000 northerners gathered at the dedication of the new Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg Pennsylvania, and the nation at large who have become war weary and are starting to doubt the cause of this war.

What do we want them to think?
These soldiers did not die in vain.

(See Declaration of Independence for reasons why).

How do we want them to feel?
Motivated to keep up the fight for the North’s noble cause.

What do we want them to do?
Continue supporting the war and the principles on which this country was founded.

Feeling inspired? So then, why are creative briefs still so popular? Many of us work at companies where creative briefs are required as the starting point of every project. Stuffed with offensively dull marketing terms, bland, soulless documents like these, (but which are rarely so brief), are actually a hindrance to creativity. Reading them might be the least-favorite part of any creative’s job, and big, fat, slow-moving corporations HEART them. But come on, people! As they probably say at Ikea, we can do better, ja?

Ok, so what’s the alternative? Let’s start by considering the purpose of the creative brief. At its most basic level, a creative brief is a means of communicating the strategy of a piece of marketing or advertising to the creative team so that they may then come up with ways to execute this strategy. By this definition, the above example is a perfect creative brief, no? But it does nothing to further the creative team’s understanding of the situation. If Lincoln had not been so intimately involved in the war, if this creative brief had been handed to a speech writer away from the action, our children would not be learning about the Gettysburg Address in schools today. For our creative department to be successful, they need to understand the situation as well as Lincoln did. If our creative team is to evoke emotion with their designs, they need to understand what those emotions might be connected to. They need more to go on than 9 pages of marketing jargon.

So we need to be able to do a better job of communicating the situation facing the audience. We need to understand what they are feeling, what they care about, and what problem they need solved before we can craft brilliant designs that make them stop and say Yes! We need to get into their skins. Here are five exercises you can use to help you with that. We still view the creative brief as necessary, but as supporting documentation containing the more technical details – a reference document – rather than the only information being passed on to the creative team.

“I Am” Statements

“I am” statements are first-person statements written from the perspective of one of your audience members. They are a useful way of thinking in terms of individual people instead of on the demographic scale. You could think of these as customer personas taken to the next level – instead of merely describing the person, you are expressing the problem in their own worlds. This is a very powerful tool which can be applied to anything you design, from websites (“I’m just trying to get an idea of how much this will cost. Is there a page on your website that will give me a rough ballpark figure without me needing to fill out your stupid form and wait three days for you to get back to me?”) to entire advertising campaigns. Compare the ad campaigns for Geiko Insurance with Progressive Insurance – as much as I love talking lizards and goofy guitar strumming folk duos randomly appearing in shopping malls, they do nothing for me in terms of reducing the pain of comparing and buying insurance. Progressive Insurance uses the idea of picking up a box of insurance right off the shelf and you’re all set.

The key to “I am” statements is that they help you feel your audience members’ pain. Lincoln didn’t need this because he had seen the look on young men’s faces as they died in the battlefield – he knew that his speech was not about dedicating a piece of ground, but to carry on the work of those who had given up their lives.

“In a perfect world” Scenarios

Describing how things would be in a perfect world allows you to write your own rules. It is as if you are designing your own universe and you get to decide how everything will be – you are designing a world where your product is the center of existence, perfectly solving the problems of your audience. This approach is useful for adding hyperbole to the campaign of a commoditized product such as a Coke, or a Whopper or a Coors Light. Notice they’re not telling you how many bubbles are in a can or how many pieces of lettuce you can expect to get – they are showing coolers of Coors Light being lowered from helicopters amidst snowy mountains and amply-bosomed females (and apparently this is the answer to their target audience’s problems).

“The Slippery Slope” Problem

By exploring the opposite of the benefits you’re promising, you put yourself in a good position to understand the problems you’re alleviating. This is a big departure from the wording and the focus of most creative briefs, which are typically about increasing revenue, target response rates, and other metrics that are not generally linked to customer happiness. In the classic slippery slope argument, one thing leads to another, initiating an irreversible cascade of increasingly dire outcomes, culminating in catastrophe. Focusing the creative team’s focus in this direction can help to highlight the very reasons behind a product or service’s conception, especially regarding products that may be difficult to understand.

The “Rise Up” Presentation

If you have a mission-critical campaign ahead of you, then emailing a document to your creative team, no matter how snappy it is, might just be doomed to miss the mark. In times like this, I find it necessary to give the “Rise Up” speech, gathering the creative team together, and inciting them to be dissatisfied with hum-drum, to dig deep and reach far beyond their perceived limitations. This is the moment that will define their trajectory further on in life. This is the time to shine! Use a presentation filled with stunning and evocative imagery. Don’t use bullets. Don’t use pie charts. Don’t be lame. Think Steve Jobs. Think TED Talk. If you’re expecting your design team’s best work, them show them you mean business by digging deep yourself and delivering a powerful, masterful presentation describing a grand vision and getting your team excited. Oh, and don’t forget to hand them a copy of your creative brief as they leave.

Interpretive Dance

How many times have we all turned to interpretive dance to communicate our ideas, right? Well, not really, but the point of this one is this: if you’re in an organization and there is a disappointing gap between what goes into the creative brief and what comes out the other end (so to speak), then something needs to be fixed. You know your team, you know the nature of the design challenges being presented, you’re a problem-solver, so do something! Change the format of your creative brief. Change the way you present it. Maybe try having the person who normally writes the creative brief simply present the information in a discussion and have the design team interpret it into a brief for themselves. Who knows, but you?

I welcome your comments and any questions that come to mind. As a Creative Director, I’m collaborative in nature. I love freely sharing ideas and I thrive on connections with creative individuals of all types and backgrounds.

Now get out there and change the world!

P.S. I’ve included the official text of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address below – it’s worth the read!
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863

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