Before I started KunsHuis, I worked for Ogilvy in Namibia for five years. This article I found in my backups from then - still reigns so true and needs to be shared.

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Article by: Jeremy Diamond ( Ogilvy & Mather - New York ) ​

If the Pope had simply asked Michelangelo to paint the ceiling, it is unlikely he would have gotten the end result!

Pope Julius II directed Michelangelo in his painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling by explaining that he wanted a creation that would sanctify and celebrate the glory of the Lord. The Pope did not tell him to simply paint the ceiling.

Likewise, the best creative comes from a clear, focused brief. A strong brief states a clear objective and defines a target audience and its needs in attitudinal rather than demographic terms.

A brief should also define the role of the brand in meeting those needs, leading to a clear, relevant, and well-supported proposition that suits the customer.

A brief can give creatives inspiration, as it appeals to the strategic impulses all good creatives share. Involve them from the start. Furthermore, a full, face-to-face briefing can make the written brief more vivid and actionable. Finally, it’s the tight, focused brief that gives the courage and the time to think beyond the ordinary.


The agony and the ecstasy.

A lot has been written about the creative brief, but the debate drags on. How important is it? What is its role? What should it contain? Who is it for? Is anyone going to pay any attention anyway?

The reality is that the debate is largely semantic. Whereas fine art is about unfettered self-expression, commercial art always has to start with an objective and a strategy. What do we need to achieve? How are we going to do it? And at some point, this challenge needs to be brought to life for the benefit of the people who have the not inconsiderable task of turning a sound strategic idea into a captivating creative one.

When Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, he didn’t just ask him to paint whatever he fancied. If he had, he might have ended up with a nice landscape or a handsome still life, but that wouldn’t have delivered against his objective of wowing the blase Roman churchgoer. Instead, he asked Michelangelo to create something that would sanctify and celebrate the glory of God. Which led to an image that has awed millions, believers and heretics alike, for generations.

Whatever we call it, whether written or verbal, a meeting or an ongoing dialogue, every creative journey has to start with an understanding of where we are and where we want to get to. In other words, it has to start with a creative brief. The example of the Sistine Chapel makes several other important points.

Firstly, great creative ideas are media-agnostic. The Church was an early and effective proponent of 360 Degree Branding. Get the brief right and it should act as a springboard to creative ideas that can be executed across every medium and, indeed, every touchpoint between the consumer and the brand.

Secondly, everyone remembers the ceiling but no one remembers the brief. No one ever built a great brand by writing great briefs. The truth is that there is no such thing as a great brief -- only a brief that leads to a great creative idea.

There are no rules that guarantee a brief can do this. But there are some principles that, if followed, maximize the chances of getting to an outstanding creative solution. Before we look at these principles, let’s review the ingredients of a good creative brief.


The essential elements of a good brief.

There are many different styles and formats, but most briefs ask the same essential questions:

  • What is the objective and role of communications? What do we want people to do differently and why? How do we expect communications to impact attitudes and behaviour? What are people doing now instead? What are the category conventions we can challenge? What do competitive communications look like and how can we avoid imitating them?
  • Who precisely is the target audience and what is the shared emotional need or desire the brand can best address? Get this right and the rest of the brief should fall into place around it. Demographics are important, particularly when it comes to media, but the key is to define the audience by shared attitudinal characteristics rather than demographic similarities. For example, when developing a new campaign for American Express, qualitative research suggested that many Card members have the same restless and driven attitude towards life as golf star Tiger Woods, an insight that led directly to a powerful new campaign for the Green Card.
  • What is the role of the brand? Once we understand the emotional need, we can define the role the brand plays in addressing it. We can then use this “brand promise” as the lens through which to define the whole of the brand experience, including but not limited to communications. In the case of Procrit, a drug for the treatment of anaemia in chemotherapy patients, behavioural research conducted by the OgilvyDiscovery/New York revealed that many patients were in denial about the effects of anaemia, which led to a reluctance to treat it and defined a role for the brand in helping sufferers to come to terms with their condition.
  • What is the proposition -- the single-minded thought that the communications will bring to life in a provocative and compelling way? It should build on our insights into the target audience and the role of the brand and crystallize them into a focused idea that captures the essence of what we want to say.
  • What is the support or reason to believe this? We need to give consumers “permission to believe” -- something that allows them to rationalize, whether to themselves or others, what is, in reality, an emotionally-driven brand decision. Avoid laundry lists. The support should be as focused as the insight or proposition, the truths that make the brand benefit indisputable.
  • What is the unique personality of the brand? People use products, but they have relationships with brands. As David Ogilvy said, “The manufacturer who dedicates his advertising to building the most sharply defined personality is the one who will get the largest share of the market at the highest profit.” When defining personality, be provocative and avoid meaningless generalizations such as “confident.” The mood and tone of the communications should reflect the unique personality of the brand. The brief that led to British Airways’ classic Manhattan commercial described it simply as “big, warm, goose pimples.” Try using photographic images or collages, tapes of research groups, video, music or other stimuli to bring the brand to life.

One final observation. When preparing a brief bear in mind that different creative people may find inspiration in different parts of it. In Truth, Lies and Advertising, Jon Steel observes that legendary copywriter John Webster used to describe one inspiring minute in a two-hour conversation as a “good briefing.”

How to maximize the chances of the brief leading to a great creative idea.

Treat every brief as an opportunity to do great work.

There is a tendency in some agencies to divide assignments into those with creative potential and those without. The reality is that the health of an agency depends in large measure on the quality of its creative output, so no agency can afford to miss an opportunity to do truly outstanding work. Given the critical importance of the brief to the resulting work, it is imperative that every brief is treated as an opportunity to help build the brand, the business, and the agency’s reputation.

As David Ogilvy said, “Raise your sights! Blaze new trails! Compete with the immortals!”

Moreover, creative people, like all of us, do their best work when they believe that there are a determination and passion to do something truly great. Make them believe that “this is the one” and they are much more likely to give it they're all.

Understand your audience.

The audience for the brief is not the marketing department, CEO or even the apocryphal housewife in Peoria. It is the creative team faced with a blank sheet of paper and a deadline. If you want great work, start by understanding the needs and motivations of the people responsible for creating it. What motivates creative people is not sales charts or share points. It is the opportunity to create something that tugs at the heart as well as the wallet. If you want advertising that inspires consumers, start by inspiring the creatives.

Involve the creative team before you brief them.

A planner or account person may lead the strategy development process, but the creative team should be their partner from the very beginning. Not only will it ensure that they agree with the strategic direction, but the best creative people are also by nature intuitive strategists, with a natural feel for consumers’ attitudes and needs.

Don’t confuse the brief and the briefing.

A written creative brief is a useful way of marshalling thoughts, but it can never replace a face-to-face briefing and the ongoing dialogue that surrounds it. Its role is as an aide memoir, to ensure the key points from the briefing stay fresh in creatives’ minds.

A creative briefing should try and bring the key message or theme alive in a way that will both inform and inspire. Get out of the office. Go to where the brand lives. Brief a beer campaign in a bar, an athletic shoe campaign in a playground. In one case, a swimwear brief was laminated and thrown into a swimming pool for the creative team to recover (presumably they were advised to bring a change of clothes.) In another example, the team was blindfolded to help them understand what it’s like to be blind, before being briefed on a fund-raising campaign.

Be maniacally focused.

Try this test. Throw someone five or six tennis balls at the same time. Chances are they’ll drop all of them. Throw them one and they’ll probably catch it.

The best briefs always focus on one key message. Creatives usually perform best when given free rein to push the execution in one clearly defined strategic direction. As David Ogilvy said, “Give me the freedom of a tight briefing.” Don’t fudge the brief and expect the creative process to clarify unresolved strategic decisions. It won’t.

Ensure that the focus runs through the whole brief. Does the main message address the insight? Does the reason to believe support the main message? Will this deliver against the desired objective? Even market research company Millward Brown supports the need for focus. In an analysis of Link results, they found that executions that focus on one message consistently outperform those that are more ambiguous.

Be brief.

It’s not called “brief” for nothing. A quick poll around the creative department suggested that brevity is valued above all else. Creatives should have access to as much information as they need, but the essence of the argument should be expressed in the fewest words precision allows.

There is a story of an examination candidate who answered the question “What is courage?” (for which 40 minutes had been allowed) with the one-word answer: “This.” We too should aim to be this succinct and this means.Use the language of the living room, not the boardroom.

There’s no substitute for original thinking, but too often corporate jargon is used to disguise a lack of it. Briefs should use the language of the living room, not the boardroom (unless of course, you are targeting CEOs).

When Karl Marx said, “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” people understood what he meant. When Einstein said “E=MC2,” they didn’t have a clue.

Write the first ad.

A simple test of a brief is to try and write the first ad. Don’t craft detailed words and images, but try and come up with a creative idea that demonstrates its executability.

John Hegarty takes it a step further. He describes the brief as being the first ad. Does the argument captivate you and make you want to buy? He suggests taking the proposition, visualizing it and pinning it next to your desk. If it makes a good billboard, then the brief has potential.

Start with an interesting strategic idea.

The last principle is in many ways the most important. If you want your creative work to be fresh and interesting, then you are best off starting with something fresh and interesting to say.

As David Ogilvy said, “Unless your advertising has a big idea it will pass like a ship in the night.”

The best strategies and briefs take a radically new perspective on a familiar problem, reframing it in the minds of consumers and prompting them to reappraise their own needs and the role of the brand in addressing it.

A classic example is Ogilvy London’s repositioning of Lucozade, a long-established glucose drink. Lucozade had been positioned for years as an aid to recovery for sick children, but sales had been declinIng for some time, a situation not helped by a dowdy image. Ogilvy’s solution was to create a sports energy drink category in the UK and then dominate it with Lucozade.

Another example is the recent “mLife” campaign for AT&T Wireless from Ogilvy New York. Rather than compete on generic benefits in an increasingly commoditized category, the team recognized that technological developments would have a fundamental impact on people’s lives and the way they connect to others and set out to own this. The creative idea, “mLife” (or “mobile life”), sprung directly from this vision.

As Brian Collins, Executive Creative Director of the Brand Integration Group at Ogilvy New York says, “Define every opportunity as big as possible.” Or as Steve Henry puts it in Excellence in Advertising, “Write every brief with the intention of changing the world.”

A final piece of advice: Be open-minded and courageous.

The best creative teams don’t work to a brief. They work from it. Working to a brief implies limits and constraints. The reality is that the brief is a starting point, a springboard to something new and greater. It should be directional but never prescriptive. We need to be open-minded to the fact that creativity will take us to a place we maybe never knew existed. Indeed, we need to embrace and encourage this rather than fear it, because it is the source of competitive advantage both for Ogilvy and also for our clients.

Ultimately the role of the brief is to give us the courage to take a step into the unknown, knowing that what we find there can make the difference between the success and failure of our client’s brand.

The English poet, Christopher Logue, described the process of creativity thus:

“Come to the edge,
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!

And they came
and he pushed
and they flew. . . “

It is the creative brief that can give us the confidence to take that step over the edge.