Shoreditch, we have a problem
Whenever I ask those charged with writing or working on creative briefs if they love the job, they tend to fall into one of two camps: completely confused or apocalyptically angry. This is my ode to both camps. A story about how I developed sympathy for the confused and assuaged the angry.
I talked to lots of clients, only to discover that they often relied on the wishful thinking of aggressive commercial directors who appeared to base their marketing objectives on watching episodes of Mission Impossible. What we needed, I suggested, was a briefing system that informed and inspired everybody involved in the process.
To me, the current approach – the one that engendered all the excitement of filling in and responding to a tax return – was actually killing the business. There were other issues that needed fixing, but the briefing process sat at the core of the inefficiencies that were undermining progress.
Over the years, I had worked with and researched innumerable examples of briefing processes used by different clients and agencies. The articles ranged from documents akin to mind-numbing technical specifications to vague expressions of a general intent to wax lyrical. No sense of context. No clearly defined objectives. Nothing of substance on the target audience. Nothing truthful on the product. No sign of an actual proposition. The term ‘creative’ often seemed like it needed an Anchor Man-style question mark after it. Creative?
Enter the foolhardy
Clients thought the idea of a structured briefing process was well-intentioned but wondered if it would slow workflow and were apprehensive about increased costs. I started at the top with senior clients and managers and said, “We are going to use the briefing process to increase personal productivity.” You will notice the use of affirmative, action-orientated language. If you can’t commit, why should anyone else? I then showed how more effective briefing was going to streamline our entire processes with almost immediate effect. I then talked about my workshops and the processes that would facilitate the development and delivery of briefing system that had form beyond function.
In the workshops, which involved teams assembled from every client and agency department, we explored a whole range of possible approaches, stripped them down to essential characteristics and developed work from them. Note: we worked on the problem on live jobs.
We did this for each client and eventually, we ended up with 10 common elements that when put together seemed to increase productivity:
- Long-term objective
- Short-term objective
- Product analysis
- Target audience analysis
- Competitor analysis
- Call to action
Let’s delve a little deeper
Long-term objective: Here we gave voice to the vision, culture and position of the brand.
Short-term objective: Here we explained how the immediate objective must also deliver to the long-term objective.
Product analysis: Here we explored the product or service from the brand, market and consumer points of view.
Target audience analysis: Here we got to know the customer segments from a mixture of demographic, psychographic, behavioural and environmental factors.
Competitor analysis: Here we explored how the competition went to market at a nuts and bolts level.
Proposition: Here we defined the single-minded target audience benefit we were delivering for each segment.
Channel: Here we explained the channel attributes and touchpoints we wanted to exploit and how they related to the customer journey.
Call to action: Here we detailed the impact response mechanism and our testing elements.
Budget: Here we stated the allowable marketing cost. Exceeding it was not an option.
Specification: Here we detailed the timing and technical aspects of the task and any political factors.
To inform and inspire
While these headings constituted the ‘inform’ part of the briefing equation, the ‘inspire’ was more difficult.
There is more to creativity than structure. The job of shifting minds from a cut-and-paste mentality required much more than nifty wordsmithing. To set an example, we spent every morning for three months in what is now known as a stand-up meeting. Everyone from different departments came prepared and contributed what they knew on the spot. Each briefing continued to be a live event.
I can hear many creative purists thinking this sounds more like manufacturing than art. That’s because it is a mixture of both. Creative isn’t something that happens in the creative department. It starts when product and service developers start asking questions like, “How do we serve the needs of customers better than the competition?” It continues, when marketers start asking questions like, “How do we efficiently target specific audiences with the right message at the right time in the right format and on the right device?” If these questions are not asked and answered in the briefing process, then no amount of creative inspiration is going to make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear.
Of course, for many working in marketing and advertising, business isn’t all about business. It’s about those intangible qualities such as job satisfaction and those tangible ones called awards. The answer is balance. Without it, things tend to fall over.
The long and the short is that I discovered the source of all creativity is hidden in the hearts and minds of consumers. The closer we got to them, the less filtered the process and the faster we got to the end product.
Developing a new briefing system is a useful process in itself. It must be inclusive, iterative and involve the confused and angry end-users. As anyone who has built a website without a proper UX process in place knows, the end result is rarely something that works.
The key to the effective creative briefing is not technology but asking questions. To ask what a brief is for is not enough. It is necessary to ask for whom it is intended, to which the answer is us. We all have different contributions to make and preferences to be addressed.
The creative brief of the future might appear as a video, a dashboard, a storyline, an Excel spreadsheet, UGC, AR, or any number of dynamically optimised and user-defined options all at the same time. Whatever the shifting form of briefs, their function will be to inform and to inspire human creativity – a unique phenomenon that no AI system I am aware of comes close to matching. I remain convinced that briefing is a task that most regard as a necessary evil (like filling in an insurance application) rather than a creative act in itself. Many perfectly capable professionals still believe that creativity and productivity are mutually exclusive. That is more fiction than fact.
As Vincent Van Gogh said, “Great things are not done by impulse, but a series of small things brought together”. Combine a hint of information with a hint of inspiration in a creative brief and great things happen. As if by magic.
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