The brief is dead? Long live the brief

Mark Childs of Campbell Canada on the importance of a great brief, and how to create one.
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By Mark Childs

As we eagerly anticipate the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, the recognition and celebration of the world’s very best marketing and advertising ideas, we should acknowledge the origin of much of this winning work: the creative brief.

With few exceptions, I would suggest that we’re experiencing a demise in the art of creative brief writing. It’s a lesson rarely taught academically and a skill too infrequently developed in new recruits.

Most would agree that a great brief is the spark of a fresh idea and the key to unlocking creative brilliance. So it’s surprising that the brief rarely receives the fame it so rightly deserves, often left behind in the wake of awards and trophies.

It seems to have become just a step in the process as we rush to brief creative teams and focus on air dates, rather than see it as the basis for truly breakthrough work. The “execution considerations,” worse “mandatories” articulated, may appear as a list of transactions that stifle rather than inspire creativity. It’s time for that to change.

Be creative

Inspired by author Jonah Lehrer last year at Cannes and again this April speaking at the Canadian Media Directors Council event, I was reminded that it takes “moments of relaxation” to feel the epiphany of uncovering an insight. It then takes a great deal of grit to be creative. Both now proven by science, he advocates.

Why moments of relaxation? Because we must let go, free ourselves from the day-to-day and overwhelming volumes of data and simply be more curious.

We must get closer to our consumers. With ever-increasing media options, we must listen to the what and why. Lehrer counsels to “look past surface similarities to connect the seemingly disconnected.” This is the discovery of fresh insights that are the springboard to creative inspiration.
Why grit? Because great briefs take hard work. We must be ready to roll up our sleeves and work the brief since it rarely comes easily or quickly. In a world with more brands supporting causes, passions and publishing content, we must be more choiceful, more precise in how we define our audience and decisive in what we want to say. The creative brief discipline of a “benefit,” “focus of sale” or “single most important thing” can all too often seem anything but single-minded. But it must be.

With the increasing pace and change of business it’s hard not to settle for a good-enough creative brief in the pursuit of expediency. We must consistently strive for great if we are to raise our creativity bar. Taking the time to re-master the art of the creative brief is surely time well spent, an opportunity to coach, mentor and hone communication skills. If we are to inspire agency creatives for Cannes Lions Gold we must strive for well-crafted briefs where “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” as Steve Jobs would surely have counseled. We can do and be better.

Be brief

Re-committed to simpler, more choiceful and insightful creative briefs, is it time to move on from the unchanged Mad Men-style template and approach?

Our smartphone world of communication composed in texts, posts and tweets would resoundingly support the intent. Again, I recall the lighthearted inspiration from Lehrer inviting us to explore a 140 character brief. That, coupled with my own Mofilm video contest experience of publishing crowd-sourced online film briefs this year, re-affirms the idea and its potential to increase the breadth of creative expression.

If not literally, this approach of brevity could be a framework that, by constraint, encourages us to synthesize, acting in turn as a catalyst for more breakthrough work. A “less-is-more” creative approach has long been embraced by agencies, very literally showcased by BBDO Argentina in the Smart car Twitter launch campaign using just 140 characters per frame.

The opportunity to rethink and reinvent the creative brief might be best realized through a collaboration between our younger talent, more able to communicate succinctly in social media, with our more experienced traditional creative brief discipline. Just to engage in the dialogue is progress.

So, as we step out of our own categories and daily routines to celebrate the best creative at Cannes Lions we should aspire to the probability that there was a well-crafted creative brief at its foundation. Long live the brief.


Mark Childs is VP marketing at Campbell Canada, and the co-chair of the inaugural Canadian Young Marketers competition of the Globe and Mail’s Cannes Young Lions Awards. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram @MarkInspired, and check out Childs’ and fellow Canadian Cannes Lions participants’ experience via #strategyatcannes