How to Think and Create Better: Brief Anyone and Everyone

Today we're going to talk about creativity. For those not in the creative world - advertising, fashion, design, architecture, all the other creative industries I'm neglecting - I'd like to introduce you to the creative brief, a document whose sole purpose is to initiate purposeful, effective creative production. For more on the matter, scope out Briefly, a ~25 minute video where creative titans espouse their views on the importance of the brief. Cozy up with a cup of coffee or two on a weekend morning, and indulge.

In my world, creative briefs and creativity are no joke. To me as a planner, it's a large part of why I exist in advertising: to best position capital-C Creatives to make the most captivating, most effective creative shit that can bring a brand's story and message to life in outrageously effective ways. If I'm not doing that, I'm not doing my job well. Straight up.

Thusly, I take creativity really damn seriously. And thusly thusly, I'm well aware that creativity takes many shapes and forms, and lives in most of us. So I'd like to talk about my briefs and briefing process. Before we get to the brief, I'd like to talk about who I brief: traditionally, a planner briefs the relevant Creatives working on a project. Duh, that makes sense. On more recent projects, I've started pulling in more creative thinkers from the noncapital-c Creative team: martech, earned media, whatever else.

Why? It's a matter of how resources are set up at my (and your) agency, and your creatives' skills, strengths, backgrounds, and perspectives. We have savvy designers and art directors who are highly capable. But I also want to open up the discussion to folks whose creativity on a campaign or project won't go first towards producing visual communication. Instead, their approach to creative problem solving will instead lean towards tech-forward solutions, or towards earned media amplification. It has less to do with the marketing channel with which they're most familiar; I just want more creative people thinking creatively about my work.

I'll now use that "creative problem solving" bit to segue back to the creative brief. Every creative brief includes, in some form, a main message. 'The single most important thing we have to say.' My job as planner is to set up our Creative team to bring this main message to life in the best way possible, given the ask, the audience, and the brand (i.e., backed by the soundest strategy possible). Most agencies' briefs include the main message as a singular statement, as a solution to be manifested by the agency's Creatives.

But I'm staunchly opposed to this. I'm convinced that the the best way to brief is not on a task or a proposed solution - the main message as a statement - but as a problem to be solved. In my view, writing the main message in a creative brief as a short, blunted statement tells the Creative team, 'Execute on this solution'. Instead, I pose the main message as a question: a problem to be solved, or a challenge that can be embraced or owned by anyone. Why? It's so much more accessible and ownable, and there's so much more room for creativity!

I'm certainly not alone in this, and I picked it up from Wieden + Kennedy. Peep this main message from W+K's brief for Nike's campaign in the '96 Olympics (which you'll see in Briefly. Watch it.)


Look at that main message! It's a question! A question, a challenge, a puzzle, and a damned Orwell quote. So much meaning wrapped in that. (See A Technique for Producing Ideas for why that's cool, and for why sociology and social sciences are so useful in advertising. Also to justify my curriculum and syllabus for new planners).

Now imagine if that main message was just a statement. Main Message: Sport is war minus the killing. Admittedly, it's still pretty good. But I argue that writing it as a statement rather than a question sucks some of the air out of it, because it comes from a position of authority. "Here's this idea in its best, purest form now (as a short, singular statement). Try to get as close as you can to replicate it in visual media. Do your best to fuck it up the least."

But as a question, it's offering partnership in the exchange from planner to creative(s). "Here's this challenge. I don't have the answer, but I trust that you can find a good one. Stretch the message, mold it, maybe even find a new expression for it." It's empowering, and it leaves people entirely clear to imagine what the solution to the question and the challenge can be. That opens up the creative conversation and table to folks who aren't 'Creative' in the design or art sense, and to apply their perspectives in lateral ways.

In A Technique for Producing Ideas, James Webb Young makes the simple but profound statement that new ideas are just old ideas that have been disassembled and reassembled in new ways. I truly believe this, and it's why I'm such a strong proponent of making creativity accessible and available to as many people and as many perspectives as possible. It's the very reason I sent this lengthy email to the agency last week about spurring more problem ideation to unlock the agency's collective creativity. The greater the pool of available 'old ideas' and knowledges from which to pull and reassemble to create the best answer, the better. Let the ideas marinate, stew, exchange, grow, take a step back, take two steps forward, and grow again thanks to the collective creative energies and capabilities.

So, in short, creativity is not owned by any one person or team. Whether you work in a creative industry or not, I encourage you to start opening up problems and solving them to more people. "Question everything" is a stupid bumper sticker slogan, but it's also how I approach creativity; make everything a question and a problem to be solved, and you'll be surprised by the pool of collective creativity in which you'll be able to tap. Brief anyone, and brief everyone.

The Hollowing Out of the American South

In Defense of Problems