How to write a great brief
A guide to writing creative briefs - the HHCL way
About seven years ago, Leslie Butterfield asked me to give a talk at an IPA course on the
subject of writing creative briefs.
I hadn't really thought about this process before the invitation, because I'm a copywriter
not a planner; but the exercise enabled me to pass on five thoughts which we used at
HHCL to help our planners write creative briefs.
1. FIND OUT WHAT EVERYBODY ELSE IS DOING IN YOUR
MARKETPLACE, AND THEN DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT
When you approach a particular client's problems, I believe in taking a long look at what
the competition is doing. Because every client is operating in a competitive environment,
you need to create something distinctive. (As Oscar Wilde almost said, imitation is the
sincerest way of saying you haven't got an original thought in your head.)
The sort of questions you might like to ask yourself about your market are these: Does
everybody do 'funny' ads? Does everybody do ads with music in them? Does everybody
do ads that are deadly serious? Is there a typical consumer in the ads? Is there a typical
way to describe or show the product?
Or (moving away from TV advertising): Why does everybody else use TV advertising,
and is there another medium we can dominate and make uniquely ours?
For instance, we achieved record sales for our car client, Mazda, by using interactive
posters and press. While the other car manufacturers threw money at TV, Mazda went a
different way - and, in a very depressed market, achieved a 40 per cent year-on-year sales
You have to find out the 'rules' in order to break them, and you have to find out what
everybody else is doing, and do it differently. Most briefs, in most agencies, simply
describe the status quo. And that by definition, is where everybody else is. At HHCL we
describe the status quo like this: What is = what was.
So, find out how the marketplace is currently 'working'. Then grab the high ground for
yourself, by breaking some rules. Not all the rules - at least not all the time. And picking
the right rules to break is the key challenge. But if you play to the rules that exist out
there, you are playing on somebody else's pitch. You are automatically at a disadvantage.
If you need any more persuading on this point, look at one very simple statistic. It has
been claimed that the average person in Britain is exposed to 1,300 commercial messages
a day - from their wake-up breakfast radio station, through the logos on every carrier bag
and t-shirt they encounter, to the last commercial on late-night TV. And the same
research claims that the average Briton remembers only two of these messages.
Why should they remember more? A commercial message is asking you to spend money
or change a habit. People, by and large, don't like doing either of these things.
The human brain can adapt to most changing environments, and it has adapted to today's
highly commercial environment by learning how to screen out messages. In research
groups, people might say they like certain ads - a 'funny' ad, or a celebrity endorsement
which tickles them - but really getting through to people takes a lot more than this.
You have got to claim your own high ground - as our original Britvic client Tony Hillier
realised when he gave us the task of 're- launching' Tango.
Tango was already selling a million cans a day, but he decided he could improve on this
figure (there's confidence for you). The typical soft drinks advertising of the time could
be summed up in the visual image: 'boy meets girl on American street while sun shines
and fire hydrant goes off'. Together we decided to challenge this status quo.
We created an advertising campaign that used street-credible, British humour for the first
time in soft drinks advertising. We also tried to avoid showing fire hydrants, wherever
possible. And we were rewarded by a new sales figure of 1.3 million cans a day.
2. FORGET THE LOGICAL PROPOSITION AND FIND THE
PERSONALITY OF THE BRAND INSTEAD
There used to be a common approach to campaign development called the Unique Selling
Proposition (USP). This necessitated going down a list of the brand's qualities until you
found something unique and then concentrating on that.
This approach led to such advertising claims as 'Treets - they melt in your mouth, not in
your hand.' And, despite the almost transcendent meaninglessness of this claim, the USP
was a useful approach at one time. But competitive insulation died, and those times
When we launched our agency in 1987, one of our very first clients was able to confirm
this for us, with an amazing story: Aiwa, the Japanese electronics company, invented
DAT - Digital Audio Tape - and it was copied within six hours. If they had briefed us to
tell people about the 'USP' of DAT, it would have been unique for less than a morning.
These days, if your client has a competitive advantage, it will be copied.
But this is a tricky area. Every time I have said these words in my IPA talks over the
years, some of my audience have looked worried. This is because people feel comfortable
with logical propositions such as USPs - they help to make the whole business feel more
objective and quasi-scientific.
Also, clients take pride in their product 'breakthroughs'. 'Aha', yo u hear the brand
manager exclaim, 'we've finally got chocolate that won't melt in your hand. Let's see
those other bastards copy that!
'But if consumers want non- hand- melty chocolate, your competitors will copy it, leaving
your USP of no value to anyone. But if the original idea of the USP is dead, what will
There are many different answers to this, but I believe that what now motivates
consumers is the brand's personality. For proof, look at the distinct lack of logical
propositions in some brilliant campaigns, such as Oxo, Peperami or Guinness.
But each of these brands has an interesting and distinctive personality. Another example
is our own launch of First Direct, which is probably the most successful financial launch
of the last 15 years.
The bank had no high street presence, and therefore existed in the minds of consumers
only in terms of the perception created by its advertising. So we created a personality that
was quirky, provocative and individualistic, to appeal to our target of 'early-adopters'. We
attracted 100,000 accounts in our first year.
This was the target set by First Direct's parent company, Midland Bank, and it seemed at
the time almost impossible, because we were dealing with a bank that had no high street
branches, and we knew that only 300,000 people switched bank accounts each year. But
we achieved that target - by creating a unique brand personality.
So that is what we look for in our creative briefs - a description of what we christened the
Unique Selling Persona.
If you follow this reasoning, you'll see that the hops in the beer don't matter; the stitching
on the t-shirt doesn't matter; and the interest rates in the bank don't matter.
Of course, your client has to get those things right - that is the hygiene factor. You can
sprinkle some logical argument over your concoction, but don't believe that a logical
proposition is going to sell your product by itself. What you are really selling is the
personality of the brand.
This seems to me so crucial that I think it constitutes a definition of what we are all doing
in this industry. I believe we are in the business of creating distinctive, appropriate,
impactful 'tones of voice' for our clients - and each one has to be different for each brand
we work on. That tone of voice can then be used across all the client's marketing
communications - from the trade brochure through to the web-site.
But there is a further twist. Increasingly, agencies have understood the importance of a
brand personality over a logical proposition. And, as a result of this, I have begun to think
that maybe it is time to push the pendulum back again, and revert to logical propositions -
just to be different.
This may seem contrary, but makes sense if you think that everything I'm saying here
will be right for only a small period of time - before the world turns again. Except,
possibly, this next suggestion, which will always be true.
3. DEFINE THE 'TARGET MARKET' SO THAT YOU LIKE AND
David Ogilvy once said 'the consumer is not a moron. The consumer is your wife.' This is
a fabulous piece of advice - and one of the most crucial things for everybody in
marketing to think about. For a long time, the advertising industry has defined its 'target
market' using ghastly, patronising jargon, like: 'The consumer is a C2 housewife, living at
home, with two kids'; or 'The consumer is a young professional, age 25-30, living in a flat
in London Docklands.'
The point about both these descriptions is that you don't like the people involved. Even
the small pen portraits sometimes offered up are no better - they're usually attempts to
pigeon-hole and somehow belittle the people you're trying to communicate with. You
cannot advertise to people you do not like and respect.
This seems such an obvious point, that I am amazed that more people haven't caught onto
it. Think about your personal experience. If you're at a party, and you find yourself
talking to someone you're not interested in, how effective are you in communicating with
Incidentally, I think this is one of the reasons why it is now so difficult to advertise to a
large section of the population - the group of people you might call 'middle England'.
These people, usually middle-class, and often women, are responsible for buying millions
of pounds' worth of products every day.
But the advertising industry has patronised them for so long, that they're not interested in
having a conversation with us any more. Too many years of men in white coats talking
down to them about meaningless 'secret' ingredients has rendered them so pissed off with
advertising, they don't think we're ever going to change. But we can change. And the key
is to treat every sector of the marketplace with respect.
Incidentally, it is worth looking at the terminology we use about the people we want to
talk to. The phrase 'target market' is inherently hostile and aggressive. The term
'consumer' is more than a little derogatory - only a step up from the very insulting
At HHCL, we try and use the word 'customer' as often as we can - as a term of respect.
(But I must admit that old habits die hard, and I often find myself using terms like 'target
market' and 'consumer' because they're so well-recognised.)
The point I'm making is to treat customers - both clients and 'end-consumers' - with
respect. And know that while you are doing this, lots of other people in our industry are
not. The lack of respect for what we do and for our customers is very pervasive. But if
you can't look for and find that respect, I believe you're never really going to enjoy
working in this business.
4. PUT IN CREATIVE STARTERS
In other words, write you own creative ideas to your own creative brief. It only need be a
sentence or two for each idea - to describe how your strategy might look in its final
medium. You can limit yourself to about seven creative starters, but what you are doing
is testing how interesting and actionable your strategy is.
Are you overlapping with the role of the creatives? Yes. And that is a good test of how
collaborative your creative team is. A lot of them will reject anybody else's ideas - and I
think that is stupid. It cannot be over-emphasised, throughout this process, how important
it is for everybody to be collaborative - with your client and with the rest of your agency
To give you one example from HHCL, it was actually an art director who came up with
the final wording for the strategic breakthrough on the Automobile Association,
rechristening it 'the 4th emergency service'. In this instance, the planner was able to enjoy
the traditional creative director's role, saying 'that sounds great, let's do it' and, in
addition, receive a lot of reflected kudos.
The client enjoyed record levels of recruitment because he was brave enough to go with
such a bold re-positioning. Membership le vels rose from seven to eight and a half million
people in just two years.
The 4th emergency service is a great strategic idea - and it could have come from anyone
in the team. Similarly with creative ideas. If you are creative enough to write a brief, you
are creative enough to write creative ideas.
5. MAKE IT INSPIRING
Make your brief inspiring. Believe in the power of the brief, which is to address
fundamentally important business issues in a creative, innovative way.
There is no need to shove in loads of jokes, or write it in some 'funny' dialect - don't try
and disguise boring thinking by dressing it up in funky clothes.
Incidentally, I would also beware of too many diagrams. Sometimes, they are valuable
and insightful, but more often they just jazz up the obvious. Planners seem to have an
undue fondness for some of the geometrical shapes available on the Powerpoint
And do not make your enthusiasm shallow. I recently saw a brief from another agency
which included, as its proposition, the line 'Phwoooarr, they don't half taste good.' It
looks enthusiastic, but is actually just camouflage for the most boring proposition there
Take on the challenge of fresh thinking. If (following on from the first thought), you can
show the creative team how to break the rules - and which rules you can break - they will
love you for it.
Because that is what good creatives want to do. Not out of some unreconstructed infantile
desire to break things in general (at least, hopefully not), but because they instinctively
know that that is how you get through to people. Be ambitious. Be confident. Believe that
you can really change the marketplace, and hopefully your clients will also share your
ambition. The best ones will - and they are the ones you should be working with.
To sum up everything I want to say in one sentence, it would be contained in thought
number 5. And another way of expressing that is to say this: 'write the brief with the
intention of changing the world.'