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creative brief

Let Me Make This Brief

As part of a Thought Leader Thursday series of articles, DirectAvenue will be publishing articles from the archive of the agency’s CMO and SVP Client Services that still have relevance today. The following originally appeared originally appeared as a Dish column in Electronic Retailer magazine in July of 2014.

After a quarter of a century in advertising, I am still reminded that the very best practices of marketing are fundamental and absolute. Precepts such as establishing a unique benefit that is meaningful to your target consumer, creating true marketplace differentiation, and being consistent in brand look and voice may seem obvious, yet it is astonishing how often such tenets are ignored. As one of my earliest mentors from NBC Cable, Larry Grossman, advised, “The instructions are: follow the instructions.” That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for free thinking; it is simply a reminder that when it comes to marketing best practices, there are principles that have stood the test of time for a reason: they work. Among the rules that should be set in stone is this: whenever one embarks on a marketing project, they should execute a creative brief.

A creative brief is a short list of questions that should include such queries as, “What, in the broadest sense, do you wish to accomplish?” “Who do you want to reach and influence?” (Hint: the answer isn’t “everyone.”) “What does this target currently think?” “What would you like them to think?” and so forth. A good brief process forces all stakeholders to harmonize their thinking prior to going into any kind of creative exploration or production, whether it be for something as simple as a print ad or as complex as an infomercial. The document itself needn’t be exhaustive, and typically tops out at two to three pages. Though it may take some time to hone, ultimately a solid brief can save significant time, money, and frustration because the very best briefs act as a compass that guides the production process. A good brief helps serve as a roadmap that can and should be referred to time and again as one embarks down a creative path. Seems like a no brainer, right? So why wouldn’t everyone logically embrace the creative brief’s value and purpose?

There are two primary reasons. The first is that entrepreneurs sometimes equate process with bureaucracy, something they have scant patience for. Especially if they have been successful in the past doing things “their way”. Their instinct may be to sometimes steamroll the steps necessary to succeed by lunging forward under the assertion that they are more interested in “action” than, say, words. Such talk of plunging in can be seductive, and I will be the first to admit I’ve jumped off the cliff with such folks more than once. The problem is that you can become embroiled in a kind of “fire, ready, aim” morass brought about by such a mindset. I was given a vivid reminder of this recently when a project without a brief required no less than thirteen script drafts! In addition to not having clarity about the copy points, new cooks kept entering the creative kitchen and changing the recipe. Which brings up another vital component to creating a successful brief: all influencers must participate in the process up front. Otherwise you run the risk of throwing out one batch of “cooking” after another.

The second reason a creative brief can get sideways is clients not allowing sufficient time for the process to unfold. The well-worn adage, “Cheap, fast or good — pick two” has endured for a reason: for the most part it is simply a truism. But the recent prolonged recession, which has created a hunger among B2B service providers heretofore unseen in this author’s career, has engendered a mindset among some whereby all three qualities are demanded and expected. This isn’t a case of one’s willingness; it’s just a practical reality that something gets compromised in the process when adequate time to do the very best work is not granted. Under such scenarios, it is easy for the brief to be sacrificed.

One of the most valuable qualities of a good creative brief is that it will also help ferret out whether or not a marketer truly knows their marketplace. One regularly hears that the failure rate amongst DRTV campaigns is now north of 90 percent, and I would submit that one of the reasons why is an absence of consumer research. The DRTV itself becomes the market research that identifies whether or not there is sufficient interest in a particular product. This slapdash method may have worked in the early days of long-form advertising when media was cheap, but today it is an outlandishly expensive way to identify a marketplace. If the answer to the question on a brief is, “I don’t know — what do you think?” the team best do more due diligence before spending another nickel on production.

Frankly, there will always be a vendor willing to tell a product owner what they want to hear in the spirit of charging ahead. But instead of marching towards the goal line, without a sound plan, you will very quickly find yourself engaged in marketing as a form of rugby scrum. No one should confuse healthy questioning, which may come across as skepticism, with ambivalence. Service providers with high integrity don’t want to simply cash a check; they desire the same thing that all marketers want: enduring success. That long haul begins with — you guessed it — the brief.


Rick Petry
Rick Petry

Author: Rick Petry is the CMO/EVP Client Services of DirectAvenue and a seasoned direct marketing professional and thought leader with experience spanning three decades. He has had a hand in campaigns generating over $1 billion in sales and is conversant in all facets of performance-based marketing including off-line and on-line media planning and buying, research, analytics, creative, production, and back-end management, Rick is the author of over 200 articles on direct marketing best practices, and is a past Chairman of the Board of the Electronic Retailing Association (ERA) and a recipient of ERA’s Volunteer of the Year award, as well as the Direct Response Marketing Alliance’ Member of the Year award as voted by his peers.