Great Ads Start With a Great Brief

This article was originally published on September 25, 2012

Coming up with great creative ideas that will form the basis of your advertising or brand-communication campaign requires a disciplined approach. It is among the most delicious ironies of the marketing game that being creative in advertising requires a thoughtful, almost systematic approach so your ideas actually get the job done.

Whether you are developing your advertising in-house or working with an outside agency, a concise and even inspiring brief can make the difference between generating ideas that grow your business and launching an unfocused campaign that wastes time and money.

What’s in Your Briefs?

If you’ve never written an advertising creative brief, don’t panic. This is not, nor should it be, a monumental document covering every aspect of your business. A well-written brief should work to inspire and focus creative thinking. It acts as both the roadmap to and the yardstick for your great ideas. The brief outlines the challenges that need to be addressed by your creative thinking, so it should possess essential details about your current market situation. But it’s a sketch, not a full portrait.

As the creative thinking process unfolds, the brief is an essential reference tool you can use to judge ideas to see how they measure up. Equally important, the brief should also outline the key challenges your ideas will have to address and how much time and money you have to invest in the eventual campaign. You might also want to include a sentence or two about how you plan to measure the results of your campaign.

Truth Matters. Who Knew? 

In developing your brief, it is wise to remember that a lot of advertising is pilloried, and justifiably so, for being characterized by hare-brained ideas, lousy execution and flat-out lies. Creating advertising that works begins with building a solid messaging platform based on your firm’s core values. The truth of what your business offers, how diligently it delivers on its promises and how connected it is to its brand community are vital elements that will help you develop and judge ideas that connect with your audience and generate the results you want.

Again, whether this is a DYI effort or a collaboration with an outside creative outfit, your brief should outline the key values and brand truths that define your business. These are the elements that your messaging and imagery must faithfully communicate. Bottom line? A good brief is an honest one.

Slip Into Your Briefs

Compose your brief from the answers to basic, yet indispensable questions. Here are some to consider:

What’s the desired impression your advertising is hoping to leave with people? In your dream world, when people see your idea, what might they say? Write down these ideal impressions as quotes, and don’t be put off by the sense that this might seem like blue sky thinking. It is—but that’s the nature of visualizing what you want to achieve. Relax, it’s OK to dream big.

By way of example, let’s assume you’re launching a new product that expands your existing line by including additional attributes your customers have been asking for. So, what you’d like to hear from a customer is something like this: “This new version of the software I’ve been using to track orders now has this incredible shortcut that makes it even easier to prepare reports. I’m going online to get the upgrade right now!”

How do you want these people to react? Advertising is a cause-and-effect craft that should be used to generate a reaction. If you don’t have a clear idea of how you want people to react, you’ll have a hard time creating a call to action; and worst of all, you won’t be able to measure the value of your investment.

So, what reaction do you want? Do you want people to call, to go online, to laugh hysterically but forget your brand name? Or would you prefer they broke into your place at night, took the thing you’re selling and left the cash? Dream big here.

Who are these people? If you have demographic, buying habit or attitude-based customer research to help you craft your advertising campaign, great. But you also can reference anecdotes from your sales or customer service staff, online or email comments, warranty cards or other touch-point responses in order to get some idea of who your customers are. The bottom line is you need to understand who you are talking to by knowing as much as you can about what they want to hear and how they want to hear it.

A smart approach is to explore what your customers are listening to now. Let’s say that you know from your customer profile data that, as well as loving your brand of ice cream, they’re also huge fans of the theatre. There just might be a great way to connect these two loyalties, such as by promising that your ice cream is “dramatically delicious.” Assuming that you have solid customer knowledge, you’re now ready to answer the next question, which should be easy.

What are you promising these people? You should have a clear idea of what constitutes your value proposition, promise of benefit or competitive edge. If you’re fuzzy on the values that create your promise to the market, you have some additional prep work to do. That is called a “brand community audit” and is a subject for another article.

The bottom line is, if you’re ready to create some great ideas, chances are your value proposition has inspired you. You’ve probably already done some research to determine that what you are offering is a winner. Write that value proposition down in a concise and memorable way so it’s easy to repeat. Avoid trying to make it too glib or cute. If you offer “the most intelligent packaging options in Canada to ship live freight,” just say that.

What is the undeniable truth about your offering that, once it is discovered, people will find irresistible? However major or meagre, you are counting on this kernel of truth to be the spark that ignites your great advertising idea. Let’s say your intelligent packaging options for live freight just won an international award from a wildlife conservation group, or you have a testimonial from a zookeeper that “Without this packaging option, our rare panda wouldn’t have survived the move to another zoo.” Boom! These sorts of endorsements lend credibility to the assertions in your ad campaign.

Truth in advertising actually works. Presenting that truth requires insight, clarity of mind and great ideas that not only capture people’s attention but inspire their action—and, you hope, their continued loyalty.

Take the time to write down the answers to the above questions. Be thorough but brief—two pages max. Share this brief with the key people in your company who will be part of the team that is charged with coming up with ideas. Or share it with your outside agency and invite comments and questions to ensure that everyone involved knows this is the yardstick against which ideas will be judged.

If the stars align, you might discover a paradigm-shifting, time-warping breakthrough that will change the world. You’ll be a hero. Maybe they’ll give you a parade. Just make sure the creative idea isn’t so good that everyone remembers the ad but not the name of your product.


Wayne S. Roberts

The Globe and Mail calls Wayne S. Roberts "an ad industry provocateur." Maybe its because he's never seen the point of playing by the ad game rules that place awards above results, while offering spec work instead of real value to win accounts. Throughout his career, Wayne has maintained a defiantly independent streak characterized by his insistence that agencies must be honest, direct and passionately invested in their clients' success. His pioneering work in espousing the brand community perspective has been a touchstone of his belief that branding is more than just logos, websites and ad campaigns; it is the fundamental way human beings connect with each other to create communities and launch movements that have changed our world.

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