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How To Think Like A Creative Director

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How To Think Like A Creative Director

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking on this topic to a room full of retailers. No doubt there was more than a little curiosity, thanks to the larger than life exploits of our fictional colleague Don Draper on AMC’s “Mad Men,” or how about Mel Gibson’s mind-reading creative director in “What Women Want.”

For the vast majority of people, even those who control the advertising expenditures of their businesses, these and other characters from film and TV are what they’ve come to expect. Frankly, doctors are probably portrayed with greater authenticity. And in addition to that, the creative process itself is probably the most mysterious aspect of marketing, even to seasoned, educated marketers.

Understanding The Thought Process It’s this latter point, understanding the creative process, that I believe is worthwhile, even for the most non-creative among us and especially in the client ranks. Great advertising requires not only great creative, but great clients to inspire, champion and approve it. But many don’t fully appreciate how the secret creative sauce is made. If they did, it might make them even better clients — the kind that appreciates what it takes to arrive at a strategic, magically creative and memorable concept — and the kind of client that can actually be a help, and not be a hindrance, to achieving “The Big Idea.”

The Brief Is An Important Tool in harnessing the talent of the writers, art directors, designers, and producers. If you want to know how to think like a Creative Director, the Campaign Creative Brief (or simply “Brief”) will guide you through the thought process of producing creative work. Granted, I have worked around and for Creative Directors who were so gifted, they could seize upon an idea — the right idea — almost instinctively. But let’s face it, not everybody’s a genius. That’s why we have the Brief.

Where Does The Brief Come From And How Is It Used? Ideally, the Brief is a collaborative product of account planning, account management, creative management and media management. The Brief establishes a peer-to-peer consensus of strategic thought and planning and client approval and input prior to campaign work by creative teams, media teams, etc. The Brief should be thorough, yet remain flexible–meaning that as concepts start flowing, it’s possible that flaws or missed opportunities in the Brief’s strategy could be exposed, requiring a challenge to an assumption or direction. And, as campaigns are presented to the client for approval, the Brief should serve as a reference point, answering the proverbial question, “is this creative on strategy?”

Are Creative Briefs Stifling? With all the details, data, conclusions, etc., isn’t there a danger of weighing down or fencing in the free spirit of good creative people? On the contrary, good creative people will cry, “Give me the freedom of a well-defined strategy.” The Brief will be the “well-defined strategy” that will serve as guardrails to great, productive thinking that leads to bigger and better ideas.

Objectivity vs. Subjectivity All advertising is based on strategy. If not, it might as well be art. Strategy is built on the careful choice, prioritization and weighing the details, goals and objectives to achieve a business aim. So the Brief, like the Marketing Plan it emanates from, becomes the road map for the creative process. Because creativity can become very subjective and driven by opinions, the Brief seeks to keep the search for the Big Idea in the objective realm. For example, the client may not like the color blue, but if research articulated in the Brief affirms that his/her customers love the color blue, then that’s an objective consideration not driven by someone’s personal opinion or preference, but driven instead by the marketplace.

Over my career, I have seen any number of Campaign Creative Brief templates, usually dictated by the agency’s own style or creative director’s direction. The terminology and length may differ, but the goal is the same: Arrive at the best, most strategic solution for the client’s brand that addresses the needs for a particular campaign or promotion.

Here are twelve typical questions the Brief will seek to answer. They are ordered in this way to provide a logical progression and conclusion, and many answers will reflect determinations already established in the Marketing Plan:

1. Why Are We Advertising? You would be surprised how many differing answers you may get from everyone on the team. This may seem obvious, but don’t let that fool you. You may believe you’re advertising to raise your brand’s awareness, but the person sitting next to you believes this campaign should sell more cars. The Brief must settle this “argument” before it goes to the creative team, otherwise you’ll get disappointment in return.

2. What Is The Current Situation? This should be a brief summary of the facts, that snapshot of what the marketplace looks like, how the brand looks in it, and how it got here. There’s beauty in brevity, because a just the facts approach forces you to really discern what’s important to know and share as building blocks to a great creative strategy.

3. Who Are We Advertising To? By far the most important question of all. Differing from the Marketing Plan, the Brief needs to more precisely define and prioritize (primary, secondary, tertiary) the target. Often agencies will construct an ideal customer profile and give it a name and even a face to make the focus “personal.”

4. Who Is The Competition? This should not only identify them, but dissect them in terms of their perceived strengths and vulnerabilities; as well as their messaging and media strategies. And remember, one of your “competitors” can often be “doing nothing.” And in “attack campaign” strategies, analyzing what the competitor is doing or saying takes on far greater importance than in a launch strategy.

5. What Is Our Goal? Goal-setting should be the “BHAG” (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) and preferably with some means of measurement built in. The goal of the Brief should be the campaign’s interpretation of the Marketing Plan’s Goal. For example, if the Marketing Plan’s Goal is “to be the #1 car brand in the Midwest” the goal for the Brief’s “Spring Sales Event” might be “to be #1 in sales for the car brand in March, April and May.”

6. What Are The Objectives We Must Achieve To Reach That Goal? Think of these as necessary steps that are required to be achieved to get to the ultimate goal. This is one reason why many will confuse “goals” and “objectives.” Well-considered objectives will quite literally “roadmap” your campaign strategy, much like determining the path through the maze. Objectives may be for paid media (reach and frequency), social (likes and follows), creative (execution deadlines and customizations), or PR (press coverage and event attendance), etc.

7. What Is Our Unique Selling Proposition? This should put the brand’s USP from the Marketing Plan in the correct context for the campaign. Remember, this is our unique space in the marketplace for this campaign period. No one else can usurp that position by substituting their name for ours in a headline — we own it. Some may call this a “value proposition” or a “transient value,” but no matter. What does matter is that creative concepts will be built on this, so foundationally speaking, it has to be sound.

8. Why Should Our Customer Believe That? Simply assume that everyone who sees, reads or hears your campaign is a skeptic. Now convince them with “Reasons to Believe” (RTBs). Briefs should include a bulleted, prioritized list of RTBs that build a compelling case for your USP. Many of these will already exist in the Marketing Plan, but others will be specific to the campaign.

9. What Is Our Positioning Statement? This is an optional, shorthand formula for internal use that captures the main points of the Brief. It can be stated in a few paragraphs or a single sentence: (Brand name) is the (product description) that is (USP) because (RTBs).

10. What Media Do We Need? By the time the creative director sits down with his or her team to review the Creative Brief, chances are the account team, client and media team have already scoped-out possible media selections as a needs list: “We’ll need radio, TV and outdoor for the campaign,” for example. The best campaigns occur when Creative Directors and Media Directors work as a team to discover new ways to leverage creative concepts through the creative use of media.

11. Are There Limitations Or Mandatories? Creative Directors and their teams must be fully apprised of the realities: Deadlines, budgets, disclaimers, brand standards, durations, geography, etc.

12. What Is The Proper Tone Or Attitude? This is the most subjective part of the Brief, because it conveys an attitude preference or expectation, usually from the client’s perspective, about the voice of the brand he or she manages. The “tone/attitude” query is often omitted or simply crossed out as being the purview of the creative department.

The Brief, in its many forms and iterations, is just one aspect of thinking like a Creative Director, but it’s a very important aspect for brand marketers to be aware of, too. Because great brands are marketed well – the result of successfully navigating the process from insight, to strategy, to direction, to concepts, to finished proposal, to client feedback, and through to execution and even evaluations. For the Creative Director, there are a lot of steps between spit-balling with your creative team and walking up to receive your award. Most of time, there’s a lot of tedium, frustration, trial and error, misunderstandings, and bruised egos. And every so often, as they say, the process is better than sex.

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