Onward to a better brief

I really enjoyed watching Gareth Kay’s recent presentation on the creative brief in this digital age we find ourselves. Lots has changed in the world. But the “who are we talking to?” and “why should they believe us?” are still on many a brief.

And even if our jobs, at least mine I’m happy to report, are becoming more like the rugby match Gareth showed and less like passing the baton in a relay, the brief follows us as a representation of what we do. It lives on the server long after we’re gone. It’s used to teach new people about where a brand has been and how the thinking has changed over time. I love old folders I have from working on projects with five or so versions of a brief, usually one marked _FinalFINAL.doc.

So I do think it’s important that we work on the blank document, despite the fact that the journey matters far more than what’s left behind. And even if there’s no such thing as a great brief, I find the iterative process of writing them and working through them with the rest of the team where the magic lies.

I have a few suggestions for this late coming brief of the future. But I’ll focus on one idea in this post which is to do with the way briefs are set up in the first place. There are generally several questions posed to the brief writer, and the brief writer ponders the answer. MRIs have been taken of how the brain responds to a fact versus how it responds to a question. Wouldn’t you know it – the fact lights up the reptilian part whereas the question gets the neurons firing up in front.

When we’re told something, we only activate the posterior lobe of our brain, but when asked questions, the frontal lobe – involved in problem solving, memory, initiation, and judgment – is activated.
“Anything that’s engaging them where they have to think about their opinion will increase the depth of brain processing. A fact is very quickly compared and filed ‘where does that fit with my model’ whereas a question forces them to process, and wonder.” – Stephan Sands, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer, Sands Research

Is it arrogance, ignorance or selfishness that we planners hog all those brain stimulating questions for ourselves? Why don’t we pose new, interesting questions for others? We are trying to get new answers after all. And it’s been my experience that creative people like to solve problems. Crispin stumbled upon the power of questions when Alex Bogusky and Russ Klein from Burger King redesigned the Crispin brief first only for BK, but then it was rolled out to all CP+B clients. A well crafted question is at the heart of their very simple brief, asking some thing like “How do we get this kind of person to …?” I spent many hours debating the question to be asked in each brief with creatives, account directors, planners and clients. It is an excellent plannerly challenge to phrase the problem in a way that bakes in an insightful hook. Something that lets you feel the potential energy within the project. You’re inspired to get going when you read that kind of question.

It wasn’t until I stumbled onto the neuroscience stuff above that I started to understand why posing a question was such a good idea. It may not be proof positive, but it sure hasn’t hurt CP+B’s performance to flip the brief from statements to (at least one) questions.

4 thoughts on “Onward to a better brief

  1. Heather,
    Thanks for your kind words. This is a great post and look forward to reading all your thoughts.
    I think the ‘question’ approach is brilliant. It immediately breaks the bad habits of messaging and propositions and frankly does the important thing of focusing a creative challenge.
    I’ve used this format before (in a past life and a way to bury interesting stuff in tradtional brief formats) and sometime you get creative pushback – it’s too open, what do you want me to say, etc. – although normally when the brief hasn’t been cracked.
    Provocative questions are good. As that old adage goes ‘ a problem well defined is a problem half solved’. I think it leads to more interesting work, and work that tends to let people fill in some gaps (you are not just blaring out a piece of messaging). And the genius thing is you can do this approach in any of the existing brief formats.:)

  2. Heather,
    this is really interesting. And it makes total sense, too. I am currently working on a new brief because I feel that the old one isn’t producing any outstanding work anymore. The question is a great hint for a new brief.

  3. Heather,
    Can you share with us the types of questions that are covered in the Crispin brief? I’ve found looking at briefs from other agencies to be very helpful.

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