You're naked without your briefs, Jon Maxim, Freelance copywriter

You’re naked without briefs

Copywriting cookies with briefs

I’ve been a so-called ‘creative’ for over 30 years.

I say ‘so-called’ because I think people misunderstand what we mean by creativity, in a marketing context.

Sometimes, I get copywriting briefs from clients that go like this:

‘We were late to market. We’re not as good as the competition.
In fact we’re more expensive. No real point of difference.
And we just had to retrench a bunch of our people.
But you’re creative, Jon: come up with a great idea!’

In his book ‘These thoughts are genuine’, John Singleton – Australia’s highly-successful and distinctly-colourful ad-man – says:

‘Advertising cannot revive a product unless the product itself is revived. Or unless a new market is found for the product in its existing form.’

In other words, don’t expect a ‘great idea’ to save a poor proposition.

This perception that you can create great creative from a flawed product or service is wrong.

In fact, I even have an issue with the word ‘creative’. At least in a marketing arena.

Here’s what Edward de Bono has to say:

‘I invented the term ‘lateral thinking’ many years ago because the term ‘creativity’ is
too general, too vague, too full of artistic connotations and too value laden.
Indeed, many creative people are not creative at all.’

Yes. Not creative at all.

All I can do is work with what you give me. The brief. If that has issues, so too will the end result.

It’s important that we recognise what we mean by creativity, in our world.

What we can, and cannot, achieve.

Agreed? Phew. Let’s move on.

The role of a brief

Street map - a copywriting brief is like Google Maps

As I say, 30+ years as a creative. And people are amazed how much I insist on the paperwork. Specifically, a brief.


A wonderful quote from Lewis Carroll:

‘If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.’

If I don’t get a clear direction (a brief) then I can take any route I want.

That’s not good for a client (or your audience).

Another insight, this time from AdCracker:

‘A creative brief is like a road map. A great brief is clear and specific. It leads to imaginative and persuasive ads, Websites or videos. And gets you there quickly.

A bad brief is incomplete or confusing. It starts you off in the wrong direction. So you have to stop, figure out where the heck you’re going, and start again.

Or worse, you follow that brief to Trash Town …’

Think of a good brief as like Google Maps.

It gives you short cuts. An idea of where you’re going (but you can always explore). A couple of route options. An idea of timing. And, as AdCracker says, gets you there quickly.

So, I’m a great fan of briefs.

And what is the role of a brief?

Paul Taylor, Creative Director at M&C Saatchi Melbourne for many years, describes it as:

‘The art of turning what a Client wants to say into what 
a consumer wants to hear.’

Isn’t that brilliant?

Like the famed babel fish from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A brief translates marketing speak into audience need.

It’s not just full of information: but insights, vision and inspiration.

Talking of inspiration, take a look at this.

The brief for the Sistine Chapel

Sistine Chapel ceiling creation of man

Damian O’Malley has a lovely guide to the briefing process.

He reimagines the brief from Pope Julius II to Michelangelo, for the Sistine Chapel.

(You can read the full article, here. Or take a look at a presentation by Steven Stark on SlideShare.)

But here’s my shorthand version.

Was the Pope’s brief to Michelangelo: ‘Please paint the ceiling’?

Nope. No direction.

When clients say ‘can you knock out a quick article on SEO’, there’s no clue for what I’m meant to be doing. Yes, it tells me what to deliver. But not what it should contain.

Was the brief: ‘Please paint the ceiling using red, green and yellow paint’?

That’s worse. I have restrictions before I’ve even begun.

How about: ‘We’ve got terrible problems with cracks in the ceiling. Could you cover it up for us?’.

Oh, dear. Just depressing. I end up thinking about the problems.

How about this: ‘Please paint biblical scenes on the ceiling incorporating some or all of the following: God, Adam, Angels, Cupids devils and saints’.

Much better. But missing some ‘vision’.

Here’s the actual brief from Pope Julius II:

‘Please paint our ceiling for the greater glory of God
and as an inspiration and lesson to his people.’

Motivating. And we all know the result.

Here’s one of my favourite briefs: from Mick Jagger (of the Rolling Stones) to Andy Warhol (with apologies for the language):

Mick Jagger brief to Andy Warhol

What works?

First of all, he’s pleased. Really pleased. It’s nice to be appreciated.

Then, the ‘2 boxes of material’. Great: give me lots to work with.

The ‘leave it in your capable hands’. Trusting the creative.

I love the ‘how much money you would like’. What a great client.

And the ‘take little notice’ of Al Steckler’. How cool is that? You take your time, Andy. Don’t be rushed. That’s what that says to me.

What a McDreamy brief. If only they were all like that…

One question I often get asked is: ‘How long should a brief be?’.

One side of A4 vs 2 boxes

Pen on blank page - how long should a copywriting brief be?

Traditional marketing says that a good brief has to be one side of A4. And no more.

This dates back to the last century. The rigour and discipline of DDB, and Rosser Reeves‘ Single-Minded Proposition (or USP: Unique Selling Proposition).

I think a one-page brief was fine in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. There was only one small, rear-engined car (VW Beetle), for example.

These days, everything is commoditised. All looking the same. Cars. Phones. Computers. Hard to pick one brand from another.

When everything is so similar, I need more – rather than less – to work from. A one-page brief just isn’t enough. I want lots. The two boxes of material that Mick Jagger sent.

Clients are aways surprised when I say ‘Send me loads. Don’t worry about too much, keep emailing it through’.

The more you give me, the more chance I having of finding the magic. The point of difference. The insight I can then turn into a point of difference.

So what of the information in the brief?

The elements of a good brief

The pieces of a copywriting brief

What are the pieces of the puzzle that make a good brief?

I’m going to pick on just four elements that make a big difference. (For a more detailed look at the elements, try Caroline Gibson’s Client Brief Template.)

First, I need a good background. Not just something cut’n’paste from the previous brief, or the ‘About us’ on the website.

I’m looking for context. What’s happening in the industry, in the business, in the audience’s world.

Are there legal changes? New competitors? Political challenges? Social pressures? New technologies? Financial issues – how’s the economy?

Like a general planning a battle, it helps me to understand the landscape and terrain I’ll be walking into. A bit of intel can save a lot of time (and lives).

A useful acronym is PESTLE: can you address what’s happening Politically, Economically, Socially, in Technology, Legally or any Environmental factors. (There’s a more in-depth look at this on the Professional Academy website.)

Next, the audience.

Don’t worry: I’ll be doing quite a bit of my own homework on that (you can read more in Don’t start writing by writing).

But give me a head start.

Demographics, of course.

What about psychographics? How the audience think and feel? Written in the first person, if possible.

‘Sure, I’ve heard of Apple computers. But they’re just for designers. Right?
I want a serious computer, something with some grunt. I wouldn’t be see dead with an Apple!’

If you’re a client, be prepared for the psychographic insight to be colloquial. Maybe even the odd swear word. It’s meant to be as real as possible. Paint a picture of a real person.

If you’ve got personas, so much the better. (If you don’t, you can use this website to build them: Make My Persona, by Hubspot.)

Three, the proposition.

Traditionally, it had to be ‘unique’ or ‘single-minded’.

Very difficult to do in a commoditised world. Great if you can, of course. But, if not, I’m happy with a value proposition.

That may mean more than one element:

‘The lowest-rate credit card that also lets you earn points.’

In the old days, that would have been rejected. ‘Why can’t we just say the lowest rate?!’. Because it’s no longer that simple.

And don’t worry: I’ll be doing my own work here, as well, to come up with a compelling creative proposition. That should be single-minded.

Finally, and it may surprise you: budget.

Imagine you walk into a car dealership. ‘I want to buy a car,’ you say.

‘What’s your budget?’, the salesperson asks.

‘Oh, you know. You tell me.’ you say.

What do you think they’re going to recommend? The most expensive car, of course. They want you to get the very best outcome.

Then you turn around and say ‘But I’ve only got $2,000…’.

Why not say that in the first place?

Just like when clients refuse to give a budget. I’m always going to aim for the best.

If I know the budget upfront, I can tailor the cloth to fit.

If possible, I like some rigour around the budget.

Not just ‘We allocated $5,000 in the budget’. But: ‘we need 100 sign-ups at an acquisition cost of $10 each (= $1,000). We generally get a 10% conversion rate (= hit 1,000 people to get 100 at 10%) = 1,000 targets with a $1,000 budget = $1 a pop.’

Maths. Yep, love it.

‘irrelevant brilliance’

Fertilising an egg

For me, good creative work is only possible with a good brief.

That’s my visual analogy, above. The sperm and the egg. One fertilises the other – just as a good brief fertilises the creative idea.

In his thoroughly entertaining (but 41 minutes long) video, ‘The view from Touffou‘, David Ogilvy scorns agencies who don’t do their homework. They ‘skid about on the surface of irrelevant brilliance.’ he says.

That’s me without a brief. Skidding about.

Don’t let me skid: give me wheels to steer, and wings to take off.

Give me a great brief. So I’m covered.

Not naked.

Image sources: Pixabay


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Jon Maxim

Jon is a multi-award winning copywriter. For over 30 years, he’s helped clients – large and small – develop engaging concepts, content and copy. For 25 of those years, he’s been teaching people how to do it themselves. His courses on copywriting, ideation and presentation skills are highly sought-after and highly effective. Jon lives in Sydney, Australia: but is often found on a plane, heading to where he’s most needed.