The Creative Brief: ‘It’s the Platform, Not the Rocket Ship’

By Jodie Byass


The Creative Brief: ‘It’s the Platform, Not the Rocket Ship’

Many marketers struggle to write the creative brief for their agencies. So we asked a high-profile creative director for their perspective on the importance and role of the brief.

A good brief is single-minded and should contain something to inspire the creative team, according to Sean Cummins, founder, global chief executive and chief creative officer of creative agency Cummins & Partners.

Simple: How important to a creative team is a good brief?

Cummins: It’s a starting point. It’s stimulus-response. If it makes you respond in a certain way you can go on the creative journey. I used to get a brief and I would pore over every word looking for that angle.

It’s like a lawyer looking at legislation – you look at the intent. I don’t argue with every brief and send it back. A shit brief can result in a great outcome. Isn’t that our job: to find the magic? That’s what commercial creativity is all about.

The brief is the platform, it’s not the rocket ship. If it was anything more than the platform, you’d stick wings on the platform and shoot that into space.




Should a creative brief be brief?


They call it a brief for a reason. Keep it brief. When it’s a 7-page document, that’s when you’re in trouble.


I used to encourage account service to just give me one word. If the brand was Coca-Cola, then the word might be ‘uplift’. You then have to go outwards. If you have too many words, you’ll go inwards.


If you can’t take a word like ‘uplift’ and make it sing for you, then you’re not too creative.


The creative brief: Create awareness of the islands of the Great Barrier Reef.


Does a good brief need a single-minded proposition?


Yes. If you ask, ‘What are we trying to say?’, that gets people to articulate that one single thought. It should never have the word ‘and’ in it.


Unfortunately, we’re in a business now where it’s so cut and paste – maybe people are hoping that data will somehow guide their hand but they lose the confidence to say it straight.


There’s beautiful elegance in simplicity. It opens you up, rather than shutting you down by being too prescriptive.

David Ogilvy said ‘Give me the freedom of a tight brief’. If you are running around in a huge paddock, you’ll get exhausted. You want to be very zoned in area that you can explore and be the god of that universe.


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Does a good brief need an insight?


Preferably, yes. It’s a document to inspire, with a truth in it. Hopefully an insight, but most importantly, a point of view.


Sometimes the insight will come off the brief. If the product is for hard-working mums who have no time, you might find the insight you’re looking for when you flip the situation and ask about what life was like before then.

It’s like when a comedian comes up with an idea — they find the truth in a scenario and just roll along from there.


What was the best brief you ever worked on?


One of the best briefs I worked on was probably Best Job in the World for Queensland Tourism, which was about creating awareness of the islands of the Great Barrier Reef. International travellers didn’t know you could stay on an island. They would just go out to the Reef for 4 hours, swim around and that was it.


The observation that sparked the campaign to advertise a 6-month, $150,000 job as an ‘Island caretaker’ [which went viral in 2009 and created a storm of publicity including 3.4 million unique visitors to the website and more than 6000 news stories during the application period] was that there’s the life below the water, that people know of but there’s also a life above: you can live on top of the reef. And if you could live on top of the reef, imagine  working there: that would be the ‘best job in the world’.


The answer to the brief is always very close to the problem: whatever business problem we’re trying to solve.


The answer to the creative brief: Showcase life above the reef (not just below it) by advertising the job of ‘island caretaker’, won by Ben Southall.


How do you keep responding differently to a brief when the brand proposition hasn’t changed?


For one car marque, every brief we got referred to a “unique combination of luxury and performance”. That may be true but it helps if you can find something else that makes you think differently – otherwise you’re going around in ever-decreasing creative circles.


That’s where the creativity comes in. If the brief fundamentally doesn’t change year upon year then the brand must be doing something right. It becomes its own archetype, if you will.


Nike has fundamentally not changed. You want to find that piece that doesn’t change, that DNA – the heartland. Then you look at the society you’re in today and how that message still applies, whether the audience needs to hear that message more than ever, or whether you keep it low-key. It depends on the mores of the time.


Simplify your briefing process: Get your free Marketing Brief Template


Is brief-writing becoming a lost skill?


The problem is that brief-writing in itself is a creative task. Before it gets to the creative department, you try and embed something in there – something you know might stimulate an exercise.


I think marketers are probably pretty good at it. Marketers do tend to mimic each other a lot. They all go on various waves. I think we just finished the era of ‘happiness’. That’s fine if every brand was in sync. Different brands have different cycles. The issues of the day affect brands in different ways.


The most important thing is to remember the founding mythology of the brand that you’re working on – you can take a brand in a horribly wrong direction if you don’t understand. Brands fundamentally don’t change.

It’s a fascinating business. There is no right way to do it, but there are better ways to do it. KISS (keep it simple, stupid), be brief, and don’t try and do too much.


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