Naked briefs


La Danaide by August Rodin. Image courtesy of Jahsonic.

It is one of the least edifying characteristics of planning directors that they spend alot of time creating a new briefing format for the agency or network. It is what my old boss Jim Kelly would call "displacement activity".

I don't know about you but I have never liked briefing formats and forms. The theory goes that if you fill out all the boxes on the funky new template that someone has spent the last six months of the agency's time putting together then you will miraculously end up with a brilliant brief. If only it was that easy.

I have always believed that filling out boxes on a brief reduces the process to something more akin to applying for a credit card and thus regarded the whole briefing form approach with utter derision. But some agencies seem to like it.

Fortunately neither of the places I have spent most of my career (AMV - the UK's largest agency - and HHCL - for a long time the UK's most interesting), had a briefing form. Both places felt that planners should write the right brief for the task in hand.

Lets face it we are all grown ups here and we can all write a brief without the help of some ridiculous form. I tend to write mine using a decidedly simple, decidedly old fashioned structure which I am minded to call the naked brief.

It is naked because the structure is so spare that it directs one's attention to the quality of the thinking and away from the quality of the form.

And this is how it goes:

1. The role for communications. Look mum, no background. Background is usually an excuse to dump a load of stuff that is not important enough to get in the body of the brief but somehow seems like it might be relevant. My advice is to bin the background and get straight into the effect the activity is intended to create. The role should get to the absolute heart of the problem. And when you have nailed it it is still worth asking yourself 'why' a couple more times simply to get to right to the root of the task.

2. Target audience. This is the stuff about the audience that is absolutely relevant to the task. And don't write it in a "Timothy and Samantha are both aged 24 and like to go out a lot, watch DVDs at home and have a very experimental attitude towards sex" unless you have actually met these people and you aren't just making up some ghastly advertising targeting confection. This sort of trite story is the 21st century equivalent of telling the creative team that the audience are ABC1, Men and Women aged 25-44 - the square root of fuck all use.

3. Proposition. Call it what you will but this is what you are trying to communicate about the brand. Propositions work with the role for communications. The role for communications sets the challenge the work must meet and the proposition is the idea that we want to land about the brand.

4. Support. The stuff that convinces you that the thinking can be supported, will convince the creatives and ultimately will convince the consumer. This is not the repository of all knowable information on earth but the stuff that makes the thinking compelling.

5. Tone. Only if it makes the difference and you can elevate yourself above the cesspit of statements like "businesslike but not formal". On Tango briefs I used to write that if the work wasn't so funny that it made you piss blood then the work wasn't right.

6. Requirements. What do we know we have to do. If it is prescriptive then tell the team what the media agency has already bought. If this is a campaign that can achieve its aims by any means necessary then keep it open.

7. Mandatories. This is not the place on the brief to get creative. It is the place to communicate the stuff that is non-negotiable.

8. Creative starters. Use this to road test your thinking and to open up the ambition of the brief. Ensure that a couple are media starters, and if the requirements are open guide the team about the nature of potential solutions - digital applications, events, promotional ideas - whatever it takes.

It's as boring as hell but that is the point. Minimum time spent designing a funky new creative brief and maximum time spent on the thought or thinking that goes into them.


You're less cranky these days.

Posted by: Ben at March 3, 2008 10:31 PM

8 points? I used to like the old United 4 (with mandatories added on).

Good point about the background; I must confess to hiding a lot of inapt thinking there.

Posted by: Will at March 3, 2008 10:50 PM

Thats very succinct and handy.

Thanks very much!

Posted by: Seth at March 4, 2008 01:21 AM

I'm not sure it is a good point about not having a background section. It depends if you want to shut whole areas down at this stage, which I know at some agencies is the point. We use it to educate, inform, and allow for a wider entry point.

Horses for courses, I guess.

Posted by: Paul H. Colman at March 4, 2008 08:50 AM

Sometimes background can be helpful, but it should be just that: background.

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at March 4, 2008 10:01 AM

When isn't background helpful all the time?

So far, the only reason given is that it can sometimes be badly written, but I'm not sure why this doesn't apply to every other section on the brief?

Posted by: Paul H. Colman at March 4, 2008 11:07 AM

Well I would imagine it depends on the brief, some might be simple enough that they don't need background other than the basic details.

Its finding the line between uninformed and overburderned...

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at March 4, 2008 11:25 AM

bit of an assumption that people can actually write briefs because their job description/title requires them to. I beg to differ. A good strategist does not guarantee coherent written communications skills. So sometimes a formal creative brief can actually cripple/paralyse the development process.

What's more, I actually think people have forgotten the purpose of the creative brief.

How can you have the 'role of communications' (in other words objectives) without some contextual background. For me this is crucial in setting the right scene thus enabling the creative team to bridge the gap between where we're at and what we need to get to.

Posted by: mm at March 4, 2008 12:35 PM


Looks like the standard briefing form headings in every/any large agency to me.

I've heard Dylan Williams say that to have Tone on a brief is the one sure way to piss off creatives as you dictate their path straight away.

You have left out the briefing dates and client name though

Posted by: Tim at March 4, 2008 01:22 PM

isn't this a briefing form by any other name?

It strikes me that these are often used to give a semblance of coherence to an often incoherent thought. A strategic straightener: admirable and often necessary, but not the best way to communicate what's on your mind.

And so you have to ask yourself if it is what a creative needs? The answer. Probably not.

When you brief, creatives will often ask two questions.

What's this brief about? 'What's the story?'


Why would anybody believe us? or What's the truth?

So why not write the brief this way?

Posted by: jemster at March 4, 2008 02:16 PM

Couldn't agree more.

And surely the briefing (the story) is far more important. Surely the stimulus is something that should have the time spent sourcing than completing some boxes (boxes which exist in every clumsy agency)

Tone is pretty much the worst thing to hand a creative team, I would then say requirements is something that will insult their intelligence also. The target I would like to think you discuss with them before writing anything.

The whole 'idea' of a form is wrong as this certainly isn't a word associated with creativity. Propositions or 'the one thing we can say' is again as subjective as your taste in music so will never be respected. It's a conversation between you and them that gets sparks flying.

W&K use 'briefs' as job starting forms, they are never ever representational of the finished piece. I remember a planning director standing over work in management meetings using briefs to check that work was....well...on brief. What a ridiculous and backward way to work, if the stuff is outstanding sod the brief.

Posted by: Tim at March 4, 2008 03:54 PM

There are maybe three types of briefs that work for me.

The first is a way of organising your thinking - the naked brief is a good example

the second is a way of stimulating your thinking - I like 'what's the problem? What's the solution?"

the third is a way of stimulating someone else's thinking - what's it all about? in one or two words.

any ot

Posted by: Phil Teer at March 4, 2008 04:05 PM

Well I think all the comments and the people behind them just provided backup for the 4th paragraph above; planners should write the brief for the task at hand. Sometimes backround is super important (build on previous work/results) and sometimes you can skip it. Isn't that what we're here for? Try to make the call "what do they need to know to do a great job"?

Or, as I do sometimes, tell them what the client wants done - then go "what do you want to know"? Whether or not you've done YOUR job, will be very evident.

Posted by: Olle at March 4, 2008 06:45 PM

In a way the idea of a 'brief' is an anachronism.. A form created in a time when the creative task was to go and 'create a bit of advertising' along these lines. In the same way as builders were given a brief to put up a building, or wartime pilots were given a brief (and later debriefed) to go and bomb something. The terminology hasn't changed and the brief in its way is a left-over from the time of advertising agency as creative factory, when the task was interupt/entertain/communicate.

In a world where idea generation and engagement are the premium tasks shoudn't we think the role and structure of 'the brief'

Posted by: jemster at March 4, 2008 11:18 PM

Easy enough to say. But your brief is incredibly advertising centric. It's also easy to do away with briefs when you have a department of 15 planners. I've worked in Advertising planning but also DM and now PR. And if you want to encourage the WHOLE agency to think more like a planner, then box-filling serves a purpose. It actually forces people to sharpen their thinking, to define the strategic platform and to make sacrifices. The Ad brief is dead, long live the creative brief.

Posted by: Leo Rayman at March 5, 2008 09:18 AM

Interesting points.

Thinking about it all, doesn't it makes sense for the brief to be written to fit the strengths of the creatives?

If your creative team works best with detail give them detail; if not give them three words and set them loose!

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at March 5, 2008 09:48 AM

I tend to aggree with the principles of the Naked Brief, but it should be taken as a start point not the end. Each brief is different and requires different approaches and different questions to get the best result. If you are overly prescriptive with a box ticking mentality all briefs will begin to look the same, especially with the creative mind that is hard enough to focus at the best of times.

Posted by: Karl Turley at March 5, 2008 09:51 AM

Nothing but joy to hear the death of named audiences and the wretched descripion of them as part-time teachers, firemen or other such ridiculously stereotypical and painfully pointless framings. Thankyou for releasing my own personal sepsis !

Posted by: Will Phipps at March 5, 2008 10:46 AM

Hi Leo

good point.

As I said 'box filling' is often critical but it is a way of working not a way of commmunicating ... "often used to give a semblance of coherence to an often incoherent thought. A strategic straightener: admirable and often necessary"

so I'm not entirely sure what you're taking issue with?

Oh and I don't have a department of 15 planners, I'm happy being a jobbing planner just like the rest of us.

Posted by: jemster at March 5, 2008 03:25 PM

Love the spirit of naked briefs.

Providing creative starters/ways requires a respectful & genuine partnership between creative & strategy.

I have yet (sadly) come across a creative team that don't get urked by these (seen as territorial blurring, not the start of a conversation). Any ideas as to how to get around this?

Also, too often I see insights get turned into the idea itself. Powerful in some cases, lazy in most.

Posted by: Homan at March 5, 2008 11:10 PM

All good points. I prefer to establish the following:
1) What is the business objective?
2) What is the marketing objective
3) What is the brand objective
This then helps inform what the role of the communication should be.

All the other good stuff should be covered by this I believe.


Posted by: Holycow at March 6, 2008 08:48 AM

The terror of the blank page might just be too much. Nice little regular, numbered sections with labelled boxes (helpfully showing bracketed tips and examples in italics - like this one) help the prone to form-filling relax.

Posted by: neil cowan at March 7, 2008 02:46 PM

as a student i hope its ok to ask this question but how do you propose we should discuss target audience. i often try to think of what other things the audience buys or how they would feel about a relevant issues but i think this is exactly what you are refering to as being a bad for a brief. obviously every brief needs a different tone in itself but i would love it anyone could expand on the target audience section.

Posted by: tabitha at March 10, 2008 03:24 PM

hi tabitha

the best trick I ever heard for describing the target audience is to ask yourself the (rather clumsy) question "What are you talking to them as...?".

So for example am I 'a busy father of five who is time poor, who drives a 4WD because no one is going to tell me not to' or am I 'a planner with c20 years experience (gulp) willing to pass on a bit of insider knowledge'.

Both are true: only one adequately describes my response.

Yeah I know it's the 4WD drive thing isn't it? ...

Posted by: jemster at March 10, 2008 06:22 PM


I am having a go primarily at the world of assumption, presumption and confection. In other words making up pen portraits of people's lives written either in the first or third person about people that don't exist. I think telling a genuine story about someone's life works whereas synthesising a load of real people into and erzatz consumer is hideous.

But in truth I think increasingly the target audience is not about targeting but about exploring the insight you have into where they are on the problem you are trying to crack and how you intend to change their behaviour. It is not a tour of their busy and chaotic live using hilarious labels for their 'segment' like 'Time starved Tina'.

And maybe that means that this section should be called 'what is our insight?' but a naked brief is not a destination it is a tool for exposing the quality of thinking by stripping away everything else. When you have done that you can build the brief that is right for the task in hand.

Posted by: Richard at March 10, 2008 08:39 PM

The Naked brief in its constituent parts is pretty familiar and has stood the test of 50 years of creative briefing in ad agencies.

It's 'how' we should use this familiar set of questions/boxes in order to get the best solutions which is the critical issue.

The requirement for how we need to use briefs/briefings today (in a world where the nature and possibilities of the solution are more varied and less predictible than ever) is to create briefs that have more 'open-endedness', and try less to predict what sort of solution we will get.

In the old days, being more presriptive about the solution was the norm. In this world, 'the proposition' was the driving force of the brief.

But, the 'proposition' is actually a first judgment over what sort of solution is likely to crack a specific problem. It therefore becomes, by this definition, a limiting and prescriptive factor to creativity.

However, i have sympathy with the Rory Sutherland exclamation: 'give me the freedom of a 'well defined problem', rather than a 'well defined brief'. I.e. invest time in really interrogating the problem (understanding where we are now, where we want to get to, and what is currently holding us back etc.). In this way we keep the options open, rather than starting to limit them through selecting propositions.

In the old days, planners were obssessed about getting that killer proposition - and much time (and navel gazing) was spent on wordsmithing different permutations in the fear that one mis-placed word might send the creative team miles off course.

I think the shift now is away from propositions as the driving force for good open-ended inspiring briefs which lead to genuinely surprising solutions. The empahasis for planners now should be about rigorous problem definition, and pulling together stimulus and idea starters to help others co-generate surprising solutions.

Posted by: Steve McC at March 12, 2008 11:02 AM

Problem definition - absolutely. A great solution comes from a well defined problem and incidentally the right problem being well defined. And there is enormous creativity in doing this properly.

I am not obsessed with getting the killer proposition - I am however, obsessed with getting the killer idea. Its not about wordsmithing - it is about having a genuinely radical point of view on what the brand ought to be about. I fear that your open ended brief is an excuse for not having an idea. All I ask of planners is to be intellectually courageous.

Posted by: Richard at March 12, 2008 08:17 PM

'A brief without an idea in it isn't worthy of the name'

... I'm sure someone important said that?

Posted by: jemster at March 13, 2008 12:39 PM

... or maybe just self important?

Posted by: jemster at March 13, 2008 12:40 PM

Wotcha. This is all great fun, isn't it?

What's wrong with writing a brief that simply defines the problem / challenge, and then having lots of conversations to get to the 'radical point of view on what the brand ought to be about' (the answer)?

Perhaps I've become too Wiedenized, but in my experience trying to define the answer in the brief (in the form of a proposition) tends to be a bad idea because:

A) It assumes there is only one answer - there might be more than one.

B) It assumes the answer is best stated in the form of words, which tends to make the answer advertising, because words sound like endlines.

C) It means you're not allowing for the fact that really a really interesting answer you haven't thought of might emerge later on in the creative process.

I like to brief teams with two documents - one simply stating the problem, and one filled with loads of stuff that might help us get to an answer (in which my own suggested answer is normally planted).

I don't think it's intellectual cowardice. I think it's allowing for the fact that chatting about the problem tends to help everyone get to a better answer.

Posted by: Loz H at March 14, 2008 01:38 PM

Hmm interesting. It's true. "Empirical evidence" shows that most of the times, account executives and err ... some planners "dump a load of stuff that is not important", specially for the creatives (they should only know the necessary, period).
But I believe that a good creative brief is a story well written and told. Therefore the background is part of of the contextualization/begining of the story you're telling the creatives.

Posted by: the hidden persuader at March 14, 2008 02:25 PM

PS - I always start my briefs with "In one sentence what's the problem/challenge"?

After defining and focusing on that one problem, I try to contextualize it for the creatives. No bolloks, straight ot the point "why is this a problem we need to solve?".

Posted by: the hiddenpersuader at March 14, 2008 02:29 PM

Increasingly, I find myself erring on the Jemster style of briefing. I like to avoid being definitive about the big idea solution - but offer up idea starters that might become the idea.

What becomes critical in briefs like this is not to depend on a single minded proposition which sends everyone off in a predetermined linear direction, but to signpost where the strategic creativity (or leap) is in the brief (this could be a unique tone of voice (sorry Dylan), or a redfinition of the target audience, or definition of the market conventions holding us back etc. etc...).

In my BMP days we had a box which (rather pretentiously) signed off with 'What is the cleverest bit of thinking in this brief?', which worked well in this respect. It's a good sense check: no clever thinking = shit brief.

Posted by: Steve McC at March 14, 2008 03:23 PM

Tone is important if it's an established brand with a tone they want to continue. You probably know that tone better than the creatives - tell them what it is.

If it's a new brand then put a suggestion for what you think the tone should be.

Posted by: Scamp at March 18, 2008 11:08 AM

For things like Target Market I like to see what I call 'zingers'. That's basically just a fresh way to describe something. For example, I heard that on a Land Rover brief they defined the target as 'people that like tennis.' That's good.

Posted by: Scamp at March 18, 2008 11:10 AM

Oh, one more thing. I notice a bit of a tendency nowadays for planners to write brilliantly constructed sentences for the proposition which, although consisting of just a few words, and having the appearance of a a single-minded thought, in fact have two or three different concepts cleverly enmeshed within them. Then I have to spend the first three days figuring out which of those to go with. This is bad.

Write a really simple sentence for the proposition. Or better yet, one word. E.g. 'cheap', 'scary', 'fucked-up'. The cleverness comes in the daring and original thought of applying that particular word to that particular product. E.g. it's quite interesting to describe a sports car as scary.

Posted by: Scamp at March 18, 2008 11:21 AM

I like that Land Rover brief idea, thats a much better way of identifying a target audience than "Bob who is aged 35, works in...", which frankly is far too specific and limiting.

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at March 18, 2008 12:07 PM

While I was working on Diesel jeans, the very first thing that the client told us was that we will get fired if we ever ask for a written brief.

Which is a bugger, because you realy need to get under the skin of a brand, otherwise you will go astray. It takes twice the time to do it right, compared to the written brief.

I guess that is one of the reasons why we still cling on to our beloved forms (a strange thought, for people outside of advertising: the most creative part of the advertising proces actually starts with the dullest of the written formats...)

Posted by: Lazar at March 18, 2008 05:42 PM

Question question.

In previous posts you've distinguished between "Position" and "Brand Idea" if I understood correctly, yet here it seems rolled together in the "Proposition"?

Come to think of it, if the "Position" is clearly articulated (the brand point of view), why should there be a separate "Brand Idea"?

Posted by: Dino at March 24, 2008 06:10 AM

I think position and brand idea are strategic tools. Whereas the proposition is a tactical tool that holds the instructions for the specific piece of communication that you are creating.

Posted by: Richard at March 24, 2008 03:12 PM

Thanks Richard, I'm thick but I think I get it.

I like that distinction (strategic vs. tactical), particularly as we think about other marketing and brand activities that aren't necessarily bits of communication.

In other words, stuff like design, or "marketing as service" or "brand utility" type stuff could be grounded in strategic positioning or "brand ideas", quite apart from tactical propositions?

Posted by: Dino at March 24, 2008 09:27 PM