Sometimes the best brief is a question

It is 1948 and a maroon Cadillac Fleetwood Series 60 Special waits outside the Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia. In the main hallway of the college the owner of the car, who is also President of a local supermarket chain Food Fair, is deep in conversation with the Dean. The supermarket man is telling the Dean about the challenges his business faces. The two of them don’t know it but they are being eavesdropped by a graduate student doing his best impression of Humphrey Bogart playing gumshoe Phillip Marlowe. The student is Bernard Silver. He is only 24 at the time and will die prematurely at the age of 38 but not before he has been a part of creating one of the most ubiquitous technologies of the modern world. 

The supermarket man asks the Dean a question “Could you guys at Drexel research a system that could automatically read information at the customer checkout?”. The Dean of declines the Food Fair President’s request – the college doesn’t have unlimited resources and it’s not what he sees as a priority for how people there should spend their time. The supermarket man leaves disappointed, retreating to his shiny new Cadillac.

There is the opposite of disappointment on the face of Bernard Silver as his hallway surveillance shift comes to an end. This brief, stolen from a conversation he wasn’t meant to be privy to is exactly the kind of challenge that an ambitious young man like him has been looking for. In a rush of excitement he visits his friend, and fellow Drexel study partner Norman Joseph Woodland. These are young men, from an America that has just won a world war and is a beacon of hope across the Western world, a country of pioneers, where impossible is nothing, that one hundred years before didn’t have railroads, skyscrapers or Hollywood. These graduate students saw opportunity where their Dean saw problems. Fired up with this pioneering spirit these young men knew that cracking the Food Fair President’s brief was not impossible and immediately they set to work.

Their first experiments lead to a system using ultraviolet ink. However, the ink fades too easily and the whole system is extremely expensive to manage. Undeterred by their initial failure one of the pair takes the historic step of dropping out of Drexel. This is a risky call for the young grad student and not one that is without disapproval from both his tutors and his family. It is Bernard Silver that will stay at Drexel but Norman Woodland is so convinced of his ability to solve this problem that he is willing to give up his college career to pursue an answer to the Food Fair Presidents brief. To give him the time, space and peace of mind to work, Woodland moves to his fathers apartment in Miami Beach. The bikini, launched two years earlier in Paris, is beginning to cause a stir on Miami beach but this does not serve as a distraction for Woodland who even at a young age is a man of singular determination. 

After weeks of searching Woodland is still without an answer to the question of how to encode data overheard in the hallway of Drexel. He takes a walk to the beach and sits in one of the beach chairs available to holiday makers. Many stories of creativity talk of how the moment of inspiration hits when in a state of calm, relaxation, and sensory distraction. The shower is often where ideas are birthed. Apparently the colour blue is conducive to creative thinking. So was it the beach? Was it the sensory delight of Normal feeling his open toes in the sand? Was it the beauty of an azure blue Florida sky with the calm breaking of the waves? Us mere mortals will never know….

As Woodland sits in his deck chair a thought comes to him. He remembers morse code from his childhood – the method of using sound to communicate binary information. The moment of insight strikes him – what if you could make morse code visible? He starts tracing lines in the sand and the idea which is known as the Barcode makes its primal scream.

Barcode edited

It is hard to imagine that something so ubiquitous as the barcode has such an unusual story. One of spying, failure, determination and serendipity. It is a classic story of creativity in the James Webb Young ‘How to have an idea’ sense – a problem identified, a gestation period, an exposure to different stimuli, and the eureka moment appearing when it wants to, on its own time schedule without being forced or ordered. It is also interesting for its story of the brief – a question, an ‘is it possible’, a desire for a solution to a problem.

Sometimes the best brief is a question

The inspiration for this post is partly Kyna Leski’s delightful book on creativity ‘The Storm of Creativity’ which talks about Woodland’s creative process. However, the main inspiration is a Skype conversation with Tom Bassett, founder of Bassett & Partners, ex-W+K and TBWA/Chiat Day Planner, and the creator of the  film ‘Briefly’ on the subject of creative briefing. If you are time poor, ‘The Storm of Creativity’ and ‘Briefly’ are probably the two things I would most recommend as shortcuts for their insight into the creative mind and how to help it with the briefings one creates.  

In his inspirational film, Tom interviewed some of the finest creative minds alive today. Frank Gehry, David Rockwell, Yves Behar, John Boiler, John Jay and Maira Kalman. The phrase “Sometimes the best brief is a question” comes from my conversation with Tom. He talked about a number of examples from his experience that had led him to this conclusion. Top of mind here was one of the first briefs he worked on at W+K, the Nike Olympics 1996 campaign. Writing a brief for this was not just about the task of making Nike relevant at an event it was not a sponsor of, it was also about the role for Planning at an agency that had had wild success without employing Planners. 

I will let Tom’s words tell the story:

When I was interviewing with Wieden + Kennedy I was interviewing for a position on Microsoft. When I arrived to the interview in Portland they told me that they’d actually already filled that position but asked “would you be interested in working on Nike”. I’d actually prepared Nike as a case, I’d read every article. So I went through the gauntlet of interviews at 6 o’clock on a Friday afternoon and they said “Dan wants to meet you”. So I thought “well, it’s all or nothing, I get to meet Dan Wieden which is not a bad result in and of itself”. In the interview with Dan I could tell it was going well and so towards the end of the interview I said “I’ll probably kick myself for asking this question but I feel like you’ve created one of the greatest brands in the world through advertising in the absence of Account Planning – what am I going to do for you here?”.  I think it challenged him in a good way. I ended up getting hired and through a number of conversations we made this gentleman’s agreement. Planning had never been an organic part of the Nike account, it was sort of a bolt-on, and they’d actually blown up twice, hiring big name very good Planners that just didn’t take on it because they weren’t athletes and Nike are smart businesspeople but also a bunch of jocks! 

So what it boiled down to with Dan is that he didn’t want creative people to be given the answer – e.g. “go execute this” – he wanted to challenge the creative people to think about things in a totally different way from how they’ve thought about them before so we settled on this sort of Socratic method where briefs are framed as a question. So my first brief was the Olympics brief that was featured in the film that John Jay talked about. We landed on the question ‘How do we communicate the idea that to the Nike athlete sport is war minus the killing?’. So I guess I’ve always been a firm believer that the role of Planning is not to tell people what to do but to be the catalyst for the birth of this question which becomes the actual point of the whole creative product.”

Nike brief 'Sport is war minus the kiling'

Tom describes how the brief contained other information but clearly focused the creative mind on this core question:

“The Nike brief you saw in the film. Opening page was a big fold out. Inside of there was a description of the objective, the target audience, what they thought of the brand, what they thought of advertising, what the opportunity was. But really it boils down to that one question.”

One of the most important aspects of the ‘question’ style brief that most works is that it allows creative people to take ownership of a brief. Tom again: 

“You have to allow creative people the space to take ownership, you’re looking for that moment where that ownership migrates from your hands to theirs. That was very much like the Olympics brief for Nike. I had been a national team rower and not a terribly successful one, we made it there but then we got killed! The competitive intensity that you bring to a situation like that is somewhat scary. So that was really the core of the brief that I came back with from this offsite, where Evelyn Munro found that Orwell quote….So I came back and was talking with her and John Jay and we came back two days later with this book with this quote highlighted and said “Is it something like this?” and I was like “Oh my God”. The process was like, I didn’t solve it for them but they took ownership of it and made it theirs and then they made it great. And you’re like, “Oh my God, they just took ownership of this thing, let them go, your job is done now”. Versus “No, no, no, that’s not my brief” and now you’re into this tug of war. You might think you win but I don’t think you actually win.” 

In a telling moment in Tom’s ‘Briefly film John Boiler of 72 & Sunny describes what he finds useful in a brief:

“The one thing that a brief really needs to articulate to me is, Why are we doing this? Why are we doing anything at all? And I think my advice would be don’t use the brief to say what and how.”

He is referring to the tendency sometimes in briefs to try to come up with the answer, to impose an answer on the creative mind as opposed to inviting, or provoking it, into solving problems. This reminds me of an interview with Alex Bogusky of Crispin Porter Bogusky who said that that a good brief “tells me where to fish”. Clearly from a creative perspective what many people want is clarity on what problem they need to focus on (telling them “where to fish”, giving them the “why”) but the freedom to explore the “what” and the “how”.

What I find remarkable is how many briefs that are issued fall foul of this principle. If you have a box on your brief which says ‘what is the one thing we need to communicate’ you have already begun to start to throw cold water onto the fire of creativity. You have pretty much already decided that the solution is an ad with an explicit message, and not just that, by filling in this box you’ve decided already what that message is. All you are asking creative people to do in that instance is to execute an idea you’ve already had. You are giving them no freedom to do the thing they do best which is come up ideas. This begs the question – why ask creative people to solve a problem if you already know the answer?

This tension between control and freedom is at the heart of creative briefing. Getting it right isn’t easy. However, I believe that whilst you need to rigidly control and give clarity about the problem you are asking creativity to fix, being open-minded and giving people freedom in how they solve it is the smartest thing any briefer can do.


Interview with Tom Bassett of Bassett & Partners, May 2016. My thanks to Tom for his generosity in spending the time to talk to me.

“Briefly” by Bassett & Partners

Transcripts of Briefly (John Boiler interview)

Kyna Leski “The Storm of Creativity”, MIT Press 2015

Images sourced from:

Author: Pete Heskett

I am a firm believer in the magical power of creativity to transform culture, the human experience, and the businesses that drive our economy. With 21 years working as a Planner in top global advertising agencies I have extensive experience of both being briefed and of briefing others. In that time I've seen and been involved in the good, the bad, and the ugly of briefings. This blog is dedicated to providing advice and inspiration for those seeking to improve the quality of the briefings they give.

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