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:

Speaking in Images

John Lennon’s approach to creative briefing

A day in the life of Erich Gruenberg

It is a crisp February morning in 1967. Erich Gruenberg the first violin for the London Symphony Orchestra is walking through St John’s Wood on his way to Abbey Road Studios. Entering a newsagents he peruses the headlines and gives the Daily Express an instant swerve – it’s headline “So much to say at Palace” about a conversation between the British monarch and an Express reporter is not exactly Erich’s cup of tea. For a man who is wearing evening dress at 11am the Times is a far more suitable choice. The perturbed look the newsagent gives his attire is not the first he has received that day, neither will it be the most unusual thing that will happen to him. Erich doesn’t know it yet but the recording session he’s about to attend is going to go down in history – an album which will become known as Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. The song he is contributing to – ‘Day in the life’ – has taken its inspiration and first line from the newspaper headlines he’s just cast his eyes over. 

When Erich and the other forty members of the orchestra enter Abbey Road Studio 2 they are greeted not just by the Fab Four and producer George Martin but also a large menagerie of friends of the band – including Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful, Mike Nesbith and Donovan. It seems as though this is more a party than a recording session. Jagger doesn’t know it yet but in two days time he will be arrested at his home in West Sussex on drugs charges. The police will be greeted by a party in full flow, Miss Faithful dressed only in a fur rug, and the smell of joss sticks hanging in the air which they will accuse Mick of using to mask the aroma of cannabis.

The scent of joss sticks and other flowery aromas are heavy in Abbey Road Studio 2 and to this backdrop Erich and his LSO colleagues are handed carnival outfits by Paul to help them get into the swing of things. Whilst they were instructed to turn up in the traditional orchestral garb of evening dress the fact that the usually staid George Martin is eagerly attaching a Cyrano de Bergerac nose to his face means that the only option for Erich and his peers is to join in. 

The orchestra takes its places. Erich has attached a gorilla paw to his bowing hand, whilst others wear fake nipples, Groucho Marx moustachioed glasses, and loony hats. George Martin asks engineer Geoff Emerick to play “Day in the life” to the orchestra minus the ending which they’ve been asked to come in and help with. It’s like nothing they’ve ever heard from a pop band before – an intense bricolage of song elements that somehow just works, an art concept beyond the traditional idea of a song, and a moving commentary on modern life, almost classical in its vision and conceit. George Martin hands out a score but tells the orchestra that he will be also looking to them to improvise aspects of their performance to meet the brief. Martin then turns to Lennon saying “John, why don’t you tell the orchestra what you spoke to me about” . John looks at Erich and the orchestra, and then back at Martin, and with that characteristic twinkle in his eye he says:

“What I’d like to hear is a tremendous build-up, from nothing up to something absolutely like the end of the world.”

These are classical musicians, people used to following every minute direction of a conductor, being asked to wearing gorilla paws and improvise. This has taken them way out of their classical music comfort zone. However they instinctively know what Lennon and Martin are asking for even if they’ve never seen or heard the end of the world before. Over the course of the session they make a contribution to an album which will become one of the defining creative achievements of the 20th century. The Times of London will describe Sgt. Pepper as a ‘decisive moment in the history of Western Civilization’ and Rolling Stone magazine will describe the crescendo of ‘Day in the Life’ as making ‘rock music seem like it has infinite possibilities’


Speaking in Images

Rock and roll mythology is rife with exaggeration, half-truth and artistic embellishment. In that spirit I’ve reimagined the events at Abbey Road on 10th February 1967, constructed from accounts of those who were present. Lennon’s brief is recounted by George Martin in his book “All you need is ears”.

John Lennon was by all accounts an often curmudgeonly soul. Brilliant of course, one of the greatest artistic visionaries to ever pick up a guitar, but not always the easiest person to work with. He was enigmatic and mistrustful of ’squares’ and their ways and words. He didn’t communicate with the lingua franca of most businesses or marketing departments that we know today. 

When it came to realising his vision for ‘Day in the life’ Lennon came up against an all too familiar barrier we face too often in life – the barrier of our own limitations. He knew what kind of sound he wanted, what kind of emotion he wanted to evoke, and what kind of instrumentation he would need to achieve it. He knew neither he, nor his band, could create this on their own. He needed outside help.

In that situation John Lennon was in the same boat as any business that needs the help of a designer, architect, producer or communications expert and turns to the creative talents of an outside agency. The creative team the Beatles turned to realise sounds they couldn’t realise on their own were producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick. ‘Impossible requests’ is how Geoff Emerick liked to describe these briefs  – I’d imagine many in the agency world would have some empathy with that description. However, I’d argue that the quality of the briefs given played a role in making these ‘impossible requests’ a little more possible.

For ‘Day in the life’ the Beatles needed an orchestra. Classical musicians are used to receiving briefs in the language of classical music, using terms such as ‘glissando’ and ‘pianoforte’ to communicate. Using this would have been the easy route to creating a typical orchestral performance. John Lennon however was not trying to create a typical piece of orchestral music. His vision for ‘Day in the Life’ was to create something that hadn’t been heard before. Maybe Lennon’s lack of formal classical music training was an advantage or maybe even if he was fluent in that vocabulary he would still have chosen to eschew it. Whatever the case, when Lennon had his initial conversations with George Martin about what he wanted to achieve he used the universal creative language of evocative imagery.

In “All you need is ears” Martin says of working with Lennon “As always, it was a matter of my trying to get inside his mind, discover what pictures he wanted to paint and then try to realise them for him”. This reference to pictures is telling. As we can see from the phrase “something absolutely like the end of the world” the secret of Lennon’s method for creative briefing was to speak in images. 

Day in the life – you can hear the orchestra’s ‘end of the world’ crescendo begin at 3:45



Mark Truss, Worldwide Director of Brand Intelligence of J.Walter Thompson, my former colleague and friend – thank you for bringing this story to my attention

“All you need is ears” by George Martin, reprint published by St Martin’s Griffin, original published 1979

BBC news report of Jagger/Richards arrest

Beatles Songfacts website on ‘Day in the life’

Beatles Bible website

Interview with George Martin

10 bizarre requests John Lennon made of George Martin

Times and Rolling Stone quotes sourced from

Image sourced from


The Briefing Gap

Why we need to improve the quality of briefings given to creative people

Picture the scene…

I sit at my workspace in an open plan office. It’s mid-summer and the heat created by a piercing shaft of sunshine that falls on my face is not quite offset by the cool generated by the office air conditioning system. I stare at the boxes of a company template I need to fill in. It’s titled ‘Agency Brief’ and represents the most challenging writing exercise that Microsoft Word has yet offered up beyond the application letter that got me the job in the first place. My name isn’t James Brown, and I haven’t woken up in a ‘cold sweat’, but this definitely isn’t no.1 fun day of my career so far.

When I joined the marketing department I didn’t realise writing a brief would be as difficult as this. The document that I will write will be scrutinised and have ‘builds’ from several colleague stakeholders in my company. This will inevitably mean compromises and my career will depend on these other people seeing me as a responsible business person and a safe shepherd of the brand I am working on so I’ll have to accommodate these. That’s enough of a challenge but then we get to the real point of the brief which is to get some people from outside of our organisation, aka ‘the agency’, to use their creative talents to help us solve a problem that we can’t solve on our own. I like those guys, they’re fun, but they don’t tend to think the same way as most of my ‘internal stakeholders’ and I am worried that the responsible approval I will receive from my colleagues for my description of the marketing objectives of this project may not quite get the neurons sparking of the creative team who likely spent last night having their new ink applied before attending a South London grime gig. They probably won’t express their disapproval directly – their business depends on our business – but we’ll all know by the body language, and way that we say goodbye to each other whether or not this brief inspired them to do a great job.

What is killing me is that this should be the most exciting part of my job, the opportunity to create something new and exciting, to see all the effort we’ve put into this project catching fire but as I approach the box which says  ’single most important thing to communicate’ a sense of dread fills my heart…


The problem with briefs

This scenario is clearly an exaggeration and riddled with some truly awful clichés. Briefing can be enjoyable and some people and companies consistently get it right. Not all briefs are the result of compromise, not all have a ‘single most important thing to communicate’, not all creative people listen to grime or have tattoos, and not all offices have sunshine or air-conditioning. However, I believe that it represents a situation with which many can empathise and may well have experienced at some point – the challenging position we find ourselves in when we have to write or give a creative brief. How, as my friend the designer Maurice McGinley insightfully describes, to “instruct someone to surprise you”.


The industrial scale of brief writing

In the agency I most recently worked for, I would estimate that an average of 250 new briefs were given to the creative department in a year.

Multiply that number by two because for every agency creative brief there is a brief from a client that caused it.

Multiply that by the number of advertising agencies working in the UK.

Multiply that by the major economies of the world with an advertising industry.

Multiply that number by the number of industries that also use creative briefs – architecture, design, innovation, technology, media, PR, to name but a few.

What you end up with is a very very big number indeed – my conservative estimate would be that the world generates at least a million creative briefs a year and I would imagine that the real figure is actually much higher. It is surely not hubris to say that brief writing is now happening at an industrial scale across the globe. And as with anything that is manufactured on an industrial scale, quality control is sure to be a major concern.


The value of a good brief

A good brief doesn’t guarantee outstanding creative results but it does makes them more likely. In the advertising industry there is a saying “rubbish in rubbish out” because everyone knows that a bad brief inhibits the ability of people to deliver creative results. Anyone with experience in handling creative projects knows that they always bring an element of chance and happenstance. A good brief is way of helping to load the dice in your favour.

The need for good briefs also has a powerful economic and cultural imperative. For a business, the economic implications of a brief can be huge. First of all it creates efficiency. Good briefs lead to creative solutions more quickly than bad briefs and given that the primary cost in most creative development projects is the time of the people working on them a good brief can have massive cost savings.

Secondly there is the creative magnifier effect of a good brief. Good briefs are more likely to generate standout creative solutions. In the advertising field, studies by the IPA such as ‘The long and short of it’ and ‘Marketing in the era of accountability’ demonstrate that creative work that stands out from the crowd means you don’t need to spend as much on media to get people to notice you and that the impact on brand perceptions and sales returns are incrementally higher from more creative solutions. This is true in all the other industries that use creative briefs – better quality design, innovation, TV programmes, architecture all pay back exponentially when the standard of creativity stands out from the pack.

Thirdly, the end result of a creative brief is what fills much of the culture and experiences of our world. Not everything in the world is the result of ‘briefed creativity’, much art or invention is still the result of individual initiative, but a huge proportion of the creative output of the world starts with a brief. If we care about what we experience, and the cultures we inhabit, we’ve all got an interest in improving the quality of the briefs that are given.


A problem to fix

When we look at what the advertising industry says about the quality of briefs it receives we see a clear problem. In a 2009 survey of people at creative agencies working with a major FMCG manufacturer, only 13% agreed that the briefs they received from the company were ‘single minded and inspiring’. In a 2015 survey by the ANA in the USA 58% of clients thought that they gave clear assignments to agencies but only 27% of agency personnel concurred. There is clearly a gap in perception between those giving briefs and those receiving them. A fundamental objective of any brief is to make the people who will work on it feel as though it is clear and inspiring. For that figure to be so low reflects a big problem. The fact that less than two thirds of clients in this survey thought that their briefs were good illustrate that many on the client side acknowledge the problem.


The art of the brief blog

On this blog I’ll be publishing research, theories, examples and advice based on what I’ve learnt and have discovered about briefing. Hopefully there will be learning and inspiration for those who want to improve the quality of the briefs they get. Fixing briefing may not fix all the problems of the world but hopefully if we can improve the quality of the briefs we give to creative people the results will be better for all. If you’re interested in this subject and want to hear more feel free to subscribe.

  • Image sourced from
  • ANA research quoted in the Drum
  • Pdf of ANA research findings can be downloaded from here