Love starts with your brief. It determines if you’ll get some.

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

That was the purported brief given by Pope Julius II to Michelangelo for the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

I have been inside the Sistine Chapel and seen the ceiling up close. Call me sentimental, but it was hard not to feel an ethereal tingling up your spine gazing at those Michelangelo frescoes. Five hundred years after the brief, we are still awed.

The Sistine Chapel briefing may well have been a myth, but there’s an instructive lesson in the story for marketing campaigns:

A campaign soars or dies by the quality and inspiration of its brief.

An advertising brief is a written document to the advertising agency for the creation of an advertising or brand campaign. For a major marketing campaign, the brief will contain useful information like the business objective, cascaded down to the marketing objective, and then to the communication objective. It will also contain relevant market information, target consumer demography and psychographic, insights, brand strengths and weaknesses and a picture of what success will look like.

However, an equally important element I have often seen left out in the briefing process is the inspiration part. What I call the human briefing.

Human briefing is very personal. The client paints a romantic vision to the agency and transport the team to a brand Sugar Candy Mountain, a land of plenty for everyone and where all brand pain and challenges disappear. It is the land where the consumer merrily jaunts towards the brand, the CMO gets a pat on the back from the CEO and the agency holds up shiny lion heads. It is where the client bares all and sell the agency on the brand agenda.

Creating great advertising is both science and art. The science part is in the brief document. The art part is out of it and soft. It is the motivation part, the rousing POTUS-Armageddon-Independence-Day-type call to arms. It is for the art part that inspirational briefing is required. This is all the more important because briefing can be mechanistic and one-sided – passed down from the client to the agency. The agency has to be inspired to dig deep down and find that magical campaign.

And no, the threat of losing the business is not inspiration or motivation enough for the agency. And yes, inspirational/human briefing does seem to take a bit more time and effort, but the effort is well worth it.

Below are a couple of ways you can carry out inspirational/human briefing.

Get the CMO involved in briefing the agency. What this does is show the agency that the client consider this project very important. Hard-to-impress creative people usually get interested when the big dog comes to the agency. It tells them that the client needs their help. It makes them feel good. They are usually up for it.

Obviously, I am not proposing this approach for every campaign. Only for the big ones.

Get the agency to visit your line if possible. Let them see how the product is made, the people behind the scene, a typical work day at your company and the like. You never know what ideas will happen.

That above ad for Rolls-Royce is a David Ogilvy classic. The headline was said to have originated from the chief engineer at Rolls-Royce. The agency team visited the Rolls-Royce assembly plant. The chief engineer had informed the agency – irritatingly I imagined – that “at 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.” Then he concluded – wryly I suppose – “It is time we did something about that damned clock.”

In that visit to the line, the chief engineer had unwittingly provided the agency with the campaign idea.

As part of producing a brand campaign, I once spent an entire night in the call center of a bank, observing those folks who stay up all night to answer customer calls. People call for all manner of things, some of them downright ridiculous. You could see the call center folks struggle with balancing professionalism with their temperament and the length they go to chalk down insults from customers. It was a revealing and humbling affair.

Show examples of the types of campaign you’d like to see. Scoot over to the agency. Get some Coke. Get some popcorn. And roll tape.

Going over TV, print and digital campaigns with the agency in a relaxed atmosphere can be very inspiring to the agency. See what other brands have done and are doing, try to second-guess their brand challenge and campaign objective, go over the copy, the craft and production values. Discuss alternate ways of rendering the message. Talk about what each person liked in the campaign and what they didn’t.

From experience, after such sessions, everyone has great ideas. Both client and agency. That’s where you want to be.

Casually drop ‘Cannes’ into the conversation. OK. That sounds disingenuous and sneaky. But it isn’t. Because you mean it (you do, don’t you? Don’t you?!)

Nothing gets agency people salivating like the prospect of creating work that can take them to the South of France. Vilify them all you want, but agencies are besotted with awards. It helps them attract new clients. It helps them attract top talents. And they absolutely love clients who are open to creating award-winning work. They give you their all.


Below is one of my favourite campaigns. Brilliant copywriting. The tagline ‘A Diamond is Forever’ has been adjudged one of the most memorable taglines of the last century.




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