Q&A With Howard Ibach - The Creative Brief Whisperer

Howard Ibach On Creative Briefs And His New Book.

Howard Ibach. Howard Ibach

After the success of his book “How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief,” published in 2009, Howard Ibach is set to launch the 2nd Edition this June. I reviewed the book here, and it did the seemingly impossible; it improved on an already excellent how-to book.

So, I asked Howard more about his mission to give the advertising world “inspired creative briefs,” and what makes him tick.

Who are the greatest influences on your career, and, your decision to write this book?
I have one creative director who influenced me more than any other creative boss: Tom Jordan, ECD at Hoffman York & Compton in Milwaukee (I believe he’s CEO these days, unless he’s retired).

I worked for him in the late 1980s, every early in my career. I won my first creative awards at HY&C. He told me something I’ve never forgotten, and it has helped me remember to respect the consumer: “Your idea should draw a circle but never complete it. Let the reader do that.” There is always a judgment call as to where you stop drawing that metaphorical circle with your concept. Too incomplete and your concept is oblique. Too close to being complete and you kill the idea. Experience teaches you where to stop.

I read Ogilvy’s book, “Ogilvy on Advertising” years ago. I think he pushed me over toward direct marketing/direct response. I am a writer first and last. I love long copy. Even his headlines are writerly. I am among his legions of disciples. 

I wrote the book because I was sick and tired of reading bad briefs. Big surprise, huh? Actually, the book started as a short tutorial, which I delivered to my staff on the British Airways account when I worked at Carlson Marketing in Minneapolis.

After a big layoff, with a little time on my hands, I turned the six-page tutorial into a 90-odd page workbook for a workshop that I still do. Then I created a blog in 2008 and posted weekly. In the spring of 2009 I decided to take the meat of the workshop workbook and the best of my blog posts and, with the help of my design team at Rubin Cordaro Design, I created the graphic textbook now on your list.

I wanted it to be fun to read and look at, to keep the reader engaged. How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief came into being over a period of years, a slow gestation of iterations that is now in its 2nd edition.

Why are you the only advertising expert to dedicate a whole book to the creative brief?
Great question. I have no idea. Jon Steel has a chapter or two dedicated to the subject of creative briefs in his book, “Truth, Lies and Advertising.” John Hegarty discusses the topic in his book, “Hegarty on Advertising.” The British creative Alice Kavounas Taylor uses the creative brief template for chapter headings in her excellent book “Strategic Thinking for Advertising Creatives” although it’s not a book about how to write the brief. There are many others with chapters or parts of chapters on the brief. I’ve pieced together lots of other creatives’ writing on briefs from their books and articles. But, as you point out, no one has written a book about the nuts and bolts of actually writing the brief. Someone had to be the first. Lucky me.

What would you say to account executives who believe the creative team can write their own brief?
It’s not their job, ultimately. But creatives do have a stake in both the process and the outcome.

The brief must come from a non-creative member of the team. The document is designed and exists to do one thing: inspire the creatives. A creative-created document can’t do that. It’s like telling yourself a joke. You know the punch line before you even start. A brief must surprise to be effective.

Your book contains several creative brief examples from HHCL. They were one of the rare agencies doing everything right, yet went out of business. Why?
I wish I knew. I tried very hard to track down anyone who might have worked there to quiz them about the shop and their briefs. I’m sure the people landed elsewhere and many/some are still practicing professionals. No luck.

One of the best warnings in your book is “if you do not have a strategy, you cannot write a creative brief.” What if you are handed a poor strategy? Can it be fixed with a good brief?

The creative brief is the first step of the creative process. If the strategy is bad, don’t even think about writing a brief.

Why inspired? Why not "great" or "powerful?” 
I chose “Inspired” because that is the goal: to inspire creatives to their best thinking.

Many creative teams dissect a bad brief and make it better. What are the perils of doing this?
If it’s done in a silo-ed situation, independent of other teams at the agency/company, the danger is producing work that won’t be on strategy or on brief. If the creative team (or someone representing the creative department such as the CD) works with the original brief writer to edit and improve the brief, there are no dangers. That’s why collaboration is so important from the beginning.

There is an old saying in advertising – your strategy is showing. Is this the fault of a poor creative brief, or bad creative ideas and execution? Can you explain why?
I’m more familiar with this one: “Your positioning is showing.” They may be the same thing. I tend to think this is the result of inexperienced creatives, not a bad brief.

A creative director is ultimately responsible for an uninspired brief getting in front of a creative team. Discuss.
If the creative director doesn’t step up and collaborate with his/her account management colleagues to be that creative representative who helps draft a brief, then yes, the CD is ultimately responsible. That’s why I’m an unrelenting advocate of collaboration between account and creative to do this document together. There’s no excuse for not collaborating. None.

You say “speak up and complain” about bad briefs. How do you complain without “complaining?”
Speak softly, as Teddy Roosevelt used to say. Your big stick (the other part of his famous phrase) is your knowledge of the creative process. I’ve adjusted my view on this a bit. Instead of complaining, I recommend that creatives volunteer to work with an account person. It seems to me that the more senior you are, the more likely you are to already be working with account management anyway. Perhaps not in the actual crafting of this document, but in bigger picture objectives. Junior and middle-level creatives have an opportunity of making themselves even more indispensable to the agency and their team by collaborating with the account side. 

How does this work? I don’t know. I’m not in the agency world any longer. But I know how to introduce myself to someone new. Just step up and say hello. Tell your colleague you have an interest in the creative brief. It won’t be any surprise since it’s the creative’s doorway into each project. I believe the account person would welcome the assistance. Creatives always work with partners. Why shouldn’t the creative brief be written in the same kind of environment? My AD partner was always a good BS detector. She could always tell me when my headline was great or bogus. Every creative needs a BS detector. The creative brief is in desperate need of a BS filter too. Here’s a chance to start a new process.

You give creative brief workshops. How can an agency struggling with bad briefs turn things around once the workshop is over?
My workshop is designed to give participants tools they can use that day to write clearer, more inspiring briefs. I take each box/question on the brief and show participants in a step-by-step process how to ask the right questions, discern more focused answers and, where insights are hard to come by, how to manufacture them with a Socratic-styled approach. 

The challenge is always the same: accepting the advice and winning by-in from decision makers. Changing a brief writing process, or instituting one where it doesn’t exist or where it is broken, takes time. Sometimes lots of time. Agencies tend to be sensitive about creative brief writing. I don’t get as many agency clients because they believe, rightly, that they are the owners of the creative brief. The problem is, very few people ever are trained in how to write this document. Unless you have a degree from a college that teaches account planning (i.e. brief writing) or you were schooled in the UK or Canada, you learn by copying from your boss or someone who’s been on the job a little longer than you. It’s a sad situation.

What’s the one most important piece of advice you can give to a creative who wants the briefs they are receiving to improve?
Volunteer to work with your brief writer. Collaborate. Bond. Become a team. Write a draft together. Brief the entire creative staff chosen for that project together. Other creatives will be less likely to reject a brief if they see one of their own briefings them with the account person. That doesn’t mean an account person/creative brief writing team can’t produce a bad brief. It does mean that everyone will have a stake in the outcome and the process will be respected. Expectations will be raised. The brief will be taken more seriously. That can only help.

Finally…for which product or service would you most like to write a creative brief?
Whichever product or service earns the title, “worst ad of 2015,” to prove that an inspired brief could have prevented it.

Howard Ibach’s book “How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief. 2nd Edition” will be available this June.