When in doubt, don’t.
My name is Jim. I am a suit.
The use of the word suit as an epithet has a long history. I understand that it started in England during the Victorian era and was used to describe the elite ruling class. Suit gained popularity here in the late 60s and early 70s as a way for the liberal youth to describe people who made up The Establishment—conservative, “my country, right or wrong” Americans in white shirts, black ties, and Nixon/Agnew stickers affixed to the chrome bumpers of their large cars. And somewhere along the line, “He’s a suit” also became the way to describe anyone who worked in an advertising agency’s account management department (otherwise known as “those account people”).
When I arrived on the agency scene, fresh out of college with a blank slate on which I expected to enthusiastically add a long series of accomplishments, I was taken aback when people called me a suit. But I had been raised a Catholic, so I was familiar with original sin. It’s a guilty-before-proven-innocent kind of thing, and you have to be baptized in order to be cleansed of it.
So if they wanted baptism, I was going for the full-body dunk. I did everything I could to rid myself of the suit label. I started using words such as man (with the dragged-out a), like, and far out in my everyday speech to make people wonder if I was a stoner. My appearance was half preppy, half proletariat. Sure, I had to wear a suit, but my ties looked like Walt Disney sneezed on them in living Technicolor. I grew my sideburns down to my chin. I sported the same tinted glasses that Peter Fonda wore in Easy Rider. But nothing worked.
Soon, however, I learned not to take it personally.
Creatives, or people in charge of writing and producing the advertising, believed that all account people were just born to piss them off. We were regarded as vacuous, left-brained brown-nosers who were more concerned about pleasing the client than protecting the integrity of the creative product.
Over the years, advertising agency dress codes have changed. Wearing suits is pretty rare for account people these days. When they do wear suits, it’s a dead giveaway that they’re interviewing for another job. The really obsequious among us will wear a polo shirt with the client’s logo prominently displayed for all to see, but the way most account people dress is indistinguishable from how the creatives dress. Still, the negative associations with suit are more than clothes-deep. To this day, many creatives think that account people wouldn’t know good advertising if it grabbed them by the hand and walked them to the cash register.
At our agency, we have a rule that a good idea is a good idea, no matter who comes up with it. Although this rule encourages cooperation between creatives and account people, there are no guarantees. The wounds from wars that took place long before our agency existed run pretty deep. That said, something happened at our agency to silence the traditional account vs. creative battles. For the most part, the two sides tend to get along and respect—even like—each other. There are a lot of reasons for this, some of which could be the subject of other books. But the most important one came about as the result of understanding the root of the conflict.
In most agencies the account person is responsible for preparing a creative brief. It also goes by other names, such as input document or assignment sheet. Whatever it’s called, it serves as the one-page summary of the creative assignment. It includes the basic background information that the writers and art directors (the creative team) will need to develop the advertising, including, among other particulars, a definition of the target prospect, the advertising’s promise, and its desired effect. The account person’s job is to fill out the creative brief, get it okayed by the boss, then present it to the client for approval. This briefing process can be brutal. On occasion, I have found myself spending hours huddled over the form debating minutiae with a client: whether but sounds too negative and should be replaced by and; the use of from versus to; and the age-old argument about the definition of an objective vs. a strategy.
It doesn’t matter that the final brief might be no more inspiring than a blank piece of paper. Rather, priority is given to receiving that all-important client green light to start the creative process. Once the brief is blessed by the client, the account person always has the six-word key to turn off all complaints from the creative team: “This is what the client wants,” often preceded by “Sorry, I’ve been down that road with them,” or “I put my ass on the line arguing the same points,” and/or “I know the client is being stubborn, but …” This goes on ad nauseam.
I’ve always been at odds with the briefing process. On one hand, it seems necessary. Clearly, writers and art directors need structure and direction. But at the same time, this practice has always seemed like an overly mechanical way to inspire originality. Consequently, creative briefs can inhibit the very thing they are designed to facilitate. In an effort to control exactly what information an ad will convey, too many planners make it hard for creativity to flourish. Additionally, creative briefs are sometimes the product of too much thinking and not enough feeling. By design, the brief is structured to require logical answers to questions that explain why the advertising is being created and what it should accomplish. Often, however, the brief will identify or label the way prospects currently feel and/or how we want them to feel about the brand being promoted. But meanings associated with feeling words are very difficult for writers, art directors, or anyone working with the brief to identify with the prospect.
If I tell you that I’m getting tired of typing right now and I need a pick-me-up, the word tired can mean anything from starting to fall asleep, to boredom, to being strained, exhausted, weary, drained—or it could simply mean that I’m a little less energetic than I’d like to be. Unless I do more than label the feeling tired by exacting a more complete picture of what tired feels like for me right now, you will never be able to reach a deeper level of empathy. Traditional creative briefs provide structure, but within that structure it is hard to discern the emotional texture needed to fuel an understanding of the prospect’s problem.
In 1863, Abraham Lincoln was given a last-minute invitation to “make some appropriate comments” at the dedication of the new Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Imagine, if you will, that you were given the assignment of writing that speech for Mr. Lincoln. To help, you were given the creative brief on the next page.
Arguably this brief sets up goals worth achieving. But obviously, given the nature of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, its abstract tone and dedicatory manner were derived from something much bigger than a factual checklist of what he had to say. This speech was written from Lincoln’s soul as much as it was from his head. It was his heartfelt understanding of the atrocities of war that inspired the words he chose to fashion this speech. Given that we’re so far removed from this time in history, it’d be difficult for anyone to write anything even close to what ultimately became one of the most significant speeches ever delivered to an American audience.
What is the problem this speech must solve?
Boost the Union’s war effort and solidify
political support in Pennsylvania.
Fifteen- to twenty-thousand Northerners gathered at the
dedication of the new Soldiers’ National Cemetery in
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the nation at large.
What do we want them to think?
These soldiers did not die in vain.
They died to keep our government intact.
How do we want them to feel?
Respectful of the men who died in the Gettysburg battle.
Assured that we’re doing the right thing.
But I am not suggesting that to create great advertising we have to be the prospect. But I am suggesting that efforts to get closer to what the prospect really thinks and feels will direct better creative output than the information-only nature of the traditional creative brief. The question is how.
As you’ll soon see, we found the answer in the way stories can create empathy.
A few years ago, I was summoned to visit with a client’s marketing team to discuss plans for a new brand campaign for a well-known company. To protect the innocent (and myself), let’s just call it the Last National Bank. I listened intently through eight hours of charts, diagrams, research summaries, and shifted paradigms. My job was to sift through all this information to find the unique selling proposition, or USP, and articulate it in a creative brief. At the conclusion of the meeting, the client asked if they could see the start of a creative brief the next morning. I saw this merely as a test to see if we were listening. Since I had been writing the brief in my head all day and merely needed to play back words on paper, I responded with a confident “yes,” without hesitation.
The next morning, as I sat in my hotel room over coffee and the dreaded thought of another eight hours of death by PowerPoint, I started filling out the brief. As I was writing, I caught myself asking questions like, “Will they prefer this word over that?” or “I wonder if they’ll be tripped up by the way I paraphrased their diagram,” etc. As I was tying myself up in rhetorical knots, the phone rang. It was my colleague asking how long it would be before we could show them their brief. It was in that moment that everything changed.
“Let me call you right back,” I said.
I suddenly realized what I was doing and why; perhaps I deserved that “suit” epithet. Their brief. I was writing their brief, as I had so many times before, simply to win their approval: to assuage the client’s concerns and let them know that “we get it.” Not once while writing did I ask myself if my words would trigger creativity, inspire new thinking, or truly help the creative team understand the prospective buyer’s problem. For instance, this brief was asking for facts about the prospect, such as demographics, psychographics, ranked importance of features—things that could be assigned a number. And if anything was said about the emotional state of the prospect, the description had to be stated as an explanation of how the prospect might be feeling (e.g., “the prospect is psychologically distressed, despondent, and feeling a certain level of anxiety over his lack of control”). Beyond this was very little that would help anyone know what it was like to be this prospect or to help anyone empathize with his or her perspective.
I called my colleague back and said, “Give me an hour.”
I quickly finished the brief as directed. But then I tried something unorthodox to see what would happen.
Instead of using descriptive language, I wrote a short letter, delivered in the first person as if I were the prospect. As such, I described who I was and the problem I was having that needed a solution. While writing it, I became like a novelist writing a mini-story that would help readers identify with the prospect. In the end I had translated the brief into something that had more of an emotional core—something that enabled the reader to vicariously feel the way the prospect feels.
An hour later, I took both the brief and the letter to the client. Sitting across from them at a large table, I ticked off the questions and answers in the brief and received a round of approving statements from the group. Having made it over that hurdle, I then passed out the new document I had written.
“I have something else that I want to share with you,” I said, to the surprise of the rest of my team. I told the client I wasn’t happy with the way I had described the prospect in the creative brief. I further told them that they needed something more than a USP.
“In order to create advertising that will resonate with your prospects, I think we have to do a better job of empathizing with them,” I said.
As everyone looked at me quizzically (actually, sneeringly is a better way to describe it), I was given the green light to read what I had written:
Hi, I AM your prospect. Ever since I’ve had enough money to need a bank, I’ve been listening to banks tell me about how much they care, how friendly they are, and how their customers are really, really happy. And I always have the same reaction: Do you actually expect me to believe that? And who cares? I sometimes wonder if there’s a bank out there that knows who I am and what’s most important to me.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t expect the red carpet to be rolled out when I come into the bank. That’s not what I mean by knowing me.
Knowing me is knowing that I expect my bank to get the basics done right. Like an easy-to-read, accurate statement. Like not being put on hold for fifteen minutes when I call in with a question. Like not penalizing me for using an ATM instead of a teller. Those are just some of the basics, the cost of doing business. And if that’s all a bank is doing, then it needs to try a little harder.
Knowing me—I mean really knowing me—is understanding just how busy I am. Show me, don’t tell me that you realize this. Somehow, let me know that you know I have a demanding job, a family, and a relentless to-do list and a number of other pressures I have to deal with regularly.
Knowing me is knowing that banking is not one of my biggest priorities in life. I don’t have the time for a bank that is going to slow me down, so give me some new ideas that will make banking less of a chore. In fact, give me some ideas that will make my entire financial life less of a chore.
And hear this: I don’t care how big you are. I don’t care how friendly you think you are. And I certainly don’t care that you never sleep or that together we can make all my dreams come true.
The solution? It’s simple. In fact, that’s exactly what it is. MAKE BANKING SIMPLER. Stay open late once in a while, or, at the very least, don’t close the same time I leave work. Don’t charge me for using an ATM. After all, you never used to charge me for using a teller. Send me statements I can understand without an MBA in finance. Don’t take up my time keeping me on hold and forcing me to listen to one of your commercials, either. Stuff like that.
Oh, and one more thing: Don’t just tell me you can make my life simpler. Prove it.
When I finished, you could have heard a pin drop. Eyes darted about. I thought someone might want to throw furniture at me or toss me out of the room. After a long and very pregnant pause, the president said, “Yeah, I hear things like this all the time.” And that provided the permission everyone else needed before chiming in with comments like, “I’ve been there myself,” and “That’s exactly how I feel about my electric company.” Everyone was adding their own experiences to the story, building layers and enriching it with meaning. Suddenly the creative brief—that cold, heartless, analytical document—had gained a pulse.
“Where did you get this idea?” the client asked.
“From you,” I fibbed. (Because, honestly, I didn’t know where I got the idea. It was simply born out of my own frustration that the creative brief wasn’t getting me where I needed to go.) “Isn’t this what all the research said?”
“Well, yes, but it’s not quite the same,” came the response.
“That’s precisely my point. We know what the facts are. But from the brief I wrote, the one you said was on target, did you get the same feeling?”
“Well, no, of course not, but …”
I kept going. “Imagine a customer walking into this room. Do you think that customer would quickly summarize how they think and feel about banking in one or two sentences? You’d hear some emotion and words we’d never put on a chart or graph. In order to connect with these people, we not only have to know what they think and feel, we also have to somehow experience what they’re experiencing. We have to be able to empathize with their reality.”
“Well, this is all an interesting exercise, Jim,” the president said, “but what are you going to do with this? Is it actionable?”
“It’s a helluva lot more actionable than this creative brief,” I guessed. (Because, really, I didn’t know for sure until we tried it out. But I had a strong feeling about it.) “Let me take it back to the team. We’ll see you in a week.”
When I got back to the agency, I called a meeting. I took everyone through the same presentation that I had given the client. And the response was immediate. Suddenly the team started connecting to the prospect. They began to deeply understand the banking customers’ challenges and frustrations. Unlike what they normally took from a creative brief, this was information they could process in their gut as well as in their heads.
A week later I saw some of the most engaging creative work I had ever seen for this client.
Our team went in and showed the client how we could talk about Last National Bank in a way that would truly resonate with the kinds of people I had described in the story. The advertising didn’t make empty promises about a unique selling proposition that wasn’t actually unique. It didn’t brag. It wasn’t flowery. It didn’t try too hard. Rather, it was advertising that demonstrated that this bank understood “busy.” And it proved it knew the importance of simplicity.
We presented this theme: Simplify.
That was it. In one word, we captured the essence of what this bank was all about. It described the bank’s cause. We didn’t come right out and say that Last National Bank made things simple. We relied instead on inference and association with the value of simplicity. This, we told our client, would become LNB’s rallying cry—not just for customers who shared that value but for employees who needed to supply the proof. It’s your story, we said. It’s what you’re all about. And it just so happens to be a story that your prospect wants and needs to hear—especially now, in these trying times.
The campaign was met with applause, which, for this client, was a first.
I knew we were onto something with this new “story” approach. Instinctively, it made sense. But exactly why and how it worked was something I couldn’t yet articulate. I needed to know more to really apply it—before we could completely abandon the creative briefing process and make this a regular part of what we did. I knew there would be a ton of questions that I would have to answer.
What I eventually found was something far more powerful than a new way to write a creative brief. A new approach to creative brief writing was merely one component of something much bigger. Digging deeper, I found a whole planning method that had just been waiting to be discovered since my earliest days in the business. I can’t lay claim to inventing this problem-solving process. It’s been around for a very, very long time. It’s one we use every day in the way we think, explain, or try to persuade others. Studies have now shown that this process is part of our hardwiring. It’s a process that has its roots in story structure. And so, we call this process StoryBranding.
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