In August I delivered a Warc webinar entitled 'Beyond boring briefs: How to inspire great work' and it garnered the most attention and follow-up requests of any that we've done together. Lots of people seem to agree that briefs have become boring. Planners feel as if they are endlessly writing the same briefs, filling out the same forms, regardless of which agency, client or project they are working on.

Looking back in time and across agencies and geographies, we found a great deal of similarity. At the emergence of planning in the USA at Chiat/Day in the late 1980s, we can see the modern form of the brief emerge and solidify: a problem to be solved by advertising, consumers to target with messaging, a single thought, reasons to believe it, and some sense of the brand. My partner, Rosie, uncovered an internal memo written by Jane Newman at Chiat/Day that explains the problem with this sea of sameness: we are in the differentiation business, yet we fail to differentiate. The agency adopted account planning for a reason: "To achieve our creative philosophy of relevant distinctiveness, we've also applied that same creativity to how we structure ourselves both internally and dealing with clients." But what was heresy became orthodoxy and in many advertising agencies around the world, the structures and briefs are identical.

At Genius Steals, we believe that unique beliefs lead to less boring briefs, and we found some examples of this in our review. When BBH opened in 1982, its first major campaign was for Levi's black denim. The ad featured a black sheep volte-face in a herd of white sheep and the headline was: 'When the world zigs, zag.' BBH went on to adopt this as its belief system, which was reflected in its brief. It included the question 'How does the category engage creatively and how could we challenge this?' Another belief that BBH's Sir John Hegarty espoused was: 'The brief is the first ad in the campaign. It's my job to make it better.' Due to that, the back of the brief would include various 'potential ways in' to be explored by the creative teams.

Back when Alex Bogusky was at CP+B, he insisted on being presented with the press release for a campaign before seeing the work. This was because he believed that advertising ideas should create their own publicity, that they should be interesting enough to get mainstream media coverage, that work should be surprising.

That was also enshrined in their brief, which asked 'What relevant and differentiating [echoing Newman's language] idea will surprise consumers or their current thinking of the brand?' and 'What about the brand could start a dialogue in pop culture?' Interestingly, CP+B briefs didn't have a section about the audience per se, only the cultural or consumer tension the idea might help to solve. Jung von Matt's brief had a section in the middle called 'The Bri' that was printed on a beer mat because they believed the briefing should lead straight to the pub for discussion.

Too many briefs are terrible-looking word documents, which is baffling. Advertising, at its very core, is founded on the belief that how we present something is as important as what we are saying. Otherwise, we'd just print the product and price details in 12pt Comic Sans. Yet briefs are rarely designed. We believe that every document an agency produces should be beautiful.

All this analysis of templates reminded me of something Saatchi & Saatchi's Richard Huntington said when commenting on my blog many years ago. "Sorry to be so blunt, but you write a great brief by having a great idea. I have never had any time for briefing formats because they turn planners into form fillers."

Many planners we spoke with did seem to feel they were just filling out forms, which is a shame because writing a brief shouldn't be like doing your taxes - it's a creative act.

But this is really a larger question: is a brief a question to be answered or a solution to be articulated? The answer is that it is both, but it's a good idea to work out which kind your agency, creatives or clients are using.

Ultimately, the briefing is often more important than the brief, as the job is to inspire - so get out of the office. The document itself is just the totem from Inception - as the creative exploration gets into weird, interesting territory, it's the thing we look back at to make sure we're still in the right world.

Want the deck? Head over to the new Genius Steals website:

Watch Faris’ Warc Webinar: Beyond boring briefs: How to inspire great work