What makes the perfect creative brief?
And how to write a brief for yourself
(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman is one of Aretha Franklin’s greatest performances, and one of the best records ever made. Aretha makes its words sound deeply, volcanically personal, singing them with a joy so intense it comes close to pain. A Natural Woman speaks of love and intimacy and fulfilment. The critic Dave Marsh called it, “the greatest record ever made about female sexuality”. It has been heard as a celebration of womanhood, and of black womanhood in particular.
The song itself did not well up from Aretha’s soul, however, or from anyone with lived experience of what it has come to represent. Its words were written by a white man, Gerry Goffin, its gospel-inflected music by a Jewish woman, Carole King. A Natural Woman was composed to order, by professional songwriters. I love its origin story, as told in King’s autobiography (which is named after the song).
In 1967, King was 25 and had already been writing hit songs with Goffin, her husband, for seven years. (They scored their first big hit when King was 18 and Goffin was 21: Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, performed by The Shirelles - not a bad way to launch a pop career). They were walking down Broadway one evening, when a black limousine with dark windows pulled up alongside. The rear window slid down, and a a face they knew looked out at them: Jerry Wexler, co-head of Atlantic Records.
“I’m looking for a really big hit for Aretha,” Wexler said. Aretha Franklin had joined the label less than a year before and had made a couple of big hits, including Respect; now Wexler was searching for her next single. Goffin and King were immediately interested. “How about writing a song called ‘Natural Woman’?” said Wexler. Then he rolled his window up, and his car eased back into the traffic.
Goffin and King admired Aretha, and they liked Wexler’s title. As they drove back home to New Jersey, they tuned the radio to a black gospel station, and talked excitedly about what kind of song they could write. After tucking their two daughters into bed, they went to the music room. King put her hands to the piano and played a gospel-sounding chord progression in a stately 6/8 tempo. “It was unbelievable how right [the chords] were, and we both knew it,” she said. The music seemed to come from nowhere, although she believed the discussion on the car journey home had put her in the right place to receive it.
Goffin started coming up with words on the spot, and what incredible words they are (When my soul was in the lost and found/You came along to claim it). By the time the couple went to bed they had the song. The next day, they recorded a demo and brought it to Wexler, who loved it; a few days later, they got the news that Aretha loved it too. The final recording, of course, is extraordinary, and not just because of Aretha’s performance. The backing singers - her sisters, Erma and Carolyn - put their inimitable stamp on it (Ah-oo!). The arrangement is perfect - dancing strings, rapturous horns, the way everything drops out as she declares how she feels.
What I love is that this sublime efflorescence arose out of such a prosaic, businesslike encounter. A music executive said, here’s what I need, and two professionals got to work. Of course, they weren’t just any two professionals, they were Goffin and King, but we must also credit Wexler - for isn’t this one of the best creative briefs anyone has ever given?
Perhaps I should explain what I mean by ‘creative brief’. I worked in advertising for a long time (still do, now and then). In ad agencies, the creative brief is what the business team (account director, strategist) hand to the creative team (copywriter, art director, social media experience shaman, whatever) when they want them to come up with campaign ideas. It is, or is meant to be, a distillation of everything that the client needs to achieve with their budget, honed to a point fine enough that when the creatives go to work they produce something that’s both effective and creative.
It sets objectives for the work. Not necessarily quantifiable ones like sales, but what we want consumers to think, do, and feel when they see the ad. It also hints at possible routes to take and tries to reframe the problem in an interesting way. The brief is a work of alchemy, transmuting the analytical and linear into the intuitive and lateral. It’s somewhere between an instruction and a suggestion. It is both logical and surprising, and, at its best, an act of creativity in itself.
In the ad industry the creative brief is a formal tool in a process, but there are plenty of other workplaces where briefs are given and received. Any time that you want a person or a team to deliver a project but to use lateral thinking in how to deliver it, you should carefully calibrate your brief, whether written or verbal. I think the brief is also a tool that you can use on yourself, when pursuing your own creative projects.
Within the ad industry the art of writing a good brief is taken very seriously, with endless theological disputes over the best away to structure and write one. While there are many elements to consider, it comes down to finding the right balance of constraint and freedom. The ideal brief is short (one or two pages), pithily expressed, and instantly inspiring. It sets a clear destination, but allows its recipients leeway on how to get there.
Wexler’s brief was so short it didn’t need to be written down. I’m looking for a really big hit for Aretha. He knew that Carole and Gerry knew Aretha’s music and that he didn’t need to use up any more words on what kind of material would play to her strengths. But that wasn’t all he gave them. Wexler had been mulling over the phrase “natural man”. In 1967, notions of authenticity, sincerity, being true to oneself were in the air, partly because of the conversations around black civil rights. As Wexler turned his mind to Aretha, he thought, what if the gender was flipped? The phrase could take on a whole new dimension.
So he ended up giving Goffin and King two inspirational constraints - the artist, and the title (as well those they already knew about: a big hit had to be two or three minutes long, with an unmissable chorus). After that, he left it up to them. He knew they were good at what they did. Had he told them less - had he simply told them to bring him any ideas they had - or more - that it needed to be uptempo, or to reference the civil rights movement - then the result would not probably not have been so spectacular.
A good creative brief can’t be so wide that it gives no direction, nor so tight that it cuts off fruitful pathways you haven’t considered but that your team might discover by themselves. Two fundamental questions always pertain: ‘Am I being clear enough about what I want?’ and ‘Am I being too clear about what I want?’
I think the same principles can apply to individuals and our solo projects. If you have a creative aspiration - you want to write a book or a song, or make a video, or whatever it is - it might be useful to actually write a brief to yourself. I know that when I’m generating ideas for an article or a book, it helps to come up with a headline or title first. That might sound like the wrong way around (shouldn’t you write something and then decide what to call it?) but it gives me a provisional focus without narrowing my options too much.
You can make productive constraints for yourself in many ways. Robert Caro comes up with the last sentence of his book first and sticks it on the board over his writing desk. The artist Yves Klein set himself the challenge of creating art in one colour only and discovered a new kind of blue; the Beatles set themselves the challenge of writing a song with only one chord and made Tomorrow Never Knows.
You don’t need to be so radical. Just defining your objectives clearly, imaginatively and succinctly can be helpful. Writing them down is a way of splitting yourself into two entities - the executive and the creative. That’s particularly valuable for anyone who has to work under their own steam, since not having someone tell you what to do is the best thing about being self-employed and the worst. Andy Warhol, the most driven and entrepreneurial of artists, once said, “When I think about what sort of person I would most like to have on a retainer, I think it would be a boss.”
So why not give it a try? “What do I want people to think, do, and feel after reading/listening to/watching/experiencing this?”
Pin the answers to that above your desk. Then roll up the window and drive away.
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After the jump: my thoughts on Stop Making Sense (the Talking Heads movie), plus what I’ve been reading, and a few excellent podcast episodes you really should check out.