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Include customer quotes in the brief.

Yes, that means you will have to ask real buyers what they like about the service. Why they bought the product in the first place. How it compares to competing offerings. And what words they would use to express a recommendation.

I learned the value of this trick at Rapp Worldwide, where I would sometimes walk out on the sidewalk, video camera in hand, and snag interviews from people passing by. Seriously.

Clients love to see real customers talk about their products, or even their product category. The creative team loves to hear real customers use real language to describe how they really feel - or don't feel - about investment services, premium ice cream, and snacks for their pet pooch.

Those wonderful glimpses of reality frequently find their way into the ads.

How to spot a bad brief

A common problem is that many briefs are ambiguous, lacking specific details, or incomplete. To avoid these mistakes, keep in mind that the brief should tell everyone on the creative team exactly what they need to know to create the ad or campaign.

If the CD, the writer or designer require 27 clarification calls, there's a problem with the brief. If the client rejects round after round of creative work, there's a problem with the brief. Or the client. So if you see these warning signs, it's time write better briefs. Or get better clients.

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Forget fixed-form briefs

A creative brief is essentially a list of questions. And most advertising or design shops have one brief. Unfortunately, one size does not fit all. There is no such thing as a single "perfect brief."

What you need in a creative brief is flexibility. You need the flexibility to select questions appropriate to any type of ad or campaign, in any medium. That could be a print ad or mailer or video. And that project could be either direct response or brand focused. Also, you might be working with a client you know well, or a new client that you do not know at all.

Clearly, you need a different brief - a different set of questions - for a new business pitch compared to a Facebook page compared to a TV campaign.

So dump those old writ-in-stone pre-printed briefs. Better to place the brief - the list of questions - on your computer. Then, for each new project, select the questions that are appropriate to the client and the project.

Sure, you'll have some "basic" briefs. But you and your team will also have the flexibility to better handle a wider range of projects, and importantly, to evolve with rapidly changing marketing environments.

Creative briefs and clients

Spend a little extra time with both. It's good for your creative karma.

So go ahead. Open your calendar. Pick up the phone. Schedule interviews with key executives in sales, customer service, marketing as well as management.

Obviously, one goal is to learn more about the client's products and market. Another goal is to understand the client's culture and personality. You may want to reflect that personality in your ads - in the way you define the brand, in the way you position the company.

Also, look for interesting stories about the company, the founder / owner, or customers. You might find a campaign idea there.

Be sure to prepare your interview questions in advance. And bring a portable tape recorder to capture comments you can share with your creative partners.

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