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Soft Focus: Writing Briefs That Leave Room for Creativity

25 Jun, 2019 Alex Naylor Creativity

At the beginning of every season of The Good Place, NBC’s absurd comedy about what happens after you die, show runner and creator Michael Schur sits down with his team of writers to discuss the major plot points, big character developments and story arcs, and essentially figure out where things are headed on the show that season.

One of the goals during this time is to create what he calls a “soft focus” for the season. He wants to give the writers enough direction and detail to work with as they set out to write individual episodes without restraining or controlling things so much that it limits creativity and discourages them from sharing other ideas. In many ways, it’s like writing a creative brief for the show.

And just in case you were wondering, he also did the same thing as one of the co-creators of Parks and Recreation and as a writer (and also the character Mose Schrute) on The Office. So it seems to have worked out pretty well for him. But that’s beside the point.

So what is the point?

Thanks for asking. Because there is, in fact, a point. And the point is this: what if we took this idea of soft focus and used it in our creative briefs for ad campaigns?

What is a soft focus brief?

This would be a departure from most of the briefs being written today, to be sure. Typically, what creative teams get to work with falls somewhere in one of these categories:

  • The bloated brief. These are the briefs that are chock full of demographic data, market statistics and other research tidbits that, I’m sorry to say, are generally pretty worthless and hard to put into context. They end up being uninspiring, and creative teams usually throw them in the trash.
  • The biased brief. These are the briefs that are built based on the client’s input, opinions and that “gut feeling” they have because there’s a lack of budget/time/resources to do it any other way. The problem here is that most clients suffer from tunnel vision and simply aren’t able to see any kind of reality or truth about their brand, which is essential in a good brief.
  • The freedom brief. This is the brief that favors “creative freedom” over detail and direction. While the notion of giving the creative team a blank check and blindly trusting them not to bankrupt you is nice, it’s also dangerous and in actuality makes the creative team’s job harder — because now they have to write the strategy as well as the campaign.
  • The execution brief. These are the ones that solely focus on the channels and moving people through the “sales funnel”. It’s typically devoid of any useful strategic insight and reads like a bulleted to-do list for the creative team. Three emails, two display ads and a landing page. Ok, but what are they supposed to accomplish other than clutter up our audience’s inbox?

A soft focus brief, on the other hand, balances information and research with creative freedom. It’s biased, but that bias is backed by data. It lays out a clear plan for execution, but leaves room for tweaks and changes if the idea calls for it. It includes guidelines, but not rules. It lays out the road map to the solution, but doesn’t attempt to solve it all by itself. In other words, it tells us who the characters are and where we want them to end up at the end of the story, but lets the creative team decide how to get them there.

How do you write a soft focus brief?

It all comes down to balance.

A brief that’s too narrow in focus leads the creative team down a very strict path and limits their thinking. It doesn’t allow them to ever venture off script or explore other possibilities. The result is that great ideas get left out.

Conversely, a brief that lacks focus entirely leaves the creative team guessing and grasping at straws. They may come up with thousands of great ideas, but will any of them be relevant or make sense for the particular assignment? You’re basically leaving it to chance.

The best briefs, and the ones that create this soft focus we’re talking about, frame up the story in these terms: Problem. Solution. Destination.

Destination = The target audience’s goal. Where they want to go or what they want to accomplish in the story.

Problem = What the target audience is experiencing, the obstacles they’re facing and anything that might keep them from getting to their destination at the end of the story.

Solution = How Brand X steps in to help the target audience overcome that problem and reach their desired destination, creating a beautiful happy ending.

Any brief that defines just those three things is likely right in the sweet spot and strikes a perfect balance for the creative team. They’ll bring the rest into focus.

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