LEVERAGING CONFLICT & TENSION TO GET TO BETTER IDEAS.

(REVISED ESSAY) On Thursday, June 8 at 1:30pm, I’m presenting a webinar about this technique. I promise not to suck. (Register here.) 

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Creativity happens best, in my opinion, when we’re presented with a problem, not a solution.

I am not a strategist but in my experience, I think the best briefs set things up as problems, not solutions.

Think of the brief as a wall.

Getting over this wall requires creativity. … I can go over the wall – with a rope, a ladder. I can go under it with a shovel, through it with a bulldozer, go around the world and come up on the wall from the other side, or maybe just beam down on the other side with Spock. There are all kinds of possibilities.

Or, on the other hand, I can be presented with a brief about the lovely piece of land on the other side of the wall. Which is how I think most briefs read. “Please do an ad about the fine ten-square-yard patch of lawn.”

Well, I’m sure it’s a fine chunk of winter rye on the other side; thick and green, the envy of the entire block. But what’s on the other side of the wall is a solution, not a problem, and so it’s boring. It’s boring because it’s like a crossword puzzle that’s already been filled out. As a creative I always wondered, where do I go with briefs like this?

I’d rather work with a brief that is about the wall; about the problem.

One could argue the hypothetical lawn could be turned into something creatively dazzling. It can, yes — (just shut up, I’m on a roll) — but I’ll dig in my heels here to make a point. When you start with a problem, you have the beginning of story. And story is a bigger, better place to work towards than just some happy ad about some happy thing.

As you may recall from Mrs. Hansen’s 11th-grade English class, all drama is conflict. Sometimes it’s a protagonist versus an antagonist. Sometimes it’s love versus loneliness, or Crest versus cavities. But there’s always a “versus” and it’s that versus which drives the story.

What’s interesting to note here is how stories never start with a “happy ending.” A good thing, because happy endings aren’t interesting. It’s the beginnings, where the problems are, that make us lean in. I’ll wager if you pulled in hours late to a movie, you wouldn’t walk up and buy a ticket just to catch the last scene and the end credits. The movie stars riding off into the sunset (or over the nice lawn), that scene is almost always the least interesting part of any movie.

Unfortunately, many continue to think the purpose of a brief is to provide creatives with the information they’ll need to film the happy ending.

I’m not positive I’m right about this. But I suspect most creatives would agree it’s easier to create something interesting when you’re presented with a problem and not a solution.

That’s my 2¢. What’s yours?

 

7 Comments

  1. ‘When you start with a problem, you have the beginning of a story’

    What I love about this as a way of framing an assignment is it changes the energy of the challenge from task (5th time around might feel sisyphean) to adventure. This may seem like a naive takeaway, but energy is everything in a biz whose main indicator for success is loving how a sweaty brain makes you feel and having the resilience to sweat it over and over again.

    That’s my 1 cent (and I had a helluva hard time figuring out how to spell sisyphean)

    Reply
    • I really love the way you framed your thoughts and questions. I agree with every one of your 2 cents. We just want the problem. Allow us to give the happy ending.

      Reply
  2. ‘When you start with a problem, you have the beginning of a story’

    What I love about this as a way of framing an assignment is it changes the energy of the challenge from task (5th time around might feel sisyphean) to adventure. This may seem like a naive takeaway, but energy is everything in a biz whose main indicator for success is loving how a sweaty brain makes you feel and having the resilience to sweat it over and over again.

    That’s my 1 cent (and I had a helluva hard time figuring out how to spell sisyphean)

    Reply
  3. I have never found briefs particularly inspiring or strategists particularly insightful. But in their defense, most of the time the problem is that the client says “We need an ad that shows _________ (a person freaking out about our sale; two people enjoying our product together; etc).”

    Can you give an example of how “the wall” would be worded on a brief? How specific is the ideal wall? “We need a 30 second broadcast spot that convinces well-off older folks that our free shipping is better than the other sites they’re using. They don’t want to switch because they already trust Amazon, but we’re better for x, y, and z reasons.”?

    Reply
  4. Well-stated, Luke. I always enjoy your insights. I’ve shared your book with every creative co-worker I know. Would love to have you speak at our agency someday.

    Jerry Stoner
    CD, Strategic America

    The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
    – Thomas Paine

    Reply
  5. Luke, I am a great admirer of your work. But in this case I do not share your opinion.

    You expect product managers to be creative or at least think like creatives. In very rare cases they do, but usually they don’t.

    I am pretty sure the wall is part of creation, not part of the briefing.

    Reply
  6. One of my ACD’s used to look over the briefs given to us and practically yell, “What’s the problem?” because he thought that was where we needed to start our brainstorm. It can be very helpful if the problem is spelled out on the brief, but in my experience, many on the account side have a hard time narrowing it down.

    Reply

Leave a Reply to Toya Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.

Suggested Reading


There is no shortcut. This is how we learn it. Bit by bit.
View List

Luke Sullivan

Author, speaker, and ad veteran available to recharge, reinvigorate, and refocus marketing, advertising, and branding firms.

I give a hugely energetic series of presentations on innovation, creativity, branding, and marketing. I spent 32 years in the trenches of advertising (at agencies like Martin, GSD&M, and Fallon) and I’ve put everything I learned into my book, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. But for me nothing beats taking the message out and speaking to living breathing audiences at clients, agencies, and conferences. You can book me on the button below.

bookmenow_230