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Give me the freedom of a tight brief – the copywriter’s mantra

August 23, 2010
James brochure 1950s

Travel in style, travel by James - a simple message giving freedom of the open road to young couples in the 1950s. Tight writing for cash-strapped times


Copywriters the world over have rued the day they took an assignment which resulted in countless re-writes. It is at times like these that David Ogilvy’s great words come to mind: “give me the freedom of a tight brief”. 

As TS Eliot observed: “When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.”  

Total freedom, as hinted at by Eliot, is what the copywriter calls the “open brief”. Such briefs include “you’re the expert – you’ll know what to write, that’s what I pay you for”. But the problem of briefs like this is that they take away ownership of the project from the company and place it straight in the hands of the copywriter (or ad agency or whatever). This is where chaos lies. 

Brands and their positioning are too important to be left to whimsy and so-called “creativity”. It’s in briefs like this that “think outside of the box” slogans appear for box manufacturers. Or terrible racing puns for companies who have, say, a horse as their logo. Unimaginative, tedious and lacking in intellectual worth. As would be the case if I had included a pair of underpants as the illustration for this article… 

So how best to be briefed? To my mind, the strongest brief is one which outlines to the copywriter who the target market is and what the client wants their customer to do (and within which time frame) once they have read the piece. Order a book? Log on to a specific page and do a specific action? Increase product feature recall of a brand whose core elements are not understood by the customer base? 

A tight brief is akin to the tedious teenage angst mantra: “who, what , when, where, why?” Teenagers expect you to interpret their angst by having no detail, to be challenged by the questions as if somehow you, the adult, is wrong by default. Yet this teenage tedium is the perfect brief for the copywriter: 

  1. Who am I writing to?
  2. What am I writing about and what do I want the customer to do; what’s the price/offer/time conditions?
  3. When is the piece going out/being featured?
  4. Where will the piece appear – in what neighbourhood?
  5. Why is the piece being written?

It’s a hard life dealing with briefs which are not tight. Corrections come back after the first draft; then the second; then the third. The design work creeps in and the client isn’t happy with that either. All because the brief was too vague. 

So a tight brief helps everyone: it helps the client understand more about their product and what they’re asking; it helps the copywriter create more quickly; it reduces corrections and correction fees; and it gets the work done faster. 

Of course, in many cases, copywriters are turned to because “we just don’t have the time” to do it in-house. In cases like these, when projects drag on and endless corrections are added, I always refer to the advice given to me years ago by advertising guru Alan Joseph. He said this: “Michael, whenever anyone criticises your work, always say to them (or imagine yourself saying to them): where were you when the page was blank?” 

Dead right too!

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