Paul Burns on the Critical Importance of Creative Briefs

By Todd Anthony, Founder, Head of Strategy



This is the first in a (hopefully long) series of interviews whereby we sit down with an expert in the field of marketing and/or advertising and uncover new insights into how to get great work done.

This first interview is with Paul Burns, a 24-year veteran of Saatchi & Saatchi’s account practice and someone who started and ran that agency’s learning and development practice for 5-6 years. Today Paul runs the London-based Burns Unit, (not the Scottish Canadian folk music supergroup), which helps advertising agencies, communication organizations and marketing departments ignite an explosion of creativity. I chatted with Paul in early September 2020.

Tell me a little about your background. How did you get into creative process training?

I spent 25 years on the account side at Saatchis. And while I was there I sort of drifted into training. Our CEO at the time said, “Would you like to be Training Director.” And to be honest, I knew fuck-all about training and hated training courses. But I thought, I love people and love the brand, and this is a great way to give something back. So I became training director as well as looking after client business. And did that for five or six years, and got very involved in the trade organization called the IPA. You guys have the AAAA’s over there. Got involved in writing their online certificate and ran a load of training classes for them. So that was great.

Then how did you wind up starting the Burns Unit tic?

The last big crisis we all lived through, the (2008) financial crisis, a load of people in our industry were made redundant. Certainly at my level. I was in the position of, “What do I do now?” It wasn’t the right time to get a job at a big agency or start my own agency, so I looked at a range of things like working in universities, charities, client-side. I really wanted to work in a football club as a commercial director. In the end, I set up my own training consultancy in 2009 and I’ve been doing it ever since and I feel really really lucky.

How many courses do you offer?

There’s about 14 now. It always used to be face-to-face, but of course, with COVID, that’s all changed. I do 90-minute Zoom sessions. That’s been quite good fun and it might be what the future will be. We’ll see.

The courses cover everything from how to be the best account handler in your agency to planning, storytelling, leadership and of course, the one we’ll be discussing, creative brief training.

I was interested to see that you offer courses to both client marketers and agencies. Is your pitch different to those two audiences?

What I do for a client is pretty straightforward. The courses for them are all about how to get better work. How to give feedback in a more constructive way. Clients often have little idea how to give feedback in a constructive way. We go through why creative briefs are so important, and ultimately that feedback should be about how the work executes on the brief.

The big thing I’m concerned about is agencies understanding their clients’ businesses better. So I say to clients, force your agencies to understand your business better, understand why the creative brief is so important to agencies and why you need to give it a good amount of time and effort, and then how to feedback in a good constructive way. Because nobody thinks about how they feedback.

So why is the creative brief so important?  

To me, that brief is like a creative contract between the account team, planners, creatives and, most importantly, the client.

A contract is a very specific concept. Why is it important to think of the creative brief as a contract?

Well, we all need to buy into it. To me, where things break down, is when not everyone is aligned with the brief. If the agency isn’t bought into that brief then everyone goes all over the place. In my experience, we need to have the clients sign it off.

I’m amazed when I talk to agencies and they tell me that their clients aren’t going to give them a written brief. So I say, if you get a verbal brief, what do you do then? They say, “Oh, we write a creative brief and brief the creative team.” And that’s the problem. They didn’t run the creative brief by the client for sign off. So they end up with a muddle.

Like a contract, if you don’t agree at the outset, it becomes a whole lot more expensive afterward and much more frustrating for everyone.

Well, not getting it right the first time can lead to a lot of extra rounds, right?

Right. Say you were Toyota and the new Yaris is coming off the line for the first time. Let’s say you have all of the R&D people, the CEO of Toyota, the production people, everyone. It comes off the line representing millions of pounds of investment and here it is. And the CEO says, “Yeah, it looks great. But I don’t know about that blue. Can we have another one in Green please.” Then the green one comes down and it’s like, “Oh, it’s petrol? Can we have an electric version?” Then you go through that with an automatic and stick shift and so on. You would never do that. Why do we think it’s okay to do that in marketing?

And every little bit of the brief matters, right?

It does. We did an ad for Flymo, which is a lawnmower brand. Massive brand. It was the first lawnmower in the UK that had no wheels – hovered on-air over the grass and cut grass, very quickly and easily. So we had the lawnmower wars. You’d have the old traditional lawnmowers and this new kid on the block.

And I remember the briefs. We had the most brilliant planner. He was so frustrating to work with because he was so bright and so pedantic. We had in our brief, “The new Flymo Hover Mower, the quick and easy way to cut the grass.” We thought that was good… pretty straightforward and simple. And he said, “You can’t have quick and easy. It’s not single-minded.” I said, “Come on, quick and easy, everyone knows what that means.” He said, “No, it’s either quick or it’s easy. Because when you get the creative back, the team will either have focused on the speed or they will have focused on ease. So make the decision now rather than later. And of course, he was right. And we ended up going for the quick way to cut grass and we ended up with a now very famous line which was, “Why slow-mo when you can Flymo.”

I always remember that as a great example of why you argue about what goes into that brief. Because every aspect of it is consequential. So when you judge the creative, you’re judging whether it executes on the brief. It’s not about whether you like it or you don’t like it or think it’s funny or not funny. It’s about whether it hits on what the brief set out to achieve. That’s why I like to refer to it as a creative contract.

What would you say to clients who insist that there’s no possible way to write a brief so complete that it accounts for every possible way that the work could be wrong or right?

The brief should be very simple. It’s about trimming back and trimming back and being very focused. Otherwise, how do you judge whether your idea is brilliant or not? It’s not about whether it’s clever and funny or never been done or some weird, wonderful production technique. It’s about whether it answers the brief. If it answers the brief, how do we do that in a compelling, stand out way.

Do you ever wonder where the very first brief came from?

Good question. Yes, I do wonder about that. I have no idea. I’ve gotten lots of funny versions of briefs. The Rolling Stones gave a brief to Andy Warhol. Mick sent the brief. It’s like a handwritten thing to Andy.

[Editor’s note: the brief from Mick to Andy said, “I leave it in your capable hands to do whatever you want.”]

I don’t know where the creative brief originally came from but it’s a very good discipline because it focuses the team. Otherwise, it all just becomes random. And that’s where it all breaks down.

Aside from the brief, what else can impact the creative product?

How the work is approved, for one. You might agree on a brief with A client, but not THE client. Are you familiar with the RASCI Model?

No. What is the RASCI Model?

The “R” is the person responsible for the job. It might be an Account Director. Then you have the “A”, the approvers, which is really important because we all tend to have too many approvers. You should really only have one. Ultimately you can’t have more than one approver. The “S” is the support. Who is going to support you in doing this thing. The “C” is who you consult. These are people in the organization who you consult and get their point of view. You listen to it, but you don’t have to take their advice. And then the “I” is who you need to inform.

So on the brief, you include the client RASCI and the agency RASCI. On the agency side, the person responsible might be the Account Director. But who is the approver? The Creative Director might be the approver. Or is the Account Director? Then if the client does the same thing, that’s a really interesting pushback to them. To say, who is the approver? They’ll want to say them. But it might be the managing director or CEO. It might even be the CEO’s husband or wife. But it’s an interesting question.

What we strive for, clients and agencies, is to get the work right and approved the first time. Nobody wants to sit in 15 meetings where we discuss the work. So getting it right the first time is a great aspiration.

It’s something that we’ve seen. Clients see themselves as being very democratic and everyone’s opinion is equally valid and what winds up happening is that we go on this journey that you’re talking about.

It’s not unusual. Although when i explain RASCI, I see their eyes light up and they say, “Oh my god, why don’t we do that?!” Because with RASCI, there’s a consultative element. You can still be inclusive and seek other people’s opinions. But it doesn’t mean you have to agree. The point is, if you consult everybody and factor in everyone’s opinion, you wind up with a mess. It’s like that whole thing with the horse designed by committee is a camel. Someone has to be responsible and someone has to be the approver.

I think we assume that relegating someone to “not approver” will feel like a slight and so we avoid it altogether, thinking that we can manage the various egos and conflicting opinions when the time comes. But we never do and things go sideways.  

But it’s really not that difficult to establish it upfront. I was working for a big university over here. There’s a big committee with all these heads of departments and the job was to do the annual prospectus. You can imagine… SO many people involved. Everyone wants their own opinion to be heard.

And I said to the Marketing Team, “That’s fine. You marketing people, you’re the comms experts. The rest of the group is experts in biophysics and engineering and whatever. They’re not experts in comms. So you marketers need to consult the department heads. Find out what needs to be communicated. Explain the RASCI model to the department heads and say, “It’s my responsibility, my job, to get this project sorted out and my boss, the CMO to make the final decision.” And the department heads, they all felt relieved. It works so well because it doesn’t mean that you can’t have an opinion… that you can’t have your say. But the person responsible for it or the person who approves it somewhere down the line makes that decision. They listen to all of the feedback and say, “Look, I heard all of your views. All really interesting. Someone has to decide how we move this forward. And I’ve decided the idea was fine.

Someone has to make a decision somewhere. You can’t have five people making a decision because no five people are all going to be thinking the same exact way. So ultimately there needs to be a decision upfront as to who makes the decision.

I think very often, the clients want to defer and make their colleagues feel good about their contribution and that’s an interpersonal dynamic that often leads to bad creative work.

That’s absolutely true. I’ll give an example. We were having a massive launch of a new lottery product. And we had the Chief Marketing Officer, the Senior Brand Manager, the Brand Manager, the Junior Brand Manager, and the intern. The intern was at University doing a 6-week placement at the client’s marketing department.

So after we present, the CMO shouts down the table, “Rachel, what do you think of the idea that the agency is presenting?” And you just know that whatever Rachel the intern says is going to determine what happens that day. She says, “Well, I think it’s a fabulous idea. It’s very clever. Funny. Love it.” Then they go to the Junior Brand Manager and it’s like a rabbit in the headlights. They think to themselves, “What do I do? I think this idea is shit, but I don’t want to undermine this intern who’s here for just 6 weeks and make her feel terrible.” So they say, “Yeah, I think it’s a really interesting idea. I think what Rachel said is so true. It’s a marvelous idea. Brand Manager thinks to themselves, “Rubbish!” But they don’t want to make the other two feel bad. So they say, “Yeah, I think it’s a really interesting idea. I think what Rachel said is so true. It’s a marvelous idea.” So the CMO says to themselves, “You know what, I think this is the worst idea I’ve ever seen, but my whole team likes it. I can’t override them because we’ve had issues about me overriding the team.” So it’s approved. And it works the other way as well.

Yeah, that first person really drives the conversation and oftentimes it’s the most junior person in the room.


It feels like there’s been an evolution in the way that creative work gets done. Things exploded when the Internet came along and the creative work went everywhere.

Yeah, and it got a lot quicker.

Right. There wasn’t a lot of time for the process that agencies had originally developed that would dictate the way quality work got done. It seems like the creative brief either morphed or got left behind. The discipline and the art of writing it got shoved to the side. What’s your perspective on that evolution?

For me it all comes down to trust. If the client knew that what they were going to get from you would be approved the first time they saw it, they’d probably give you more time to do it. If they think what you present isn’t going to be approved first time, they’re going to want it sooner which makes it more likely they’ll get something that won’t be approved the first time. It becomes like a vicious circle. It comes down to a trusting relationship with your clients.

My other answer is that even if you don’t have the time to craft the most brilliant brief, in five minutes you can jot down on a piece of paper, what’s the comms objective, who are we talking to, what’s the one thing we have to communicate, what do we absolutely have to include, why is what we’re saying true? Those key checkmarks of what goes into a brief, even just going through that mental process can only help. Believe me.

Otherwise, you’re left saying, “OK here’s the client, can you come up with some nice ideas for them?” Yeah, you could, but who knows whether they’re right or wrong.

I learned how to write a brief by being berated by the creative team. How did you learn how to write a brief?

Well, it is trial and error. Bit by bit you learn how to do it. I would encourage the most junior people to write it because it starts them thinking. Then don’t make them feel discouraged if all of it is ripped to shreds. It’s just an iterative thing. Over time you learn why the audience section isn’t just “Upmarket men” or “45-year-old housewives with kids” It needs to explain what they’re like and get into their heads. A single-minded message is single-minded. That Account Planner, as much as I was so frustrated by him, he was right. Quick and easy isn’t single-minded. You learn as you go along and the better people you work with and the more supportive the culture the better. It’s an ongoing thing. I would have creatives be part of the brief writing because they have great insights as well.

Right. Since they’re the ones that would have to execute, they know what they need.

And the last thing I’ll say is don’t forget that how you brief it in is equally important. Because I think for clients particularly, you want to get as close to experiencing the product and the proposition as possible. Make the team that you’re briefing experience what it is that you’re talking about. That’s the most inspiring thing.

Great advice, thank you Paul.

Thank you.

About Paul Burns

An accomplished Account Director with more than 25 years at agencies like Saatchi & Saatchi, Paul Burns owns and runs The Burns Unit tic, which helps advertising agencies, communication organizations and marketing departments ignite an explosion of creativity. Located in London, The Burns Unit offers a well planned and strategic approach to Learning and Development aligned to the objectives of client businesses. Courses include “Making Creative Briefs…brief and Creative Briefings…creative,” “Storytelling and making complex arguments buyable,” and “How to be the best Account Handler in your Agency.”

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