A view from Dave Trott: The big idea starts in the brief
A view from Dave Trott

The big idea starts in the brief

When she was young, Nora Ephron thought writing was solely about writing.

At high school, she learned that writing, like most things, is much more about thinking.

She tells the story like this:

“My high school journalism teacher, whose name is Charles O Simms, is teaching us to write a lead – the first sentence or paragraph of a newspaper story.

“He writes the words ‘Who What When Where Why and How’ on the blackboard.

“Then he dictates a set of facts to us that goes something like this: ‘Kenneth L Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the faculty of the high school will travel to Sacramento on Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Speaking there will be anthropologist Margaret Mead and Robert Maynard Hutchins, the president of the University of Chicago.’

“We all sit at our typewriters and write a lead, most of us inverting the set of facts so that they read something like this: ‘Anthropologist Margaret Mead and University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins will address the faculty on Thursday in Sacramento at a colloquium on new teaching methods, the principal of the high school Kenneth L Peters announced today.’ We turn in our leads. We’re very proud.

“Mr Simms looks at what we’ve done and tosses everything into the garbage.

“He says: ‘The lead to the story is: “There will be no school on Thursday.”’

“An electric lightbulb turns itself on in my head. I decide at that moment that I want to be a journalist.”

What Ephron’s teacher demonstrated to them was that writing isn’t about writing.

Writing, like everything, is about thinking.

All the students had done was to change the style of what he said, it hadn’t occurred to them to think any deeper – they all went on autopilot and rewrote what he said.

But if they’d been thinking, they’d have known “faculty” means the teaching staff at school.

If there aren’t any teaching staff at the school, there can’t be any school on that day.

And that’s much more interesting, that takes the story to a whole new level.

Taking a boring set of facts to a whole new level is what we should be doing, before we pick up a pencil or a marker, before we start tapping on a laptop, before we look on YouTube.

And that should really happen at the brief stage.

Don’t just write the facts on a brief and hope someone does something stylish with it.

I saw this in action one particular time at GGT on the London Docklands account.

Docklands was eight square miles of mud and rubble east of Tower Bridge.

It was a development area that no-one wanted to build on because other development areas, like Milton Keynes and Peterborough, made themselves look more attractive with green fields, cows and sheep, and happy families in their ads.

Steve Henry and Paul Grubb looked at the brief and thought: if they’ve got green fields and cows, that’s because they’re out in the country.

But you don’t want to build an office block for your company out in the country.

So they wrote the campaign line: LONDON DOCKLANDS. WHY MOVE TO THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE WHEN YOU COULD MOVE TO THE MIDDLE OF LONDON?

Using exactly the same facts, they reframed the other development areas to look dull and unprofessional by comparison.

They made them seem okay for leisure, but not for business.

So most big companies switched and started building their new offices in Docklands.

And now Docklands has some of the tallest buildings in Europe and Milton Keynes and Peterborough still have green fields and cows.

Let’s learn from Ephron’s teacher: writing a brief isn’t about writing, it’s about thinking.

Dave Trott is the author of The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three

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