Lessons from Japanese athletes for creative brief writing

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Signal compare tackling a creative brief to the passing of an Oylmpic baton in the 100m relay.

It was no surprise that Usain Bolt’s Jamaica won gold in the men’s 4x100m relay at the 2016 Rio Olympics. The achievement of Japan coming second, however, was truly remarkable.

None of the four Japanese sprinters had a personal best time of less than 10 seconds, and yet they beat the United States into third place. Individually, the Japanese were weaker than the Americans on all four stages. Collectively, they were strong enough to snatch what should have been a nailed-on silver medal for the USA. The secrets of Japan’s success are a parable for teamwork and ways of working.

This article on the Spikes website describes how the Japanese relay quartet were a team of overachievers. It is a study in how elite sporting success happens in the margins. It is also a lesson in quality control. The most telling phrase is, “meticulous attention paid to baton exchanges.”

“Despite its surprise factor, Japan’s Olympic relay success did not come from nowhere. It was the result of years of biomechanical data analysis with meticulous attention paid to baton exchanges.”

I quoted this phrase as part of a talk to a client’s in-house agency about creative brief writing. A creative brief is a baton and we should pay meticulous attention to the way in which that baton is passed from its writer to the people charged with responding to it. By and large we’re talking about baton exchanges between planners and creative teams. Briefing, like baton passing, is an act of respect. It is the duty of the passer to set the receiver up for success. And it is the duty of the receiver to be open, inquisitive and, well, receptive.

Respect is vital. Baton passing, whether on the track or in the agency, is more than a mechanical transaction. A ‘beautiful’ baton exchange requires more than practice and muscle memory. There is a human at each end of the baton, and only for a fleeting moment do both parties have their hands on the baton at once. That moment accounts for a tiny proportion of the whole process, but it has to go well for there to be a chance of a successful outcome. The Japanese athletes talk about the importance of making baton exchanges personal.

“Just as important as practising those baton exchanges were frequent and honest verbal exchanges between all members of the team," said Japanese sprinter Yoshihide Kiryū. "We talked to each other all the time. We can confidently talk about all thoughts, including our concerns.’”

The baton metaphor applies to any process which requires information and responsibility to be passed from one person or one team to another. In a modern agency, many of those processes involve sprints, which is both apt and ironic in the context of a post about baton exchanges.

Pretty much everything is done in sprints these days, which is not without its issues.

Removed from the context of software development, sprint is a dangerous word. Sprints stop being about focus and feedback, and become all about speed. In this way, sprints mess with the physics of creative endeavour. The first law of creative dynamics states that you can perm any two from better, faster, cheaper, but you can’t have all three. Creative sprints have people believing in the impossible, or at least the highly unlikely.

Context is everything. In a properly agile process, sprints are simply how the work gets done between the ceremonies. The ceremonies determine what gets done, in what order, by whom, and why. Less time is spent in ceremonies than in sprints but the ceremonies have to be done right. The ceremonies are baton exchanges. They are personal and they demand respect. Respect is enshrined in the language. They are called ceremonies for a reason. There is etiquette and there are standards.

Ceremonies are a contact sport. They are bastions of humanity. They are oases of analogue discipline in a desert of Slackness.

We should all take a leaf out of the Japanese relay playbook and pay at least as much meticulous attention to our baton exchanges as we do to our sprints.

Phil Adams is the planning director at Signal.

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