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Best New Thinking Winner 2010

Planning Lexicon

Creative briefing and The Sistine Chapel – Damian O’Malley (and 2 tributes)

sistinechapelimage2Every time there’s a talk on writing a creative brief this story comes up. You can find it in the APG blue book which is out of print. So people cobble things from memory or work from photocopies. I even heard this story in the Middle East attributed to someone else. This month I was requested to locate it for a planning get together in Beijing of all places. Well it is a classic. And Damian O’Malley has given me permission to post it. Apparently everybody asks him where he got it from. And as he said almost plaintively – It was my idea. I made it up! So enjoy… and remember to give the correct attribution in future! The brief for the Sistine Chapel – how to stop Michaelangelo hitting the roof…..


Once you have a proposition you should try to express it in a way which will propel your creative team towards a solution. A story will help illustrate what we mean.

You are no doubt familiar with the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. They are one of the greatest works of art of all time painted by the Renaissance genius Michelangelo. We can imagine the briefs he might have been given for this work by his client, Pope Julius II, or the Pope’s account man, Cardinal Alidosi.

(a) ‘Please paint the ceiling’

There is no doubt that this is what Michelangelo was being asked to do but this brief gives him no hints as too what the solution to the request might be. It leaves all the decisions and thinking to the artist before be can put paint to plaster.

b) ‘Please paint the ceiling using red green and yellow paint’

This brief is worse. Not only does it not tell him what to paint it gives him a number of restrictions without justification; restrictions which will inevitably prove irksome and which will distract him from his main task.

sistinechapelimage1(c) ‘We have got terrible problems with damp and cracks in the ceiling and we would be ever so grateful if you could just cover it up for us’

This is much worse. It still does not tell him what to do and it gives him irrelevant and depressing information which implies that no one is interested in what he paints because it will not be long before the ceiling falls in anyway. How much effort is he likely to put into it?

(d) ‘Please paint biblical scenes on the ceiling incorporating some or all of the following: God, Adam, Angels, Cupids devils and saints’

Better: now they are beginning to give Michelangelo a steer. They have not given him the full picture yet (if you will pardon the pun) but at least he know the important elements. This is the sort of brief that most of us would have given. It contains everything the creative needs to know but it does not go that step beyond towards and idea towards a solution.

Here is the brief which Michelangelo was actually given more or less…

‘Please paint our ceiling for the greater glory of God and as an inspiration and lesson to his people. Frescoes which depict the creation of the world, the Fall, mankinds’s degradation by sin, the divine wrath of the deluge and the preservation of Noah and his family.’

Now he knows what to do – and is inspired by the importance of the project – he can devote his attention to executing the detail of the brief in the best way he knows.

Words are little bombs: the right ones can explode inside us demanding an original and exciting solution instead of a mediocre pedestrian one.

Always work very, very hard to find the right proposition and then even harder to find the words which express it in the least ambiguous and most exciting way.

Extract from Creative Briefing chapter in How to Plan Advertising – the Blue Book published by the APG in 1987 and currently out of print.

sistine4The Stark take

Steven Stark found this on the site and found it so useful that he turned it into a presentation for his agency. So here’s the presentation if you need something to inspire your team.

ppt icon (1.2MB) the brief for the Sistine Chapel

The Chinese variation

forbidden cityA request came for a a planning summit in Beijing of all places in 2006. I suggested they do a local variant as a kind of tribute. And Oliver Cartwright obliged.

ppt icon (160K) The Chinese take on the brief to Michaelangelo – our thanks to Oliver Cartwright of O&M.




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