The impossible brief

This is a post from PRISM’s Social Army – regular briefings on topics aligned to our business or close to our hearts. Today’s entry is from Cali Christians from PRISM’s Santa Monica office.

For anyone who has ever worked agency-side, the below client brief might sound familiar:

“It has to feel premium but we only have a budget of [insert very low number here].”
“It has to be something ‘never seen before’ and something ‘money can’t buy’.”
“We’re looking for a big PR stunt but are limited by X, Y, Z.”
“I know it’s a month’s worth of work but it needs to happen next week.”
“We want to make our video go viral.”

Most of the time these lines are delivered with a wink and a nod because clients themselves know they are asking for the impossible. No one can guarantee that a video goes viral or that this “money can’t buy experience” really could not be bought if someone had the funds.

However, if you are like me (or a bit of a masochist) you love a request like this because it means you have to solve a problem creatively and – good news! – you now have pre-determined parameters meaning there are fewer solutions to choose from.

When in these situations, I like to start by taking what I perceive to be the “weakness” or “obstacle” and attempt to turn it into a strength in some way. And whenever I get discouraged in the process, I try to remember that similar limitations have allowed many professionals and creatives to achieve some of their greatest work…

My favorite example of this comes from my time in college, studying Film & Television Production at the University of Southern California. During my studies, I learned about how one particular filmmaker, faced with a string of limitations, was able to turn those limitations into his greatest assets. Keeping with the spirit of this article, had this been a client brief, it might have looked something like this:

Create a short film. This short film must be of award-winning caliber, good enough to be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry and described by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historical or aesthetically significant”. The parameters are:

  • There can be no dialogue
  • It must be 15-minutes or less
  • You may only use the following resources: an on-campus computer room, a parking garage, a few white jumpsuits and some duct tape.

I think many people would look at that and say, “it can’t be done”, and with good reason! But a young student at USC was able to pull it off. Who was this student? Well, even if you’re not a film historian, you’ve surely heard the name: it was George Lucas, and the film was his dystopian escape thriller Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138.


Lucas used the sparse locations and low quality to his advantage by embracing them head-on, incorporating them into the film’s narrative. The result was a great success.  Everyone from Apple Macintosh’s famous 1984 commercial to the slew of low-budget “dystopian” and “found footage” movies that have followed have paid homage to (or borrowed from) this low-budget student film.

That’s not to say we need to reinvent the wheel with every brief. But when you restrict the playing field and set tighter parameters, it forces you into a unique space that – if you handle it with care while remaining conscious of the brief – can elevate the project/activation/campaign to something both you and your client can be proud of.

Cali Christians

October 30, 2017