The Complete Brief ©

The Complete Brief

I both empathize and sympathize with the time pressures our clients are under every day. They spend more hours in meetings, and experience more re-work phases during the creative development process with their clients than ever before. Once our clients finally get creative approval they are left with insufficient opportunity to thoroughly contemplate the nuances of concepts they are developing. Then, as we must work out estimates with producers and PM’s, by the time they get budget approval to order storyboard, animatic or print comp illustration from us, the schedule is compromised. Understandably, creatives want to brief us as quickly as possible so that we can get started. It’s therefore not surprising when, at the beginning of brief calls, clients say, “Do we really need to take you through this? It’s pretty self-explanatory.” The photo-concept (script) boards agencies prepare for feel and mood in support of the brief are great, but those documents do not speak with human tone and emotion. Without hearing the hard facts from the creatives and then engaging them in an interactive discussion to clarify their vision, we start work with no clear direction. And so, enthused, prepared to listen, analyze, and contribute as I always am, I encourage a full, detailed review.

The creative process is an organic one, born of instinct. The practice of conducting a brief, however, is a deliberate, linear skill. At the intersection of these two phenomena is a methodology I designed to help us help our clients advance the selling of their concepts. I call it The Complete Brief©. It is the guide my reps and I have successfully used when taking instructions on jobs. A proven tool for us and our clients to collaboratively facilitate efficient deep dives into briefing the illustration of ad concepts to be presented (and/or tested), it helps us move our clients from the “ideation” stage of creative development into “prototyping” their ideas.

The Complete Brief© (for storyboards – easily adapted to other forms of illustration):

1 – Frame Count – There is sometimes a discrepancy between how many storyboard or animatic frames the art director feels are needed to adequately tell a story and how many the budget will allow. Knowing the number of frames we have to work with at the outset helps us resolve which frames convey a concept in the most impactful way.

2 – The Idea  – A short general description of the overall concept, noting setting and basic action – comedy, drama, etc.

For example, “It’s a spot about bicycles made from bamboo, and the magic of “riding bamboo.” We open on The Serengeti – early morning – wide vista – dramatic. The camera spots an aardvark in the distance walking toward an unidentifiable object leaning on a tree. There is a series of quick cuts between the perplexed looking aardvark and various indiscernible parts of the object.  We push in closer to reveal it’s a bike against the tree, made of bamboo! After medium shots of the bike, we cut wide to see the aardvark ride off on the bamboo bike.”

3 – Location / Environment – A description of the location/s, covering these details:
       a – Where are we?
                   Exteriors – Surroundings (city or rural), architectural style, landscape, foliage, etc.
                   Interiors – Decorative style, furniture, cabinetry, etc. – color & tone.
       b –  Time of day –
       c –  Season –
       d –  Lighting –
                   Tone – Bold and high contrast, or flat and soft; high chroma and colorful, or monochromatic and desaturated.
                   Temperature – Cool or warm.

4 – Characters – A description of the cast, human or otherwise, ages, overall looks / types, specific wardrobe for each (style, color, etc.), and if wardrobes change due to passage of time / days.

5 – Frame by frame review – Using the script and video descriptions, if written, discuss:
       a – The basic action in each scene.
       b – Who says what (if there is dialog)?
       c The specific moment of action each frame must capture.
       d – The camera point of view: Where the camera is placed in the environment.
       e – The camera angle: High, low, eye level, wide angle, etc.
       f – The focal point: The most important area of visual emphasis in the scene.

6 – Does it track? – Check that the frames demonstrate how the film will visually flow from one scene to the next.

 7 – Illustration Style (if not determined before the brief) – How are the intended film style and technique best illustrated in two-dimensional artwork?

The Complete Brief, from Ideation to Prototyping

By following The Complete Brief© we have eliminated the counter-productive thoughts that cause illustrators to second guess drawing decisions they make. Illustrators regularly report that having this kind doubt as they draw negatively effects the storytelling aesthetic they intend to create with impactful looking frames. The more information we give artists, the less time and effort they expend wondering WHAT they need to draw, and the more energy they invest in HOW to best illustrate the advertising idea at hand.

Armed with the comprehensive package of information from The Complete Brief© our illustrators are able to create the most meaningful artwork possible. Ultimately, that translates into us delivering highly effective images that can assist our clients in getting their concepts approved for production.

These are examples of the process working:

It Started with MAMMOTH.

Some people experience a seminal moment in which they realize what they are destined to do for the rest of their lives. For me, a confluence of forces and events gradually led to the decisions that informed what I would ultimately do. Either way, I believe there is value in examining how and when that happens. It helps create perspective on where we are today and how we got here. In my last post, “The Art of The RELATIONSHIP,” I note that at my first job in advertising, despite my goal of being an artist of some sort, I was guided to apply my talents to a career as an artists’ rep – it obviously worked. In looking back now, I see there was an earlier indicator and manifestation of a talent that was a harbinger for my chosen work.

As a freshman in high school I played keyboards in a band with my friends – for maybe two dances – I wasn’t very good. Though I found I was far better off focusing my musical expression on performing in HS choral groups and musical theatre productions, I did serve what was to be a prophetic role for the ultimate iteration of that band, Mammoth. The musicians of Mammoth trusted me to find gigs, make arrangements for practice facilities, negotiate fees, collect and distribute money.

I was Mammoth’s manager. This is my tribute to those friends, their artistry, our shared passion for music, and how that all inadvertently tapped into what was to be my professional calling.

Paul Santa-Donato reps artists

For four of my best friends from Harrison, NY, playing music was an ongoing creative endeavor dating back to their elementary school rock ‘n roll bands. Some also played in the school concert, marching, and dance bands.

“Danny” Colangelo played tenor sax in all three at Harrison High. He was self-taught on bass (his main instrument), guitar, and flute (see Ian Anderson). Danny was Mammoth’s leader, lead singer and guitarist (he played Rich’s Fender Mustang, which Rich still has, powered by the Kustom Amp the band owned collectively – go figure). Today, Dan plays bass with a group of friends in Manhattan regularly. He has also been my doctor for about 35 years.

Frank “Cookie” DiGregorio played Alto sax in the marching and concert bands, with a stint in dance band. Though Cookie played guitar since elementary school, he was Mammoth’s bass player (he played Dan’s Fender bass with Dan’s Ampeg bass amp – again, go figure). After Mammoth, “Cook” found his true musical groove singing to the accompaniment of his acoustic guitar. Inspired by James Taylor and Jackson Browne, he cultivated a mellifluous vocal style, and a light touch on the acoustic. During his years at Rider College, Cookie played coffee houses and small clubs around Trenton, NJ. Today, he is an Operations Supervisor for a national consumer products company, and still plays and sings just about every day.

Rich Cozzi played drums in the concert band until he dedicated his energies to athletics…and Mammoth. “Cozzi” was Mammoth’s drummer (his red fleck Ludwig kit was NOT borrowed). He also played guitar, and while at the University of Maryland on a full football scholarship, Rich started to develop some serious guitar chops. After graduating, Cozzi was accepted at Berklee School of Music in Boston where he studied jazz and charted a course for a life in music. Today Rich lives in California where he gives music lessons and gigs as a jazz guitarist.

As did the other guys in Mammoth, Steve Fratello played guitar since elementary school. When he bought a beautiful gold fleck Gibson Les Paul and a Fender Super Reverb amp around senior year, he became Mammoth’s missing link – “Fratello” was our rhythm guitarist. Steve’s a corporate accountant, and I’m not certain if he still plays (he sold the Les Paul years ago). I can say that whenever we’re in touch, we still talk music. It’s in his blood.

Like so many kids of our generation, we spent hours listening to and analyzing albums. We knew who the producers were, where albums were recorded, who the prominent studio musicians were and which musicians previously played with what seminal bands. Mammoth was an outgrowth of that common interest in and study of contemporary music. As I have since experienced with artists I work with professionally, we were all gaining knowledge about an art form, about new techniques and tools, and sharing it with each other. Despite all the instrument swapping, equipment failures, classic arguments, tantrums and the like, the overall vibe of Mammoth was great due to our mutual commitment to playing a wide range of good music – (EARLY) Chicago, Grand Funk, Mountain, Neil Young, Cream, Derek and the Dominos, Tull, and so on. Mammoth had a lot of fans and succeeded at getting them dancing.

In Mammoth World (hey, it was OUR world, fully replete with roadies, Puggy and Big Zach, and a bunch of groupies), I was the business arm of the band, so to speak. Just six years after the last Mammoth gig, I was working as a rep for an advertising art studio in New York. Five years after that, I opened Santa Donato Studios where I’ve since spent every day of my professional life representing artists.

I continue to grow in my appreciation and gratitude for all the talented artists who have trusted me to represent them. Danny, Cookie, Cozzi, and Fratello were the first – they were artists. I didn’t get it at the time, but I was there rep.

As for me and music, I listen to music every day (often on vinyl, again). I’m a happy hack on piano, and play blues harp.


While majoring in Theatre in college, I also started to seriously scratch an art itch that had festered for years. I fit art classes in during both the regular school year and summer breaks. By the time I graduated with my theatre degree, I decided that “commercial art” (whatever that was) would be a more realistic profession for me than acting. After I spent months attempting to “make contacts” (networking), my father, unbeknownst to me, interceded on my behalf. He called a Boy Scouting friend and fellow leader who lived in our town of Harrison, NY. Mr. Anthony Brandi was a fine man who seemed to know everyone, and my Dad apparently asked him if he had any friends in the commercial art business. He did. Tony Brandi called his friend, Sam Diamond.

Sam also lived in Harrison where his sons attended the same high school as my siblings and I. I knew Mr. Diamond as a member of the country club where my brother, and my friends and I caddied to make money for college. The caddies all regarded Sam as a “great loop” – a good golfer, a genuinely nice person, and a VERY generous tipper. What I did not know was that Sam Diamond owned one of the largest, most successful advertising art studios in New York.

Mr. Brandi set up a meeting for me with Sam Diamond.

I was surprised to be greeted at Diamond Art Studio by Gary, Sam’s younger son. Gary and I knew each other and had several mutual friends in high school, but I was not aware that he and his brother, Doug, worked for their father. Gary introduced me to Sam, who quickly flipped through the odd collection of sketches I brought with me, asked me several questions about my interests and said good bye. Done.

About three weeks later I got a call from Mr. Brandi. In his gentle, deliberate manner he said, “Paulie, Sam Diamond was quite impressed with you. He wants to see you again.”

When I arrived at Diamond Art this time, I was escorted directly into Sam’s office. He grilled me about what I wanted to do with my career. I explained my intention to work in a creative role. I knew not what an illustrator, or designer, or art director actually did, but those were the jobs I aspired to, or so I thought. Sam barked, “You’ll be in SALES!” I protested, albeit, VERY respectfully (Sam was a wonderful guy, but a mighty force to be reckoned with). As we debated further, what was not clear was that Sam had, in fact, hired me. So, after a few awkward and confusing moments, I sheepishly queried him on said employment status, to which he blurted, “What the hell do you think you’re DOING here?”

It started as a classic entry level job – I delivered work to clients and ran errands all over the city. I was trained to operate a “stat camera,” and learned to mount, assemble, and prepare artwork for both presentation and production. At the same time I took night courses in ad concept, copywriting, graphic design, typography, print production, and drawing. For this kid from the suburbs, I had a dream-like creative thing going on, and in New York – working in a big art studio by day, attending SVA, Parsons, and The Art Students League by night. Eventually, some clients started giving me instructions and feedback on jobs – I took to that immediately! It occurred to me that maybe Sam was right – though creative, and with some visual talent, maybe I was wired more for the…business of the business. Barely a year into my tenure at Diamond Art, Sam was tragically ill. Before he sadly passed away, he instructed Gary and Doug to promote me to rep. What was an apparent training period had come to its conclusion and now, true to his prediction (actually, his plan), Sam Diamond made sure I would “be in sales!”

I did not like, nor did I take naturally to selling, in and of itself. The repeated cold calling and constant banging on doors were a struggle for me. But once I got to meet people I was in my element. What I loved (and still do) and was best suited for (and still am) were building business relationships with and servicing clients, and then bringing in jobs for, and consulting with all the talented artists in the studio. Evidently, I was pretty good at it.

Given how my career started, I learned early on to appreciate the value of RELATIONSHIPS. I got “a foot in the door” because of a personal relationship. I had to work hard and be damn good at the jobs I had in order to succeed, but I would not have had that first opportunity without my Dad reaching out to a respected friend from our community, the kind gestures of both that man, and a guy HE knew who, coincidentally, had a son I was friendly with in high school. I made certain to pay attention to the PEOPLE I met – who worked where, who worked for who, who did what – regardless of their position or role. In addition to the potential clients – the art directors, copywriters and producers – I became friendly with account people, agency studio artists, production people, security guards and receptionists, as well. I trained my focus on building RELATIONSHIPS. The SALES – the clients, jobs and the resulting commissions – all came in good time. As my relationships grew in number and quality, so did my level of success.

After about a year of repping, I pondered a career change to agency account management. I had been cultivating a number of productive relationships with people I respected and took a shot at placing my trust in one such relationship. I confided in Ted Warwick, the Head Art Buyer at NW Ayer, who introduced me to a Head Account Director. I cannot remember that gentleman’s name, but will never forget how he so graciously took the time to meet with me, deciphered my interests and talents, and adamantly encouraged me to stick with the art studio business. He felt I was perfectly suited for it, and he was right.

I am grateful for what my Dad did for me, for what Tony Brandi did for me, and for Sam Diamond’s sage instinct and guidance, and for the lessons they all taught me at the very beginning of my career.

It has always been, and still is, mostly about the people – about the relationships.

“Paul Santa-Donato has been in the business too long.”

Paul Santa-Donato has been in the business too long. From the ‘Big Hair’ days of the (70’s) to the less hair days of right now (actually he still has plenty of hair)…”

Paul Santa-Donato

Mark Bloom, the designer of this site, my friend and collaborator for over 30 years, originally wrote that line as a tongue in cheek place holder. It made me laugh. It also made me think that the math on my career is, indeed, mounting. In March of 2017, I celebrated 40 years in Advertising. On July 25th, 2018, Santa Donato Studios will be 35 years old.

Is that “too long” to be in the business?


When I first started interacting with clients, I was very much taken by the breadth and depth of the experience of all the OLDER people I was meeting. Now, I am one of them. The longer I do this, the more grateful I am for all the terrific people I have had the privilege to do business with and learn from over all these years. The longer I do this, the more I understand that sports cliche about how “the game slows down,” as athletes gain experience. I am less frenetic than I once was, and am now better able to slow the pace at which I evaluate each business challenge in order to facilitate more productive decision making. The longer I do this, the more importance I place on the listening component of personal interactions with both clients and artists.

Now, of course, most of the interaction is remote. I terribly miss “being in the room where it happens,” yet this physical separation has not squelched my passion for empathically engaging with the people with whom I do business. It has, instead, inspired me to cultivate new skills for better communicating in an evolving business environment.

I haven’t been in the business too long. I might just be getting good at this.