How to write an effective Creative Brief

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The best advertising is creative, but never random. It is well-organized and lines up to the brand’s strategy. The creative brief acts as the bridge between the brand strategy and the execution in the market. Whatever your definition what a brand is, it only matters to those investing in brands as to why they have brands. Organizations only have brands if they can get more from the brand than from just the product or service alone. The role of a brand is to create a unique idea that transforms the brand’s soul into a reputation that is perceived in the minds and hearts of the consumer, consistently delivered by the experience, creating a bond, power and profit, beyond what the product alone could achieve. Advertising can play a critical role in making the brand stronger.

  • Great advertising should create a bond with consumers who connect with the soul of the brand. 
  • Great advertising should establish your brand’s reputation based on a distinct positioning
  • Great advertising should influence consumers to alter their behavior, making the brand more powerfully connected, eventually leading to higher sales, share and profit.

If you are creating advertising that doesn’t alter behavior or doesn’t help lead the brand on a pathway to higher profits, then you are wasting the hard-earned money of the brand.

 

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Control the strategy. Give freedom on execution

Brand leaders have this backwards, giving freedom on the strategy with various options in the brief, and yet control the execution with a long list of mandatories and direction on style of advertising. In my 25 years of marketing, every great Creative Advertising person I met was a problem solving “in-the-box” type thinker, not a blue sky “out-of-the-box” thinker. Never give them a blank slate or blank canvas and ask them to come up with an ad. But never give them a solution. If they are “in the box thinkers” then the role of the Creative Brief is to create a box for them to solve.

A creative brief creates the box to play in.

While it hard to come up with the ideal brand strategies, sometimes it’s even harder to stay on strategy throughout the execution of the marketing activities. Many think the only intended audience of the creative brief is the creative team at your agency. Write it for yourself to keep you focused on your strategy, write it for your boss that might not be in the room when the creative work is presented, write it for other agencies to align with the main creative work and write it for the next brand leader on your desk to keep them focused on the strategy you have created. 

Some think that a creative brief takes everything you know about your brand and only puts down those pieces of information relevant to the strategic choice you have made. In a way it does, but remember that it’s called a “brief” for a reason. Most brand leaders struggle to focus. It should force you to make choices in what you put in the brief. What you need the brief to do is to focus on a slice of the population (target), create something that gets them to take an action (desired response) that make the brand stronger (result). The brief lays out what to say (main message), how to talk to them to trigger that action (tone) and re-enforces why we can do it and others can’t. (positioning). As you create the box for the creative team, here are the rules of the box you create:

  • one clearly defined and narrow target
  • one benefit
  • one or two reason to believe
  • one strategic objective
  • make the consumers think, feel or do

 

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The worst thing you can ever do is start writing a creative brief without doing your homework. 

At Beloved Brands, we use six questions as a deep-dive homework to set up a Brand Communications Strategy.

  1. Who is the consumer target you are selling to? (Who is the most motivated to buy what you do?)
  2. What are we are selling? (What is your main benefit?)
  3. Why should they believe us? (Support points to back up what you say)
  4. What’s the long-range feeling the brand evokes? (What is the Big Idea for the brand?)
  5. What do we want the brand communications to do for the brand? (Strategic Choices)
  6. What do want people to think, feel or do? (Desired Response)

To read more on how to write a Brand Communications strategy, follow this hyperlink: How to write a Brand Communication Strategy

 

Transforming your Advertising Strategy homework into a Creative Brief

As we move from the home work you have done above into the briefing stage, here are 12 headlines you can use to help frame your creative brief:

  1. Why Are We Advertising
  2. What’s the Consumer Problem We are Addressing
  3. Who are you talking to?
  4. Consumer Insights
  5. What does our consumer think now?
  6. What do you want your consumer to think/feel/do? (Desired Response)
  7. What should we tell them? (Stimulus: benefit)
  8. Why should they believe us?
  9. Brand Positioning Statement
  10. Tone and Manner
  11. Media Options
  12. Mandatories

Once you answer the six questions on the homework, you can use those answers to begin to populate your creative brief:

 

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A well written creative brief takes everything you know about the brand and strategically desire, and distils it down to 1 page. Here’s an example of a good creative brief:

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Where Brand Leaders make mistakes on the Creative Brief

Why are we Advertising?

The first area is at the top of the brief with the advertising objective.  

  • An unfocused objective: Drive TRIAL of Grays Cookies AND get current users to USE MORE often.
  • A focused objective:  Drive trial of Grays Cookies by positioning it as The good tasting Healthy cookie”

I see too many briefs that have both penetration and usage frequency as one objective. Stop this, it’s TWO STRATEGIES that leads you to two targets, two objectives, two messages and possibly two different media options. Your agency will come back with one ad that does penetration and one for frequency and this gives up control of the strategy to the agency and even to you who now picks the best creative work, not the best strategy.

What’s the Consumer Problem we are addressing?

The next flaw I see is leading with a product driven brief, not a consumer driven brief.

  • A product driven Brief misses the consumer problem we are addressing:  Gray’s market share is still relatively small. It is held back by low awareness and trial and the product usage is not on par with the category.  
  • A consumer driven Brief lays out a clear consumer problem we are addressing? I’m always watching what I eat. And then BAM, I see a cookie and I’m done. As much as I look after myself, I still like to sneak a cookie now and then.

The best ads are rooted in consumer insights so you can connect and move the consumer in a way that benefits your brand. We recommend that you start with the consumers enemy—every product started by solving a problem, but every brand fights off an enemy in the consumers life.

Who are you talking to?

Brand Leaders tend to pick too broad of a target and as we mentioned in the homework, this just spreads your limited resources. 

  • A broad target Brief:  25-55 year olds, current users and potential users. They shop mainly at Grocery and some Mass. They use 24.7 cookies a month
  • A highly targeted Brief: “Proactive Preventers”. Suburban working women, 35-40, who are willing to do whatever it takes to stay healthy. They run, workout and eat right. For many, Food can be a bit of a stress-reliever and escape even for people who watch what they eat.  

Having a 30 year age gap is too wide: your agency will give you one ad for 25 year olds and one for 55 year olds. You want CREATIVE options, not STRATEGIC options. We recommend a maximum 5 year age gap to give your ad focus. Going after current and new users is an unfocused strategy that just spreads your resources.

Consumer Insights

Consumer insights adds real flavor to the target, and with great advertising is what creates that first connection that we “get the consumer”.  But consumer insights are not facts and stats. You have to go a layer beneath the surface. Consumer insight is an enlightening discovery about consumer’s underlying needs and motivations. Insight is something that everyone already knows and comes to life when it’s told in such a captivating way that makes consumers stop and say “hmm, I thought I was the only who felt like that.

  • A bad “stats driven” Brief: Gray’s product taste drives high trial to purchase (50%) compared to other new launches (32%). Consumers only use Gray’s 9.8 cookies per month compared to the Category Leader at 18.3 cookies.
  • An insights driven Brief: I have tremendous will-power. I work out 3x a week, watch what I eat and maintain my figure. But we all have weaknesses and cookies are mine. I just wish they were less bad for you

We recommend that you frame your insight by starting with the word “I” to force yourself into their shoes and put the insight in quotes to force yourself to use their voice. Bring insights into the brief as ways to tell the story to the creative team, so they can build stories that connect with your consumer. The best ads are those where you can almost see the insight shining through the work.   

What do we want consumers to think, feel or do? (Desired Response)

When getting into execution mode, think about the desired response before planning the stimulus.  Too many Brand Leaders start with the stimulus. But, you should start with the response and let that guide what you’re going to tell them.

  • A bad Brief wants the advertising to do everything:  We want them to THINK that Grays Cookies are unique. We want them to FEEL they can stay in control with Grays and it will keep them feeling successful in living their healthy lifestyle. And we want them to TRY Grays and see if they like the great taste.
  • A Better Brief is focused on accomplishing ONE thing: We want them to FEEL they can stay in control with Grays.

You should choose ONE of think, feel or act, not a combination. Good advertising can only move one body part at a time—so you have to decide, or else your agency will show you creative options for each of these strategies and the best ad will decide your brand strategy.

What should we tell them? (Stimulus) 

As we work with brands, we try to get them focused on what the consumer gets from what you do, not just talking about yourself. The golden rule for getting someone to like you is talk about them,  not you.

  • A feature oriented Brief:  Grays Cookies are the perfect modern cookie, only 100 calories and less than 2g of Fat. For those looking to lose weight, the American Dietician Society recommends adding Gray’s to your diet. You can find Gray’s at all leading grocery stores.
  • A Benefit focused Brief: With Grays Cookies you can still have a great tasting cookie without the guilt.

Speak in terms of benefits, not features. Focus your stimulus on what consumers get (rational benefit) or how consumers feel (emotional). Try to narrow what you TELL consumers to ONE THING, not a laundry list of things. If you tell them too much, they’ll hear NOTHING.

Mandatories

The best briefs have few mandatories. I’ve seen Brand Leaders write long Mandatories lists, that makes it so prescriptive the agency ends up backed into a creative corner.

  • A Bad prescriptive attempt to control the Creative: Avoid humor, as a sarcastic tone will not work with our target market. Preference is for real customer testimonials supported by before/after with our 90 day guarantee tagged on. Ensure brand shown in first 7 seconds. Use Snookie, as our spokesperson. Ad setting in pharmacy will add credibility.
  • Good attempt to give Freedom to the Creative: The line: “best tasting yet guilt-free pleasure” is on our packaging. At least 25% of Print must carry the Whole Foods logo as part of our listing agreement. Include the Legal disclaimer on the taste test and the 12 week study.

If you think the first list is fictional, it’s not. I’ve seen every one of those mandatories in creative briefs. With the second list, you’ll notice that none of them steer the creative advertising ideas.

 

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Some simple rules for a good Creative Brief:

  • Target the people most motivated by what you do best. Don’t just randomly target competitive users that are most desirable to us, without knowing if we can actually win them over. Spreading your resources against a target so broad, everyone will think you message is for someone else.
  • Use what we stand for to show consumers what they get from us.  Don’t just tell what we do, so that it makes us appear the best in the category. Consumers don’t care what you do, they selfishly and rightfully so care about what they get.
  • Focus on getting consumers to do only one thing at a time: think, feel or do. Make a choice instead of  trying to get new users to buy and getting current users to use more at the same time.  Trying to drive trial and usage at the same time will leave consumers confused as to what to think, do or feel.
  • Use the creative work to tell the brand story in a way we love and believe in.  Great advertising is NOT about making sure we get all our key messages into the creative. With so many messages, people won’t know what you stand for, and you’ll never get a reputation for anything.
  • Connect with our target where they are most likely to engage with our brand story.  While efficient media is important, focusing solely on efficiency and ROI might lead us to staying beneath the consumer’s radar. Consumers hear 7000 efficiently placed messages a day, and quickly reject boring messages all day long. They likely will connect and engage with 5 messages a day. Will it be yours?

Trying to be everything to anyone, makes you nothing to everyone

To read about how to write a mini version of a brief follow this link.  How to Write a MINI BRIEF

To read more on Creative Briefs, follow this presentation

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120 thoughts on “How to write an effective Creative Brief

  1. I’d like to complement your post about briefs by not restricting the commentary to advertising. We are a branding and design agency that expresses the majority of our work as consumer packaging and the merits of a well-written brief are every bit as important for this aspect of brand expression. In fact, I contend that it is more important in that every CPG brand has a package by definition while an increasing amount of brands are challenged by trade spending and cannot afford the luxury of advertising so must rely on shelf presence and retailers’ flyers to create awareness and stimulate consumer purchase (and repurchase).
    When we introduced our quality program within our agency almost a decade ago, the first thing that our designers asked for was better written briefs. The better written the brief is, the better the yield will be from the designers’ work.

    PS: Love your posts – keep up the great writing

  2. When I read, “even though we don’t know the strategy, we do think we know what we want the creative to look like”, I had the strange feeling you have been in too many of my meetings! Well done. This should be required reading for clients.

  3. Nice one Graham. Delightful articulation of all the headaches that plagued my years in advertising. A brief seldom is. When it isn’t, it just communicates a lack of discipline and focus. Those factors directly impact creative team morale, rounds of revision and, ultimately, agency fee. There is a financial impact for every poor brief. I wrote a similar piece on my blog too: http://www.hiltonbarbour.com/wordpress/?p=474

  4. This posting can be applied to ANY communication project — From Ads to Press Releases to Websites to Social Media. Any and all of these channels should be using creative briefs at the outset of every project. But, to your point, it seems like the process is so daunting many decide to wade in without it and pay the price in budget losses, time lost, brands diluted and [sadly] sometimes with their jobs.

    CLEARLY this post was based on your real world experience. Thanks for tackling this phenomenon so rationally and eloquently. (I especially like the quarter-inch drill vs. quarter inch hole analogy — perfect).

  5. I strongly agree that the marketing team should control the strategy. The evaluation of the creative against that strategy should determine whether the creative is right or not. Does it answer the brief?
    If so, great. If not, it is necessary to go back to the drawing board. It is very disheartening when a creative submission is received with a comment along the lines of “I don’t really like it, but I’m not sure why.”
    Far better to analyse it objectively and decide if it is right. That is not to say that the ad agency cannot contribute to the strategy, but their input should be incorporated into the brief.
    In other words, adjust the creative to meet the strategy, but don’t amend the strategy to suit creative that people have fallen in love with.

  6. “Brand Managers allow too much FREEDOM on the strategy but want to exhibit CONTROL on the creative”. Well said. Most briefs I’ve seen seem lazy. In those cases, it’s almost as if the marketer sees the document as an administrative step required to get the agency to start working on stuff (“I’m not sure what I want, but I’ll know when I see it”). The consumer insight often isn’t one or, even worse, is described in terms of the product you’re trying to sell as opposed to the feelings and motivations you are trying to address.

  7. Good post. Nice job summarizing what needs to be in a brief. I agree, too many briefs are too long. A good creative team will get their head around a single idea and create solid options that fit the strategy. I believe there are at least three reasons why many ad messages are so weak: 1) brands are trying to reach everybody; and nobody pays attention 2) brands have not dug deep enough to uncover their true relevant difference 3) brands are too product focused; they should shift to the consumer.

  8. Great article wish I’d seen it a tad earlier in my 40 years of working with agency clients. There’s one thing I disagree with, however. The client should write the brief, not the agency.
    Why? The client knows more about his products/services, customers & prospects, marketing plan…than the agency ever will. Consequently the agency brief must be sub-optimal. That helps no-one and discussing an agency version wastes time.
    OK I have only had one client – and I’ve had ones with $220m to spend to less than $20,000 – who has done so and I’ve written them. That doesn’t detract from my argument that agency initiated briefs don’t expose the creative team to the full challenge.
    In my experience, account planners can provide valuable insights to inform the agency’s distillation of the client brief to drive better creative – and media – proposals. A sub-optimal brief will generate sub-optimal outcomes.
    Of course we have to assume that the client can write a creative brief, many can’t and your presentation would be an ideal primer.

  9. Appreciating the persistence you put into your blog and detailed information
    you provide. It’s nice to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same
    out of date rehashed information. Great read! I’ve bookmarked your site and I’m including your RSS feeds to my Google account.

  10. “Brand Managers allow too much FREEDOM on the strategy but want to exhibit CONTROL on the creative”. Well said indeed. While weeks and weeks of research might go into a creative brief there’s something magical that happens when it’s forced to fit onto a single page. All the details and complicated data suddenly clarify into a single, single-minded vision of what the creative team is meant to achieve.

    More on the importance of a creative brief i did on this article.
    http://copywritercollective.com/howtobeacopywriter/why-the-creative-brief-is-so-important/

    Keep rocking!

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