How to Write a Successful Creative Brief

9 Steps to Writing a Great Creative Brief

Writing a Creative Brief
Writing a Creative Brief. Getty Images

The creative brief is the foundation of any advertising or marketing campaign. It's the treasure map that creatives follow, and it tells them where to start digging for those golden ideas. Or at least, it should, if it's any good.

These days, a good creative brief can be hard to come by. A combination of lack of preparation, increasingly tighter deadlines, bad habits, laziness, poor account management, bad creative direction, and ineffective training, all contribute to this document becoming something of a necessary evil.

But done right, everyone benefits.

So, although it would take a book to explain how to write a great brief (and as luck would have it, there's a great one reviewed right here), here is a step-by-step guide to getting on the right track.

Start By Grilling The Client

A creative brief is an account team's interpretation of the client's wishes. It is the job of a good account manager or planner to extract everything they possibly can from the client. This is the time to find out as much as possible about the product or service. What are its strengths and weaknesses? How was it though of? Who benefits from it? What stories can the client tell you? What problems are they facing? Sit down, in person if you can, and ask every conceivable question. What, why, when, how much? Squeeze every last drop of info from the client. You'll need it.

Use The Product Or Service

This. Is. Crucial. If it's at all possible, get samples of the product you're selling.

If it's a service, test it out. If it's a car, drive it. If it's fast food, eat it. Experience everything, and do it as a consumer, not an advertiser. The more you know, the better your brief will be. You can explain the strengths. You can turn weaknesses into selling points. You have a personal perspective.

Great advertising, like the original VW campaign, is based on the product. It focuses on it. Soak it all up before you write.

Write Every Thought Down

EVERYTHING. Write about the first thoughts you had after talking to the client, or using the product. Jot down the goal of the client, the budget, the time line, the obstacles, and everything else that you have collected. Spew it all out, because you'll be using this to make a great brief. By putting everything down, you will start to see links between seemingly random thoughts, and potential strategies can begin to emerge. 

Organize Your Thoughts

Now that you have everything you need to work with, it's time to start putting it into something useful. Every creative brief is different, but they share similar traits. Here are the most common sections of a creative brief, your information should go into these:

Spend The Most Time Writing Your Single Minded Proposition

This has many names now. Key takeaway. Main insight. Unique Selling Point (unique is getting harder and harder to pull off).

Whatever you call it, focus all of your energy on it. The rest of the information is just that really. It's information. But the SMP is the driving force behind the campaign. It's the arrow that points your creative team in the right direction.

You need to boil down everything you have collected, talk to the creative director, other account people in your team, and get to the essence of the project. How would you sum it up in one succinct sentence? Do you know which creative team will be working on the job? If so, talk to them. They can help, and as they'll be working on the project, they should be more than happy to help you craft a great proposition. It makes their lives easier.

  • Here are some examples of great SMPs:
  • There's More To Iceland Than Anyone Ever Knew - Iceland Supermarket (HHCL/Red Cell)
  • To Our Member's, We're The Fourth Emergency Service - The Automobile Association (HHCL&Partners)
  • Don't Let Your Illness Cripple Your Family - Abbey Life Insurance (written by John Hiney at Payne Stracey)
  • We're Number Two. We Try Harder - Avis (DDB)

Simplify The Whole Document

Now that you have a killer SMP and all the information is down on paper, it's time to get your red pen out and slash some ink. Lots of ink, actually. Your job here is not to impress people with how much research and data you've collected. Your creative brief should be just that - creatively written and concise. Cut it to the bone. Get rid of anything unnecessary. You're aiming for one page. There's rarely any need to go beyond that. All of that research you did, the product background, competitive ads, they are all support documents. They play no part in your creative brief. Think of the brief as a rousing speech to stir up the troops and get them motivated. 

Get Feedback From Your Creative Director

A good creative director will insist on seeing every brief that comes through the department. After all, it's his or her job to oversee the creative work, and the brief is a huge part of that process. Don't just do a drive by, or email it, actually sit down and go through it. That way, you have time to take feedback, ask questions and get direction. You will rarely hit it out of the park on your first effort, at which point, you'll be repeating steps 5,6 and 7 at least once more.

Get The Client's Approval

This is important. At this point, showing the client is paramount, because you need their approval on the agency's direction for the campaign. Not the creative itself, but the direction the project will go. This is key. If, when the time comes to present the work, the client says "I don't like it, that's not what we wanted" then you can go back to the creative brief and say "actually, it is." The creative brief was signed by the client, they agreed to it, if they need different work, they need a new creative brief and, more importantly, you get more time. Plus, the work you've already done is billable, not a throwaway.

Present Your Brief To The Teams. In Person.

When you have a concise, creative brief that has approval from all parties, it's time to brief the creative team. Please, do it in person (or via phone/video conference if a live meeting isn't possible). Don't get lazy and send an email, or worse, leave a photocopy on the desk with "any questions, gimme a call" scrawled on it. This is not only your opportunity to start the project right, it also gives the creatives a chance to ask questions, clear up any possible gray areas, and feel you out on other issues that may come up. If you want to get the best work, in a timely fashion, be there to brief the teams. 

Follow these steps, and you should be well on your way to writing a brief that gets results, not just creatively, but financially.