3 Rules to writing a slick Creative Brief

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The Creative Brief is the most important document in an ad agency. A great one can inspire the creative teams, which in turn leads to winning a client, more revenue, and hopefully creative and campaign efficiency awards.

For almost 20 years I took part in creative briefing sessions, encountering many types of creative briefs, each with its own philosophy. Some of them have been truly great and helped me and my colleagues to structure data and get quickly to the winning creative idea.

I worked directly with briefs from several big multinational agencies, such as BBDO, Leo Burnett, Saatchi&Saatchi, and Grey Worldwide. I lectured for a few years young students in Advertising or Marketing universities about creative briefs and briefing process as they were in need of a practical view. In 2012 I have also developed my own Creative Brief and Design Brief for the creative team in my own marketing communication agency, Incandescent Marketing.

The Rules

The creative briefing is a virtual workspace where you need to set your expectations right and where some rules of thumb apply.

During my strategic planning career I listed many tips and schemes for writing a creative brief. In this article, I’ll detail three critical rules that a creative brief writer must apply (whether he/she is a strategic planner, account manager, or a client).

Creative Brief rule no #1: Prepare to compromise

There’ll always be debates about what to include in a Creative Brief, but one thing’s for sure: any decent final version has many goodies left aside because that one-or-two-pager could not fit all great ideas and insights.

creative brief smoothie

For better understanding, I’ll draw a parallel between writing a creative brief and preparing a smoothie. An ideal smoothie should probably score on at least 10 things:

  1. amazing taste
  2. a nice texture
  3. perfect density (w/o adding water)
  4. great looks
  5. safe to store in a fridge for a few hours
  6. low cost
  7. many health benefits
  8. minimum preparation time
  9. no side effects
  10. minimum leftovers

Now think about the last smoothie you made. Could you check all these 10 qualities? Probably not (same here). 🙂

When you work on a creative brief, you can never choose more than an idea, one customer insight, or one key communication objective.  If however you choose more than one, the biggest risk is either to dilute the message or to confuse the creatives, which usually turns into a poor campaign proposal rejected by the client, followed by internal scapegoating.

The key learning here: Prepare to compromise, to be flexible, and to keep in the Creative Brief only the best data and strategic ideas you discover.

Brand Detective

Creative Brief rule no #2: Act like a brand detective

Probably the most overlooked data in a creative brief is the company background, followed by brand features. The reason for this superficial treatment isn’t always the agency’s fault.

The truth is that the brand and its company are external assets that are rarely fully disclosed (which makes sense, agency-clients last 2-3 years on average, and at the end of the day, the agency is just a 3rd party signing an NDA).

I faced myself an awkward situation in a pitch for a coffee brand where the agency working for the market leader knew everything about our pitch from its client. It really made us look like fools as we signed an NDA with many zeros.

The trap of trusting everything in Client’s Brief

There are times when the Client company can plan to launch a brand that won’t deliver everything it was supposed to.

If the creative brief misses discovering hidden critical problems of the new brand and is focused exactly on its performance, it will be a trap for everyone: consumers, client company, the agency.

Do your homework

So doing your homework rigorously regarding the brand is more than necessary. If possible go and test it, retest it, get feedback from others, and more importantly, find flaws before the market does (retailers, media, or end-users) or you’ll end up looking really bad.

Sometimes discovering flaws or invalidating initially “brand strengths” might sometimes be more productive than focusing on dramatizing an undeniable brand asset such as price or intrinsic qualities.

The conclusion here: Get to know the brand insight out (even better than the client expects to) and validate all brand’s assets like a true detective.

Divergent and convergent thinking - creative brief

Creative Brief rule no #3: Use a double DT+CT process

The best recipe for getting to that strategic idea is to unleash your abilities to discover and distill valuable information and ideas.

DT stands for Divergent Thinking, the process when we expand a topic as much as possible in order to identify new ideas (creative process).

CT is the acronym for Convergent Thinking, the opposite process of DT when we narrow down a wide list of ideas to the one with the most potential (strategic process).

Why is it important to perform a double DT + CT process?

No matter the agency or format, there are always two mandatory sections in a creative brief:

  • the first part, which details the audience or the consumer;
  • the second part, which explains the core strategic idea.

Each one of them is critical and needs hard research work, inspiration, and some degree of experience. But although in the end, they have to support each other and make sense, they are two time-consuming separated processes.

Fall out of love with the first idea that comes into your mind

Weiden+Kennedy wrote some years ago that in 80% of the cases the winning creative idea was the first one that came into their mind and they recommended writing your first idea every time on a post-it.

With consumer and strategic ideas is hard to be creative without doing your homework right. Both require complex research and ideation, and the best way to approach them is to apply to each a DT + CT sequence.

Exemplifying the process in a table

Here’s a table I just prepared for this third rule, explaining the Double DT+CT sequence:

Creative Brief Section DT Process CT Process
Audience/Consumer Exploratory research (qualitative/quantitative studies) Choose the most promising Consumer Insight
Core Strategic Idea Create a shortlist of ideas that use the chosen Consumer Insight and meet the Top Objective Select the Core Strategic Idea with the best creative potential

Third conclusion: The process of writing a creative brief is more about the path getting to it. The best way to get to truly great results is to apply divergent&convergent technique for its most important sections: The Audience, and The Core Strategic Idea.