The Creative Brief - An Exercise in Soft Values Between Client & Agency.

If you do a quick google search on creative briefs, you’ll find hundreds of articles online. I think this is a testament to how hard it is to write a good brief, since the development of the brief, is as much a part of the creative process as thinking of ideas to answer the brief itself. The creative brief is meant to be the culmination of all the research and strategy completed, an understand of the client’s business, an understanding of the audience and a framing of the goal of the communication – in addition to uncovering the truths and insights about the emotions and behaviors surrounding the brand, consumer and cultural relevance. It's a lot to think about. However, a good creative brief is also meant to spark inspiration while guiding your team through the constraints of objectives, how and where you may engage, and hypothetically how much time and budget is suppose to be spent. 

It’s a tall order to create a good brief (and one that is brief). It is no wonder that many briefs, to put it mildly — suck.

We expect clients really do want to engage agencies for their creativity and innovation, as well as the tactical application of strategy. However, sometimes clients get more caught up in a tactical approach to defining projects (writing a 12 page essay chock full of business objectives and must haves) than actually engaging agencies to do what they do best – think. 

Writing a real creative brief requires a partnership between agency and client, business and creatives. It requires discovery. It also shouldn’t consume the entire ideation phase of a project just to write what you are going to do.

  • A brief is suppose to be brief.
  • The brief is the what to be done. The creative is the how.
  • A brief defines the creative need and scope for a particular project engagement. 
  • A brief is one the most important parts of the creative process.
  • The brief process also uncovers the hidden soft-values that your client finds important, helping to build an understanding of what drives your client.

How you brief a team also determines what you get back. (Johnstone 2006) The importance of the brief in creative development is considered so vital to the effectiveness of the creative being generated, that research has identified that the most creative work (that an agency outputs) goes to clients (who have written or approved of briefs that are) open to exploring ideas. (Koslow et al 2006) “The difference between a design brief with just the right level of constraint and one that is overly vague or overly restrictive can be the difference between a team on fire with breakthrough ideas and one that delivers a tired reworking of existing ones.” (Brown 2009)

While the questions that are often asked on the creative brief have changed throughout the years, the reasoning for the creation of a brief remains the same; 

What is the problem that needs to be solved or the challenge that needs to be overcome?

By answering this question, you will always save time and money – by giving clarity, constraints and defining goals. A good brief leads to better creative work, and it makes remuneration fairer, by setting goals. (Johnstone 2006) Fundamentally, writing a creative brief should be considered a part of the discovery phase, as both marketer and creative agency work together to answer the questions posed on the brief to help develop both discovery, insights and ultimately the role of the communication. The brief is also supported and built by the results of research, observations, and previous experimentation or work. While the brief itself is not meant to answer the problem (or project) posed, the information it contains helps to support further discovery which leads to the formation of associational thinking, resulting in the creation of innovative business or creative ideas. (Clayton et al 2011) 

The creative brief is seen as one of the top ways marketers can have an impact on agency creativity, regardless of budget. Indeed, the brief is seen as often having a larger impact on creativity than the size of a budget. (Ehrenberg et al 2002) A brief should also never be cut and paste, there are always new learnings to be had. While there is no one brief that can fit all creative projects, the end goal of a brief is to make it as complete and useful as possible. (Philips 2004) It is the balance between being clear about what is needed, having relevant information and written in a way that inspires additional discovery and creativity that make briefs effective. (Johnstone 2006).

The creative brief is meant to answer a set of questions that form the constraints of the creative project framed in a way that meets the projects objectives. 

They don’t always ask the same questions either. The end objective, will always twist the way the basic questions of a brief are asked. For example is the objective of the project to persuade or increase awareness or even general publicity?

The basic questions on a brief are:

Where are we now? This would include the current beliefs and perceptions about a brand, product or service. This may also reveal specific insights in how we can motivate people to takt the action the brief desires.

Where do we want to be? This would be the desired change of belief, perception, or creating awareness around a new belief. This could also include what action do you want people to take.

What are we doing to get there? How do we motivate people to take action, or what connection can we make in order to promote a change in a belief. How can we challenge conventions to gain or provoke attention. What’s the big idea (or driving idea for the brand that will act as a catalyst for change?

Who do we need to talk to? This would include the target audience(s) or community. From demographics to psychographics, there age and income to interests, lifestyles and habits. We can also ask, where do we need to engage people, how and in what context.

How will we know when we arrived? This defines the desired outcome of what we are going to do, make or build. 

These questions along with others, can help provide the logical, who, what, when/where and why thinking process for the development of a brief. (Johnstone 2006). However, the format in which these questions are asked need to be focused on creative objectives, rather than business objectives. This framing of creative objectives is important to the success of a project, often the disconnect between business objectives and creative objectives can result in a disconnect between agency and client. 

The creative brief is a creative document to brief a creative team.

As we said before, the creative brief is a big link between the client and creative team. It can also set the tone for how the client and agency will work effectively together. (Shelford et al 2003) It also can set up the work platform, set expectations and how the end results will be judged. (Langwost 2004) A big problem with most creative briefs is that they either don’t address the underlying marketing need, or are too limited in scope. Vagueness can be both good and bad. 

It can be helpful to think of a creative brief as “like a scientific hypothesis, the brief is a set of mental constraints that gives the project team a framework from which to begin, benchmarks by which they can measure progress, and a set of objectives to be realized: price point, available technology, market segment, and so on.” (Brown 2009) 

This is why many agencies believe in “co-ownership” of the brief with the client. (Philips 2004). Together, as project stakeholders, the creative brief translates the business objectives, and is used to communicate the main objectives and describe the major deliverables of a project, including significant information and deadlines. (Shelford et al 2003)

Many agencies engage their strategic planning department (or competency) as the main lead for developing the discovery portion for the design brief. The strategy team on either the client or agency side may provide key information and research, such as competitive reviews, target audience analysis, company portfolio review, category review, and other research data in order to help support the development of the brief. 

(Click to enlarge, or click here for pdf.)

In addition, the strategic planning process can help to uncover insights, your target audience, make sense of analytics and data, as well as form a point-of-view on where you need to engage. The strategic process also doesn’t work in a vacuum. Great strategic development is very much a creative process, in the way that it utilizes and makes sense of the information it gathers and shares. This is why having strategic thinking in place is important and valued. If marketers do not work with the agency in partnership to develop the brief, or provide poor information or misleading information, or provide a brief that has too little or too many constraints or is unwilling to make changes to a brief, they may find the agency as an unwilling partner once the project commences. (Koslow et al 2006) 

A design brief is meant to be road map that the creatives will follow, that define in (very, very broad) steps that will be taken from the inception of the project to its completion. Thus, design briefs must include a considerable amount of both business strategy and design strategy developed by both an agency and client in order to have buy-in by both sides. (Philips 2004) The outcome of which is the single driving idea, the one thing you are going to say or do in regards to the goal of the project. Once the creative brief is developed and approved, the discovery process for the project itself will begin. It is very important that everyone is in agreement on all the parameters of the brief, especially on the creative side, and especially on that one thing the brief is suppose to accomplish. Getting the creative team on board is very key. “The willing and even enthusiastic acceptance of competing constraints is the foundation of design thinking. The first stage of the design process is often about discovering which constraints are important and establishing a framework for evaluating them.”(Brown 2009) When there is a lack of enthusiasm and a lack of will to work on the project, creativity suffers.

However, the brief in reality is meant to spark ideas and to inspire. Certainly, ideas can be what we call “on brief,” and other ideas can be born of other information contained in the brief, and other ideas can be born of the brief. This is what the creative process is all about. This is why a projects constraints have to be supportive of the creative process and not work against it. When we begin to develop ideas, we often make leaps. These leaps can be positive and lead to ideas where the project constraints need to be stretched. Leaps can happen where our creative discovery process leads us to re-examine and possibly rethink a brief or the project. Leaps can also make us circle around improving other ideas. We can doubt the conventional thinking at many stages during the creative process, including what is presented in the brief. What we can’t do is lose sight of the consumer, our audience and where we need to properly engage them.

Certainly, the thinking of what brand advertising is suppose to accomplish has evolved over the years, from a persuasive model to publicity to salience to awareness (Ehrenberg et al 2002) to storytelling. As the creation of a creative brief is often tied to an advertising agency’s strategic process, what questions are asked on a creative brief are often different from one agency to the next. In reality, the who, what why, where and when is very similar, but the end goal of the assignment is skewed on briefs to reflect the varied thinking of creative agencies and the model (persuasive versus awareness, storytelling) that the agency follows and believes in.

In a way, the creative brief, is perhaps as old as the first commissioned piece of art. Someone had an idea, asked for something to be made, and the artist and client agreed on the objective and the project started. Positioning is a business strategy, that uses research to determine where a product should fit in to the general market in the mind of the target audience. (Philips 2004). A brand position is part of the thinking that goes on about a brand or product and has a direct influence in developing the creative brief.

As the theory and goal of advertising evolved from presenting facts to the development of insights and positioning, the idea that advertising is meant solely to increase sales wained. Advertising may at times be followed by a sales increase, but it is often short-lived. (Ehrenberg et al 2002). Advertising theory, and it’s goals and objective considerations have evolved over recent years. Three key terms can be considered as part of the recent modern goals of advertising; Publicity, Persuasion, and Salience. (Ehrenberg 2002).

Persuasion is to give someone a reason or incentive to change their thinking, how they feel and perhaps what they do. (Ehrenberg 2002) While many people believe that advertising is primarily a persuasive function, many marketers find that brand advertising that is persuasive is difficult to achieve. (Ehrenberg 2002) Publicity in advertising seeks to increase how consumers feel, think, and remember something about the brand, rather than trying to persuade consumers to change what they feel about the brand. (Ehrenberg 2002) Salience is our sense about the brand coming to mind in personally relevant choice situations. While increasing awareness is important to all three of these modern terms. Increasing salience is the goal of increasing a brand’s strength as part of one’s broader consideration set, for a brand that you might buy or use now or in the future. (Ehrenberg 2002).

In recent year’s, the term salience has been replaced with the concept of stickiness or contagious, making something catch on in a social sharing way, (Berger 2013) as well as the concept of telling and weaving a brand’s story through long-term advertising, content development and branding. The concept of the development of a brand story can also be an objective goal. “When you write a creative brief, you're not filling out a form. You're crafting the story of your product and its reason to exist and thrive in the world.” (Margulies 2009) All of these theories and goals influence the development and point of view of the creative brief. As we look at these viewpoints we can imagine why agencies often develop their own theories (that may skew one way or have a systems approach to their thinking). If you briefed a few different agencies on the same project,  you may get very different creative results. In reality, there is no one brief, there is no one brief that all agencies follow, there is no one brief that all projects follow.

For this reason alone, this is why I stress that the development of the creative brief should be done in partnership – especially since these goal of communication views can skew the start of the research phase in discovery. And since the brief is the starting off point for the creative discovery phase, for collecting information, studying or observing the target audience, analyzing information and sharing it, it needs to be developed together. (Stone 2010) The end goal of a creative brief is the creation of an objective strategic tool that is agreed and acted upon, that contains an overview of the project, what the drivers are for what needs to be achieved, who the audience is and who the competitors are, what should the audience take away and other project oriented information. (Stone 2010) That strategic viewpoint, if the goal is to publicize, persuade, increase awareness or salience, stickiness, or sharing of story can effect the development of the questions asked as well as the brief itself. Above all, the creative brief leads the creative energy and focuses it. “The brief should have taken all the relative information, funneled it to you, but not give you any answers, so that you can start working.” (Langwost 2004) 

One of the downsides to a written brief is that many people find the prospect of writing a brief a big challenge. (2009) “Too often, the creative brief is joylessly “filled out” as if it were the worksheet to an IRS 1040 Schedule C.” (Margulies 2009) If you are having problems with the brief, concentrate first on answering the question, why are we doing the project? If you can answer that question, then the rest will be easier. If you are really, honestly stuck, that means your are attempting to write the brief alone. Briefs that are developed without face-to-face interaction can be problematic. Research shows that when verbal briefings accompany a written briefing, there is increased trust. (Philips 2004). Building a brief together helps to build trust between the client and the agency. As we know, trust is an important factor to the success of creativity and innovation. (Rosenfeld & Wilhelmi 2011) 

Remember, while your brief is not a work order, the creative brief is often the first and only creatively-oriented written rules of engagement between the client and agency team. The brief and in-person briefing helps to establish trust by putting these rules (written and unwritten in place) for the creation, generation and brainstorming phase. Trust is also established by agreeing on the strategic focus of the brief, determining objectives and the  establishment of common principles and values. In person meetings can help get everyone on the same page or address differences in values. An in-person briefing can also detail out (or negotiate) how the project is going to be evaluated by the key stakeholders. When agencies and clients work together as partners, the creative output can be considered a part of the organizational response to the values and principles set forth by the key stakeholders. (Rosenfeld & Wilhelmi 2011)

In-person meetings also help improve the quality of the work by creating temporary “meeting of minds,” where agencies can also seek to develop trust by setting measurements, benchmarking and standard practices (which includes brief development) that are mutual agreed upon. (Philips 2004). Approval processes for the brief should also be aligned with the activities of both the client and the agency. (Philips 2004) There is nothing worse than spending time developing the brief together, and then having it killed by committee.

A case can also be made for the development of a more free-form approach to building the questions on a creative brief. As we noted earlier, there are many different strategic goal differences in regards to the theory of what advertising is meant to accomplish. We also noted that there is consensus that “no one brief fits all.”

I propose that creative brief creation can benefit from an initial project exercise between client and agency. The start of an engagement is the time to establish and defend an agency’s strategic thinking, by looking at a broader selection of questions, that show a variety of thinking and values between the advertising agency and the client. As they work together in partnership, both agency and client can begin to develop a sense of which values are shared and where they differ. If you have an established way of doing your brief, this is also the time to share your thinking and values, by walking through the process in a bit more detail than you normally would. Establishing a sense of shared soft-values between the larger team, means that as the relationship grows, your strategic point-of-views get heard by this gained trust between the key stakeholders and the external organization. 

For example, which of these questions make more sense to you?

Persuasion view: What value can we add that would make people change brands?

Publicity view: What is the opportunity to achieve something really impactful?

Salience view: What is the most relevant and differentiating idea that will surprise consumers or challenge their current thinking of the brand?

Storytelling view: What is the narrative we want to tell about our brand that builds on our story?

Stickiness view: What content can we develop that people are going to want and share that best states what our brand is about?

Looking at your set of questions through the lens of the goal of communication in general is an excellent way of building your own set of questions that match your strategic views.

A great creative brief is one that inspires, is clear, sticks to one goal, has supportive constraints, is brief and inspires others to take on the project. Tom Brown notes that there are, “three overlapping criteria for successful ideas that we can apply directly to the development of a creative brief: feasibility (what is functionally possible within the foreseeable future); viability (what is likely to become part of a sustainable business model); and desirability (what makes sense to people and for people). A competent designer will resolve each of these three constraints, but a design thinker will bring them into a harmonious balance.” (Brown 2009) The problem posed by a creative brief should also be thought of as an achievable project, not an open ended problem, by working together to build a brief, both the client and the agency learn to navigate between constraints in creative ways since they have shifted their thinking from problem to project. (Brown 2009) A creative brief therefore needs to be aligned with that thinking. Agencies need to be allowed to be innovative and creative, to many or too little constrictions can result in less than desirable results. 

Lastly, the creative team also needs the time to take in and to digest the information in order to filter it. (Langwost 2004) All this alignment and trust building means nothing, if your creatives don’t have a chance to sit and think and create.


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