Goodbye to the (Traditional) Creative Brief
“You don’t use creative briefs?”
One of our clients had hired a new CMO right in the middle of our planning for a new product campaign. It was our third meeting. We’d discussed the campaign’s goals, target audiences, key messaging and the broad strategy, which the CEO had signed off on. We’d shared a previously presented deck outlining all of the details. We had a contract in place outlining the budget and scope of work. And we had already started creating campaign pieces.
It didn’t matter. “I need a brief. Every agency I’ve ever worked with has used creative briefs.”
We explained that formal briefs had always felt bureaucratic – a tool for bigger, more siloed agencies – and that we used other kinds of documentation. We touted our fluid approach to creative, our internal communication tools and frequent status meetings. And we pointed out that everyone from Atomicdust who was going to touch the project was in the room – the creative director, account manager, project manager, designer, writer. We wouldn’t be passing the project off to any other colleagues, and because of that, we didn’t need a summary document.
It didn’t fly. Our client wanted a brief. Every project he’d ever worked on had begun with a formal document in a specific format outlining expectations and requirements.
We could see it was important. We adapted our existing documentation, emailed the brief, and distributed it at our next meeting. Ultimately, neither side used it, since we had all internalized the brief’s contents before it was even written.
I tell this story not to wag a finger at our client (who wasn’t wrong to ask us to adapt to his needs), not to brag about our “unorthodox” approach to process, and not to argue that creative briefs are unnecessary.
The point is that we had all adopted a too-rigid view of the creative brief. He saw it as a necessity because it had been a fixture of every previous project. We saw it as a barrier: unnecessary paperwork, corporate clutter. We were both a little wrong. It might be time to talk about the role a creative brief should play, but often fails to. How can we evolve them to better serve everyone?
The History of the Creative Brief
Creative briefs emerged in the 1960s as the concept of account planning took wing within agencies. Briefs were a by-product of the resulting separation between account services and creative. The account team wooed the client, drew out their needs, identified goals and expectations, and created or passed along a brief to everyone else.
Briefs were designed to save time. Nothing lost in translation. No playing telephone. Everyone was on the same page and ready to make magic.
There’s a reason creative briefs have been around for 60 years. Done right, they’re capable of empowering great work. They can inform and inspire.
But beware the overly rigid and prescriptive brief. Briefs like this can box creative teams in, forcing them to work within a specific strategy, tactics and messaging. They become contracts that protect the client’s creative prescription – and protect the agency from blowback when the prescription fails. (As Mark Duffy wrote at Digiday, “Briefs serve one purpose, and one purpose only: covering ass.” I don’t totally share that cynicism, but I see his point.)
Many creative briefs glaze over the most important questions (What’s the vision? What does the brand really want to achieve?) and dwell on basic or irrelevant administrative and historical details. They also have a tendency to oversimplify the needs of consumers and instead jump right into a predefined creative solution. All prescription, no insight.
I also know a handful of writers who were required to craft creative briefs for copywriting projects that they were the only ones working on. Writing a creative brief for yourself is the epitome of process gone wild. While you could argue it’s a useful tool for defining expectations around a project and organizing your own thinking, it’s harder to claim that this approach saves time.
A New Kind of Creative Brief
Let’s examine the needs at the heart of creative briefs: the need to create focus and accountability with clear goals and guidelines, to immerse the team in the world of the brand, and to inspire creatives. How can we ensure our creative briefs meet these needs?
First, figure out if you actually need a brief. Is the project simple, with a short timeline and a small team who already knows the client and situation well? Is the work in progress? Are you just creating a brief to complete a meaningless to-do list? Ask if the value the brief brings to the project is worth the time it takes to create.
If a brief could be useful, consider these tips.
A brief is not a substitute for a conversation. It isn’t the brief’s job to fill in the agency or the creative team. That’s the client or the account manager’s job. In other words, don’t just drop a creative brief and a deadline on someone’s desk. Include them. Talk. Educate. Learn. Debate. Collaborate. Develop the brief by asking: Are there assumptions that should be challenged? Will this approach achieve the goals? Then use the brief to support the focus, clarity and inspiration you’ve created.
Write the hell out of it. Craft every line of the brief. Make it sharp, interesting, full of personality, and bold in its requests. It should sell the project as an incredible opportunity for the creatives involved. No vague platitudes about the brand, no fuzzy ideas, no waffling, no redundancy. It’s a war cry, not a to-do list. On that note:
Absolutely no marketing jargon. None. Nada. Stop.
Reconsider the design and format. Is it visually engaging? Is it readable? Or does it look like instructions for completing your tax return?
Keep it flexible. A good creative brief creates structure and stability while allowing for creative exploration. The team should feel empowered to integrate new insights and information into their thinking. The brief isn’t the boss – it’s just a guide.
Keep the simple stuff simple. How many words do you need to summarize the mandatory elements, deliverables, timeline, or budget? Be clear and concise with the facts, and save space for more nuanced elements like audience profiles and messaging considerations.
Don’t set it and forget it. Refer to the brief throughout the project. Use it to check your progress against the project goals. If you find it just sitting in your inbox or at the bottom of your file cabinet, ask why. Is it not serving its purpose? Why not?
As a small agency, we still rely on a combination of in-person briefings and informal written summaries. With small, lean teams working in an open office, we’re all accountable for knowing, remembering, and communicating key information. But we’ve found that creative briefs work well on big projects with more moving parts, and can be an excellent tool for reassuring – and inspiring – our clients. Beyond providing focus, the best creative briefs are creative wellsprings for everyone involved.