Bringing the Creative Brief Back to Life

I’ll hopefully never need to remember the evacuation guidelines for a snakebite victim or pull traction on a broken femur during a Contagious Insider workshop.

And with any luck, the bolts of brilliance that strike during future Contagious-led events won’t be the kind that require whipping out the lightning safety checklist.

But that doesn’t mean the communications industry can’t learn a little something from wilderness survival training.

A few months ago I earned certification as a Wilderness First Responder from the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). While working through the 80 hours of coursework, I had a eureka moment about high-risk emergency management situations and what they can teach us about leadership in communication.

Take a look at what NOLS has to say about briefing during those life-or-death moments, like, for example, during a search & rescue operation:

‘Briefings are clear, complete, and interesting, and address team coordination and planning for potential problems. The team puts aside social conversation or low-priority tasks, pays attention, and asks clarifying questions. Expectations are set for handling possible deviations from normal operations or unusual conditions…
‘A briefing should be brief. Short and concise briefings help people remember details. Several two- or three-minute briefings may be more effective than one 20-minute briefing. Keep it simple. Strive for the three-sentence briefing. Brief at phase changes: at the start, when the assessment is done, when you reach an obvious rest stop or obstacle in a litter carry. Brief to keep your team informed. Share information. State decisions and plans. Speak to both who will do it and how they will do it.’


Contagious analyses top creative work from all over the world, looking at the best of the best when it comes to creativity in communications. Surprisingly, we find that there’s not a great link between fantastic briefing and fantastic work. In fact, it seems more like a crapshoot.

I asked one of our Insiders, Arif Haq, about his time as a client writing briefs and he underscored this lack of connection. ‘I wrote a load of good briefs that resulted in average work and poor briefs that got brilliant work. The correlation between the two is tenuous, but the briefing myth is one that perpetuates because to solve the actual problem is too difficult or time consuming.’

In fact, many of the ideas we celebrate come from agencies and clients willing to go beyond the brief as it is typically conceived. For instance, at our Most Contagious conference last year, Dentsu creative director Kaoru Sugano talked about how far his team went beyond the initial brief to create Sound of Senna, the riveting campaign that took home 2014's Titanium Grand Prix at Cannes Lions. Meanwhile, Kenco brand manager Emad Nadim talked about how the brand ‘threw out’ the standard briefing template for its impressive Coffee vs. Gangs initiative.


So if the connection between brief and brilliance is tenuous, why do we spend so much time focusing on briefing?

For one, a brief is essentially an order form for the intangible. It’s something more concrete than a commission. Side note: The Rolling StonesSticky Fingers cover commission from Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol — which told the artist to take as much time as he wanted, name his price and disregard the haranguing of the Stones’ manager — is not the World’s Greatest Brief, as is sometimes claimed. It might be the world’s simplest commission.

That distinction is simple: a brief contains temporally-relevant information about the context of the broad group of intended receivers, like ‘Rolling Stones fans at Sam Goody’ rather than ‘rock ’n’ roll fans’ or ‘anyone with ears’. It has a commercial purpose that’s defined in terms more narrow than ‘make us all very rich / famous’ or ‘make our the b(r)and #1’ or ‘get me into the favorable section of my religion’s afterlife’. Those goals are better suited to commissions, and while they may be pleasant side effects of a really good brief they may equally result from a very poor one.

Instead, a brief is an order for a unit of situational response. Or taken a step further, it’s an order for a unit for situational response that fulfills a specific business objective. On the Contagious I/O research platform we sort units of situational response (case studies, campaigns, etc.) by common business objectives:

Change attitudes
Customer acquisition
Customer retention
Defend market share
Develop new market
Dramatise a key product benefit
Drive footfall in store
Earn media / increase exposure
Increase social media following / drive web traffic
Launch new product
Market share gain
Profit gain
Raise awareness
Reduce price sensitivity
Revitalise existing market
Sales value gain
Sales volume gain

By concentrating on specific objectives, as well as targeted audiences, temporal factors, and other relevant variables, briefs help us define the box in which our campaign idea is born. After that, it’s up to us to decide whether to think inside that box, or break out of it.


So what’s the future of the brief, or our theoretical ‘order for a unit of situational response that fulfills a business objective?’ In an era of real-time, responsive advertising it’s probably much more like a functional assessment than a commission.

As Omar Johnson, CMO of Beats told us for our case study in Issue 40, ‘It can’t just be a creative brief and we go off and work. There’s a dialogue, there’s a conversation, there’s ebbs and flows to the creative process…the process of, at every step, getting better.’

Briefs should be conversation starters — the information-filled opening sentence to a creative back-and-forth that articulates, evolves and improves a brand’s marketing promise, with a specific outcome in mind. They should be clear, they should be concise, and they should be interesting.

And, when done right, they should prepare a team to respond proactively to challenges, even if their supplies are limited and they’re in the middle of the woods and someone’s screaming. Stuck writing your next brief? Take a look at NOLS’ Wilderness Medicine Institute’s recommended simple briefing format:

Leader to team:
Here’s what I think we face.
Here’s what I think we should do.
Here’s why.
Here’s what we should keep our eye on.
Now, talk to me.

And then the debrief — not necessarily a stage that comes at the end of the process, but a continual check-in that allows us to refine our ideas and concepts as we proceed toward a common goal.

After Action Review/Hot Debrief:
What was planned?
What actually happened?
Why did it happen?
What can we do next time?

NOLS’ briefing guidelines are interesting for their fluidity. New information means you need a new brief. Changing circumstances mean you need a new brief. Articulate everything clearly, succinctly, to all, and solicit feedback after you’ve spoken your piece.

There’s your brief. Now, talk to me.

Flickr image used courtesy Mount Rainier National Park.

Originally published at

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