Thoughts on the creative brief

Some briefs inspire messages, other briefs inspire actions and experiences

Thoughts and lessons for my students


From Cannes 2014. Photo by Engin Gedik, via AdWeek

Before you can sit down and make effective advertising, you have to know what you’re trying to accomplish. What’s the problem? The objective? The audience for your advertising? The ideal outcome?

That usually means you need what’s called a creative brief: a one or two page document that explains the “what.” What are you trying to do with the advertising?

(The creative, of course, is the magical “how” that leaps off the more logical brief into a world of interesting.)

In the age of message-based advertising (TV, print, outdoor, radio) the standard advertising brief was designed and written to reduce a target audience to a single motivating insight and dictate a single message to be conveyed, It answered the question every creative team wanted to know. “What’s the one thing the advertising needs to say?”

It served two purposes. It eliminated the guessing game and focused the writer and art director. And it offered everyone — client, account team, creative director– some agreed upon criteria for evaluating the creative idea.

The traditional brief, which still works when we are making message-based advertising, looks like this:

· Business Problem

· Target Audience

· What Do We Want Them To Think Or Feel?

· What Is THE ONE THING The Advertising Has To Say?

· What Are The Support Points?

· Tone Of Voice

· Mandatories

Because of its focus, lots of creative folks like it; they know exactly what the advertising has to convey. It puts them in a small box, making it easier to be creative. It’s perfect when you’re trying to tell car buyers that VW offers affordable German engineering. Or remind business travelers that Jet Blue has the most non-stops to Florida.

So if you’re dead set on making a message-based ad, this brief, or a variation on it, is the way to go.

But it has one shortcoming. It runs the risk of yielding work that talks at people. Which means it’s possible this type of brief can actually become a deterrent to doing work for a digital age. If you accept that today an advertiser’s job is to invite participation, build community, inspire sharing and even provide useful content and experiences that solve problems for a customer, you’re probably making a lot more than messages. In which case you need a different kind of brief. You need a brief that is less prescriptive and more likely to inspire exploration and discovery that leads to an experience. A better brief might frame what an advertiser wants to do or make happen rather than what it needs to say.

· Get women to re-think beauty: Dove.

· Demonstrate the power of Watson: The IBM food truck.

· Involve patrons with the exhibit: Getty’s Girls in the Blue Dress.

· Encourage safety around trains: Australia Metro.

· Raise blood bank levels: My blood is red and black.

· Celebrate our 100th anniversary: Oreo Daily Twist

It might pose the problem and nothing more. Leaving the solution and the creative idea in the hands of an integrated, more diverse brand team.

· Come up with a better way to buy razor blades: Dollar Shave Club

· Get more teachers to use Skype: Skype in the Classroom

· Encourage workers to start saving for retirement earlier: Prudential’s Challenge Lab

· Inspire athletes to achieve even more next year: Nike Your Year

In that case, the brief might look more like this:

· What problem are we trying to solve for our user? (Or what are we trying to do for them?)

· Who is having this problem (or who can we help)?

· What is the best way to help them solve it?

· What could we do or make?

· What would make people share it?

· How can they participate in the experience?

· What is the context (where and when) for engaging?

Of course, there are as many briefs and forms of briefs as there are agencies. See the deck below for some examples.

But at least this gives you a starting point.

In most agencies, planners write the brief. In some agencies account execs write the brief. In progressive agencies, where the lines between functions and departments are blurring, the brief is often a joint effort among the planners, creatives, account team and an involved (in a good way, we hope) client.

In fact there’s been very recent discussion about whether we even need formal briefs, instigated in part by this controversial Fuck the Brief slide (above) at Cannes in 2014.

But its point was that in a real time world, clients, agencies, planning and creatives should all be working so closely together in an environment of non-stop interaction and collaboration that the formal, written brief should not even be necessary. Everyone should know what they are trying to do and why.

However, when you are starting out in the business, as an AE, planner or creative, you need some guidelines — something that can focus you, give you the basic background, and convey what everyone has agreed they are trying to do/say/accomplish.

Some resources for you here.

Credit to Gareth Kay, Ana Andjelic, and Faris Yakob whose thinking and writing has informed some of the above.

You should read all of them.



Thoughts and lessons for my students

Documentary Photographer / Creative Director / Writer / Author / Original Partner, Chief Creative Officer MullenLowe US / Former Professor Boston University