All Hail the Creative Brief

July 16, 2019 | by Joshua P. Ferguson

Or so that’s the conventional agency wisdom. This document to rule all documents is held as both bible and road map. Its word is bond (quite literally if your agency requires client sign-off on its contents). In its role as a centerpiece of agency life, the creative brief is adored and despised, sworn by and shrugged off, considered both a crucial starting point for any project and an administrative waste of time.

Endless strings of words have been dedicated to defending each of these positions. And yet, I find myself a creative director in 2019, still looking for answers, still questioning if our process here at BatesMeron delivers the right creative brief for our needs. I find myself poring over Slideshares, agency manifestos and how-to articles in search of the insights that can help our team along its continual path of self-improvement.

In spite of my efforts, I can confirm there is no magical unicorn of a creative brief that will ensure runaway ROI on all future ad campaigns and marketing initiatives. I can also confirm that there is no one-size-fits-all manifesto that will answer all client and agency needs. But I can also confirm that there are a number of critical best practices that can be adopted and adapted to get the creative sparks flying and help set a clear path to showing clients some real value.


A Brief History (Get It?)

It’s worth starting with an understanding of how the creative brief came to be. Particularly in our case here at BatesMeron, because it illustrates an area we’re constantly working to improve on: bridging the accounts-creatives divide.

Head back with me to the golden age of early advertising. That lionized Mad Men era of vodka martinis, Lucky Strikes and a need to set processes as agencies grew, departments formed and accounts teams separated from the creative ones. Since they’re the people rubbing elbows with clients and hearing business and marketing needs first hand, account managers found themselves in the best position to capture and download project info for creatives.

Thus, the creative brief was born. An efficient way to put everyone on the same page. A central way to set up the creative challenge ahead and get the team inspired. Its utility in this sense seems undeniable, and yet it has come to represent (to many) more agency bloat than creative efficiency.


Creative Brief Booby Traps

I say booby traps, because a dud of a creative brief falls squarely on the creator. Any pitfalls are pitfalls of your own making and can be avoided by 1) having a culture that lives for and by the virtues of what a truly transcendent brief can do and 2) making sure the briefs you share with the team are, if not truly transcendent, then at the very least compelling. So, what does a compelling brief really do? Put simply, it informs, answers questions and inspires. That last part is probably the most important.

The chief audience for a creative brief is your creative team—the short-attention-span-having artists and writers responsible for the work to come. Only by creating briefs that inspire minds like theirs can we achieve an agency culture that believes in their power.

Between my experience—particularly here at BatesMeron—and from taking the internet’s temperature on what distinguishes a good brief from the bad, there are a few big areas where creative briefs can fall short.

  • YOU’VE WRITTEN A BLOATED SNOOZEFEST: Remember: the short-attention-span-having artists and writers. This is an audience that will immediately tune you out and never turn back if they sniff out that your creative briefs are just going through the motions or have become overrun with marketing speak. Your clients have problems that needs solving and this should be framed as a creative challenge your team can sink its collective teeth into.
  • THERE’S A HOLE WHERE YOUR STRATEGY SHOULD BE: I’m sure we’re not alone in this situation at BatesMeron. Account managers should not be expected to shoulder the strategic burden and hand that off to the creatives. Take the steps to involve the art and creative directors. Have conversations, ask the big what, where, why, who questions. Follow up with the client for clarification when necessary. This way the brief lays out the problem in its truest sense and sets guard rails that point the team in the right direction (but give them lots of room to get creative).
  • YOU’RE WORKING IN A VACUUM: Arguably the Godfather of great copywriting, David Ogilvy famously said, “I spend a long time studying the precedents. I look at every advertisement which has appeared for competing products during the past 20 years.” Extreme? Maybe. Effective? OGILVY said it, so yeah. A creative brief isn’t just about clarity, it’s about context. What’s the market doing? What are competitors saying? This is critical homework that’s easy to skip past when you want to dive right into writing and design.
  • DON’T JUST WRITE IT, LIVE IT: All the tips up to this point require time, thoughtfulness and more upfront work. So, make sure all that work is not for not. Refer to the brief. Remind your team it’s there. If they don’t read it, take the right steps to make sure that’s a one-time mistake. Creative briefs done right are more than carriers of information. They’re the cornerstone of a creative process that’s as much about discipline and work as they are curiosity and creativity. Reinforcement is the only way to make sure the process sticks.

At BMSD, this is a continually evolving process. We take each of these four areas to heart and we’ve gotten damn good at it. Could we be better? Heck yeah. There may never be a definitive creative brief at BatesMeron. Keeping it fresh and keeping us inspired to do better work is just the sort of creative challenge our team loves sinking their teeth into.

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