February 26th 2014

Writing a creative brief

by Martin O'Toole

Over the years, it's become clear to me that writing a creative brief for an advertising agency (or any kind of creative consultancy for that matter) isn't as easy it sounds. This includes agency-side people.

The thing is, writing a creative brief that will actually have the desired effect IS difficult! And people make a bad job of it more often than you think.

This is designed to be helpful advice for all, regardless of whether you’re new to writing briefs or you’ve been in the industry for years. I’ve spent decades writing briefs. Moreover, in my various brand, creative and digital agency roles, I’ve received and written a vast number of agency pitch briefs. In such instances, the brief has naturally played an integral part in getting it right and winning the business.

Whilst it’s important for agency-side parties to ask the right questions, the finished work will be a reasonable reflection of the brief provided in the first place (i.e. get the brief wrong and the work presented will likely be rubbish). Ever hear the expression "shit in, shit out"..?

So with the above in mind, here’s a simple guide to writing a creative brief for an advertising agency and what the brief should consist of. The majority of this content is media/channel-neutral. It’s a creative brief outline – which will work through the line, omni-channel, full service and integrated.

1. Purpose of brief (‘so what’s occurring?’)

Whether for an agency pitch, or an existing client, this section always needs to be an outline of the business objectives and a succinct introduction to the brand, its sector, and the product/service to be launched/repositioned/put online/immortalised in advertising etc. You’ll know pretty much all there is to know about your brand and your sector; therefore there is often a temptation to provide far too much information. Keep it simple; give a flavour, but try not to offload piles and piles of information if it is not relevant to the project in hand. Remember that the agency will ask questions, which you would hope, will be good questions. If they do not, take note. Their ability to listen is as important as their ability to create.

2. Insights (‘What should we ask ourselves to get this right’?)

Assuming you’re more interested in one of the agencies coming back with the right work rather than putting them to the test, it’s always a good idea to drop in a couple of insightful questions around the problem. For example: “How do we hook our potential consumer, using a balance of emotive and technical messages – conveying a balance of brand personality and depth of expertise?” These questions are obviously rhetorical, but can help drive the agencies’ approach far better.

3. Target audience (‘so who wants to know?’)

Tip: “Everyone” is not an insightful brief of the target market! Obviously this can be socio-demographic information, but if you think a little deeper, you might provide an introduction to a couple of personas. For example: Tell the agency a story about ‘Claire, the girl next door’; talk about where she lives/her likes/dislikes/where she shops/what sites she’s likely browsing. Build a story regarding Claire – bring her to life. It’s a far more interesting way to describe your target market – again, offering the opportunity for more insightful consideration.

4. Competition (‘who else is doing this?’)

Not a difficult area of the brief. List your top competitors and their web addresses. Leave the agencies to do the rest. It’s their job to decide how relevant the competitors’ marketing strategy/tactics are. However, DO provide a concise indication of your understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of what your competitors are up to. Also, if you like something they’re doing – say. Your competitors are allowed to be great at what they do, after all…

5. The USP (‘what’s the single most important thing we want the customer to know?’)

Ah, the USP… This is the bit where most people get it wrong – agencies included. Why? For many reasons. 1. Because people tend to list more than one proposition (even though we’re looking for the unique point; 2. Because it’s not all that easy to sum absolutely all of the features and benefits of your brand/product/service into one line. Difficult, but not impossible… This is arguably the most important section of the brief. If you are ambiguous at this stage, don’t be surprised if indecisive work is presented back to you. Get it right, and see the difference.

6. Reinforcing the USP (‘can we actually support/prove that?’)

Bearing in mind that the USP information should be short and sweet, this is the area where you can expand and rationalise your thoughts. Again, keep it simple; use bullet-points, all of which support your thinking. Don’t ramble; don’t repeat yourself. Furthermore, don’t under-estimate the importance of this are of the brief (as people often do).

7. Look, feel, tone of voice (‘How should it look and what should it sound like?’)

You’ll likely already have a set of brand guidelines or brand bible. If they’re any good, they’ll contain this information. Copy the more salient points and stipulations. Regardless, the key here is to give some descriptors relating to how your brand/product/service feels – how it looks – how it exists. Don’t be afraid of incorporating a little passion here – after all, it’s your brand!!!

8. Mandatory inclusions & exclusions (‘what must be in, what needs to be out?’)

It’s always helpful to nail down a bullet-point list of dos & don’ts, to save time. If you know full well that a certain line of messaging does not work when it comes to your brand, mention it. If the CEO’s wife hates yellow (sighs), put it in the brief! This is all about making the whole process more efficient. Feel free to download a template here.

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