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Creative Brief... Could You Be More Specific?

Half Truth

A few weeks ago, I wrote about clearly setting a mark with new clients. I see now, in hindsight, that I should have been even more specific.

The devil just isn't in the details. The devil is the detail.

The best creative briefs are narrow. Scarily so. They make clients sweat a bit under their collar, because we're pinning them to one extraordinarily specific business strategy. No wiggle room! 

And if the strategy turns out to be misinformed, you and the client will pay for it as the project plays out. Always. If you have a well-crafted brief with a very specific key insight, there's no going back without it costing the client, both in terms of money (change order) and time (the amount of labor necessary to reconcept work). If an assumed strategy changes mid-stream, they will always end up bearing increased risk. 

So let's keep the brief loose. A broadly written brief provides just enough space to let you keep working through the strategy in the creative without having to pay for it. After all, you just didn't hit it with the third round of concepts...

Now, that's the pessimist's view. I think that most clients don't consciously steer us towards strategic thinking in the creative work. They just want great creative that meets their business goals, and they look to us to help craft a brief that's going to fulfill those goals in a timely fashion. But it's a shared responsibility, not just ours or theirs. And these kinds of situations usually occur over and over again because the client, the designer, or both parties just don't know any better. And the briefs, lacking in specific detail, are what get you every time.

Here's a few hard-won tips that will help you increase specificity in your creative briefs, and reduce your overall project risk.

Is your single takeaway that you need to express painfully simple? If it takes you forever to explain the key insight in your brief, it's not being articulated properly. A good insight should be communicated in two to five seconds flat. Don't meander. If there's a lot of commas, em-dashes, colons, or other punctuation in your key benefit statements, then you're cramming too much into what should be a simple imperative sentence.

For a good model, look across the Atlantic. British ad agencies don't flounder like us Americans. Here's some key benefits I saw in some sample briefs floating about the Internet: "Big events in London are closer than you think with British Airways." "Pot of Noodle: Your dirty secret." "Mattel: Endless expression." There are plenty of samples that are just a Google search away, whether those agencies like it or not.

"Our product is the best because of x, y, z and x features..." Nope. Not an insight.

Say one thing. Own it. Keep it simple.


Is your audience described not as a demographics, but as discrete personas? It's good to know that your audience is 55- to 70-year-old retiring baby boomers that love to fly home to see their folks. But it's much better to get to know Polly. She lives in Boca Raton, Florida in a retirement community, plays tennis twice a week at the club, has a weak spot for QVC, spends time on Facebook with her college buddies, and regularly looks for travel bargains for impromptu trips to see her new grandkids.

You can't tell a compelling story in creative unless you can visualize your audience in extraordinarily discrete detail. If you're sharing this kind of detail about your audience when you're showing concepts, it's too late. You're giving your client another thing to critique besides the creative work. How you describe your audience should be just as narrow as how you define your single takeaway, and it should show up either in the brief or in supporting documentation that the client approves.

If you're going to craft personas because you're doing an interactive project, this may not apply. But if you're doing advertising or branding, get this established right up front. This means you should have a plan you share with the client for how you'll research their audience, and the expected result from that research: a key strategic insight described in a brief. Even if they aren't paying you for research, it's likely you'll still go through this step behind the scenes to make sure your strategic insight is solid.


Is it in plain English? Do you understand all the terminology used? Scrubbing your briefs for marketing and research-speak can help clarify some key points for your creative team. If you have to leave the jargon in the brief to demonstrate understanding to a client, then have a glossary attached that clearly defines the key lingo at play. Even long-term clients that have evolved a common language with your account management and creative teams should be patrolled at all costs. What happens if your designer is out sick for a week and you need to bring someone in to help out? You'll be playing "decode the brief" for hours.


Did you leave the massive reams of supporting thought out of the brief? Explain the research and key thinking to the client alongside the brief. Provide backing material alongside the brief as support the key insight. Just don't distill that 25-page PowerPoint deck into pages 3 through 6 of the actual brief. It's impossible to focus when you're being randomized by all the bricks that make up the building's facade. A creative brief should be brief.

And here's the key, number #1 thing that is always overlooked as important in the brief... and it's the first thing our clients always ding us for:


Did you succinctly and accurately describe the client's business problem. Have you ever had to sit in a client meeting where the first thing a client says about the brief is: "Do you understand what we're trying to accomplish here? From the brief, it doesn't seem like it. Let's go over the business problem again."

This sounds like a total "Duh!" Well, I can't count the number of times that massive insight and care was put into crafting the agency's big strategic thoughts while articulating the client's business problem was an afterthought. Ouch. They're paying us to solve their problem, and we can't even tell them what their problem is! (Keeping in mind that this is after they'd described it to us in painstaking detail when we'd won the work).

Don't do this. This is a great way to destabilize your client engagements before you've even started to push a pixel.


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