brief encounters: how to get the most from your creative brief

Client: We want something quirky but serious. We want it to say this, this, this, this and that but be really stripped back on the messaging. And we want it to be completely on brand but have it speak to everyone.


Creative, out loud: Okay!


Creative, not out loud: Shit.




As younger, less confident copywriters, Matt and I were often involved in such 'conversations'. We'd smile in agreement as clients requested the impossible. We'd nod at strategic moments as they outlined their contradictory demands. We'd do whatever it took just to be out of the meeting and back at the calming sanctuary of our desks, staring into the middle distance and hooking up our caffeine IV drips.


Whilst crying.


Now, a bit older, a bit wiser and a lot less inclined to accept people talking bollocks, we've learned an important lesson:


What clients want isn't what they need.


Which means it's up to the self-appointed creatives - as unbiased, clear-eyed contributors - to help them see the light.


And when it comes to creative campaigns, one of the best ways to do this is by drawing up a defined and universally agreed project roadmap. One that clearly outlines the aims of the project, one that defines everyone's role in delivering it successfully, and - crucially - one that can be challenged should the need arise.


Praise the lord baby Jesus, then, for the creative brief.


Creative brief? That sound like a pair of artist's underpants.


Well, it isn't. (Although sometimes it's about as useful as one.)


A creative brief is a document that outlines the objectives of and reasoning behind an upcoming campaign or product launch. They are written mostly for the benefit of the creative team: to educate them about the product or service they'll be helping to sell, and how their work needs to tie in to the company's brand values.


But they also benefit the client, too, as an opportunity for them to (re)consider how they do things. A creative brief can act like a brand audit, a way to reinforce or reimagine how they see themselves and where they lie amongst the competition. They're a kind of therapy, if you like, just without the chaise longue.


Most creative briefs contain the following deets:


  • A brand statement

  • Campaign context - why the campaign is required

  • The target audience

  • The customer benefits

  • The competition

  • Messaging tone of voice


And they often look like this:



They sound like a right palaver. Are they really that important?


Creative briefs are the foundation of the entire project. They offer insight and inspiration to the creative team, they provide opportunity for the client to relearn what their brand is all about, and they limit the possibility of creative-client conflict by setting the parameters early in the process. 


Creative briefs are the what, the who, the why and the how of any project. And by including stage deadlines, they can even define the when. 


So, yeah, they really are that important.


Who should attend a creative brief?


We're glad you asked, because this is an often overlooked part of the process. Matt and I have lost count of the times we've had to scrap and redo work on the say-so of someone who wasn't at the brief (or any of the subsequent meetings). 


So, if Big John - who absolutely positively one hundred percentedly has to have input into the campaign direction - isn't available for the brief, then the brief needs to be rearranged to a date when he is. That might annoy the meeting organiser (#sorrynotsorry), but it's for the good of the project and will ensure no last-minute But this is all wrong and needs to be done again complications. If Big John is important, Big John's gotta be there.


As Spider-Man once said:


With great power (of creative sign-off) comes great responsibility (to attend the creative brief, and subsequent creative meetings, too). 


You hear that, Big John? 


But here's the problem...


There is one big ol' snag to the creative brief: it's written by the client. And, remember, what clients want isn't always what they need. (Sorry, guys, but it's true. If it helps, the same applies to designers and copywriters 'n' all.)


It's important to understand, then, that a brief should not be seen as a dictatorial de facto meeting and document. Instead, it's an opportunity to question what the client wants. It's a chance for the designers, writers and account managers to consider all kinds of eventualities inherent to the creative process that a client may not have considered. For example:


Client: We want this copy to be chock-full of charm and character. We were thinking maybe a haiku?


Copywriter: I'm not sure that's appropriate for motor oil packaging.


Client: By Jove, you're right! Here's lots of money.




Except it doesn't always work like that. A real-life example, this time. We recently wrote some copy for an online ad campaign, the purpose of which was to highlight an all-summer-long 25% discount. But instead of focusing on the 25% off message, or the fact it applies to every single product they offer, or the fact it will last the whole summer, the client wanted to advertise how quirky they are.


We queried it. They didn't budge. We said they should change their approach. They didn't. We said they were wrong. They didn't listen. The result? An online ad with a picture of a penguin strapped to a rocket and a single line of copy that says 'Go further'. The client had committed the cardinal sin of putting the creative not just ahead of the message, but instead of it.


Ah, well. You win some, you lose some. Point is, you've got to at least try. Because when this ad fails to garner the click-through they want, we not only get to say 'we told you so', we'll be able to explain why it didn't work and what they should do next. They will have more trust in us going forward and our working relationship will be stronger for it.


Questioning the client takes courage. It's not an easy thing to challenge the person paying your mortgage. But doing so is imperative to a project's success, and it's doubly important at the start of the process, when potential problems can be swerved before it's too late. And, let's face it, if a project is a success, the client shouldn't give a monkey's that their thoughts were probed and pulled apart by some upstart in a chequered lumberjack shirt and impressive Sumerian beard.


On the contrary, the client should be delighted that the crack squad of creatives they assembled have done what they were paid to do: deliver a great campaign that makes money.


So, creatives, when the client is asking for five different messages to be conveyed when there's only space - or need - for one, then say so. When the client wants to speak in a way that is contrary to their tone of voice, tell them.


And, clients, when someone is questioning your opinion, consider the shocking prospect that they actually might be right.


I mean, they probably won't be, but at least consider it...


The creative brief isn't just about the creative brief meeting


You know when your mortal enemy delivers a timely, witty and devastatingly accurate put-down that leaves you scrambling wordlessly for a clever riposte, whilst everyone around is pointing and laughing at you? And it's only three hours later that the light bulb goes on, you exclaim 'Eureka!', and deliver the perfect response... to an audience of your bemused cat and its uncaring fleas?


No? Oh. Not to worry.


Point is, the creative brief might be the project's kick-off point but your input into it extends beyond just the meeting.


After all, despite their importance, brief meetings can be (excuse the inevitable pun) all too brief. Matt and I have been in ones lasting mere minutes, during which time we had little chance to consider what the client wanted before the meeting was wrapped up and it was time for celebratory scotch and bagels.


It would only be later that day, or over the coming days, when we'd really think about what the project needed: how should the design work with the copy; what is the competition doing well or badly; what's the hierarchy of messaging; would the design work as well over billboards as it would banner ads. And so on. All the questions to which we needed answers before we could effectively and efficiently do our jobs.


But just because these things weren't covered in the meeting, doesn't mean it wasn't our responsibility to ask the client these important questions - just as it's every creative's responsibility to ask a question or consider a better alternative at any time in the process, not just during the brief meeting itself.


After all, like those witty comebacks to your mortal enemy, the right questions to ask don't always come to you at the right time.


Get a contact report


Just like you should never speak to a policeman without your lawyer present (er, so I've heard), you should never have a creative brief without a contact report. They're like meeting minutes: an outline of what was agreed during the meeting and who was responsible for what. They codify the opinions of those involved, ensure everyone is on the right track, and help clarify any disagreements that may occur later in the process.


It's a good idea to get sign-off on the contact report, too. Firstly, because it encourages people to actually read the blummin' thing; and, secondly, because it offers another opportunity to query what's been agreed and potentially consider a better way of doing something.


The recipes of a perfect brief


So, there we have it. A few things of which clients and creatives should be aware when it comes to the creative brief, handily summed up below and thus rendering many of the previous 1500 words redundant. You're welcome.


A good brief, then:


  • Is a clear, concise breakdown of what is expected of the campaign. Why the project is required, what messages need to be conveyed, what the design should consider, the target audience, the main competitors and the tone of voice.


  • Has the attendance of all clients who have creative input and power of sign-off. Remember, Big John, if Spider-Man says you gotta be there, you gotta be there.


  • Is an environment in which questioning the client is encouraged. Clients, don't get sassy if your opinions are challenged. And creatives, leave your meekness at the door and show your mettle.


  • Isn't just the meeting. If something important is overlooked during the meeting, don't just shrug your shoulders - get on the blower right away. It might mean a little extra work now, but it'll be worth it in the long run.


  • Has a contact report. Make sure people's agreed actions are logged and agreed. If anything, just so you can say 'I told you so' should anyone question your work later down the line.


  • Is celebrated with scotch and bagels. Anything else is just a waste of time.


RELATED: The tricky six: a copywriter's guide to awkward clients.