Has The Creative Brief Lost Its Purpose?

Is the Creative Brief Just a Hurdle in the Process?

Brief on Fire
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The creative brief is, when done correctly, the foundation of an advertising campaign. It is “X marks the spot.” It tells the creative department where to dig, and what they’re looking for. It saves time, it offers insight, and it keeps everyone moving in the same direction.

Of course, that is in an ideal world. Hopefully, you actually get a creative brief. Some agencies, especially in house, often have to make do with an email or a phone call, and that is replete with issues.

However, when briefs are issued, it appears as though their purpose has been shifting over the years. Are we are now in a situation where creative briefs are there not to offer direction, but to be a safety net for all parties when things go wrong?

As Mark Duffy recently pointed out in an excellent article called “Creative Briefs: The Worst Pieces of Communication in History,” the creative brief is there not to inform, nor to direct. Instead, it is a document built for “covering ass.” Mark makes some good points, although some are clearly based on personal experience. However, when it comes to the “most important question on the brief,” he’s spot on.

The Question That Is The Achilles Heel of Every Brief
If you’re in the creative department of an agency, you know exactly what that question is. You go straight to it, because it is the one question that will have the biggest impact on the work you create.

It is, of course, the key takeaway.

Some people call it the single-minded proposition. Others, the unique selling point, or the one main message you want to communicate.

In great advertising agencies, the account teams labor over this key takeaway night and day. They will go back and forth between the client, the creative director, and the planner. This is a question that has to be nailed. Sure, the other information on the brief is important. You need a specific target audience to aim at (not men and women between 30 and 60 by the way). You need to know the background of the product or service being advertised. You need a budget and timeline.

Unfortunately, as the key takeaway is just one line on a creative brief that fills an entire page (or more if you’re unlucky), it is given that kind of attention. And even worse, it is rarely, if ever, ONE takeaway. It’s got so much going on that it takes the creative department several days to try and figure out what the actual single-minded proposition actually is. Indeed, the rest of the brief is no different, and it quickly becomes apparent to anyone reading it that this whole document is a “go through the motions” exercise.


So, If Not To Inform and Direct, What is a Creative Brief For?
Let’s be clear. A creative brief is definitely supposed to inform and direct. But, after taking the collective pulse of creative departments around the country, and in England, it appears that briefs are there for a different reason.

The creative brief is now simply a stepping-stone in a project timeline. It cannot be ignored, or everyone will face the wrath of the creative director and his or her staff. But at the same time, it does not have to be good; it just has to be done.

  • It can have a poorly thought out key takeaway.
  • It can have a ridiculously broad target audience.
  • It can have inadequate research.
  • It can have misguided direction.
  • It can have a laughable budget and media buy.
  • It can have a deadline that is impossible to hit.

In short, it can be a very poor brief. But the thinking, at least from the account management side, is that as long as it is submitted in time, and the job gets rolling, then these issues can all be addressed later.

  • Key takeaway not right? What should it be then?
  • Target audience too broad? Work on narrowing that down.
  • Need more research? Let’s get some.
  • Direction sadly lacking. Let’s work together to get it on the right track.
  • Need more money, or a different media strategy? OK.
  • Deadline too tight? Let’s find more time.

What has happened is that the brief submitted to the creative department as the final is actually the one that should be used as a work in progress; one that should be used in an interim meeting with the creative director and the creative team, so that these issues can be ironed out before briefing.

Why has that step been skipped?

Laziness. It’s way easier to just ignore that step, put the brief in, and let the chips fall where they may. But this is only making more work for the creative department, and in the end, makes for a weaker ad campaign.

You will often hear account teams say “we don’t have time to write a perfect brief.” These are the same teams that will go through 15 rounds of revisions getting the work where they want it. So the moral of this story is...get the brief right first, or you’ll spend weeks fixing the work that comes out of it.