How to Write a Successful Creative Brief in 9 Steps

Writing a Creative Brief
••• Writing a Creative Brief. Getty Images

The creative brief is the foundation of any advertising or marketing campaign. It's the treasure map that creatives follow that tells them where to start digging for those golden ideas—or at least it should, if it's any good.

A good creative brief can be hard to come by. A combination of lack of preparation, increasingly tighter deadlines, bad habits, laziness, poor account management, bad creative direction, and ineffective training all contribute to this document becoming something of a necessary evil. But done right, everyone benefits.

Start by Grilling the Client

A creative brief is an account team's interpretation of the client's wishes. It is the job of a good account manager or planner to extract everything they possibly can from the client. This is the time to find out as much as possible about the product or service. What are its strengths and weaknesses? How was it brainstormed? Who benefits from it? What stories can the client tell you? What problems are they facing? Sit down, in person if you can, and ask every conceivable question. What, why, when, how much?

Squeeze every last drop of information from the client. You'll need it.

Use the Product or Service

This is crucial. If it's at all possible, get samples of the product you're selling. If it's a service, test it out. If it's a car, drive it. If it's fast food, eat it. Experience everything, and do it as a consumer, not an advertiser. The more you know, the better your brief will be. You can explain the strengths. You can turn weaknesses into selling points. You'll have a personal perspective. Great advertising, like the original VW campaign, is based on the product. It focuses on it. Soak it all up before you write.

Write Every Single Thought Down

Write about the first thoughts you had after talking to the client or using the product. Jot down the goal of the client, the budget, the timeline, the obstacles, and everything else that you have collected. Spew it all out, because you'll be using this to make a great brief. By putting everything down, you will start to see links between seemingly random thoughts, and potential strategies can begin to emerge. 

Organize Your Thoughts

Now that you have the raw material, it's time to start organizing it into something useful. Every creative brief is different, but they share similar traits. Here are the most common sections of a creative brief:

Spend the Most Time Writing Your Single-Minded Proposition

This section has many names: key takeaway, main insight, Unique Selling Point. Whatever you call it, focus all of your energy on it. The rest of the information is just information. The Single-Minded Proposition (SMP) is the driving force behind the campaign. It's the arrow that points your creative team in the right direction.

You need to boil down everything you have collected, talk to the creative director, other account people in your team, and get to the essence of the project. How would you sum it up in one succinct sentence? Do you know which creative team will be working on the job? If so, talk to them. They'll have insights which will help you craft a great proposition.

Here are some examples of great SMPs:

  • There's More To Iceland Than Anyone Ever Knew - Iceland Supermarket (HHCL/Red Cell)
  • To Our Members, We're The Fourth Emergency Service - The Automobile Association (HHCL&Partners)
  • Don't Let Your Illness Cripple Your Family - Abbey Life Insurance (written by John Hiney at Payne Stracey)
  • We're Number Two. We Try Harder - Avis (DDB)

Simplify the Whole Document

Now that you have a powerful SMP and all the information is down on paper, it's time to get your red pen out and slash some ink. Your job here is not to impress people with how much research and data you've collected. Your creative brief should be just that—creatively written and concise. Cut it to the bone. Get rid of anything unnecessary. You're aiming for one page. There's rarely any need to go beyond that. All of that research you did—the product background and competitive ads—they are all support documents.

They play no part in your creative brief. Think of the brief as a rousing speech to stir up the troops and get them motivated. 

Get Feedback From Your Creative Director

A good creative director will insist on seeing every brief that comes through the department. After all, it's his or her job to oversee the creative work, and the brief is a huge part of that process. Don't just do a drive-by or email it. Actually, sit down and go through it with the creative director. Doing so will give you the opportunity to take feedback, ask questions, and get direction. You will rarely hit it out of the park on your first try so you'll likely be repeating steps five, six, and seven at least once more.

Get the Client's Approval

This is important. At this point, showing the client is paramount, because you need their approval on the agency's direction for the campaign. Not the on the creative itself, but on the direction the project will go. This is key. If, when the time comes to present the work, the client says "I don't like it, that's not what we wanted" then you can go back to the creative brief and say "actually, it is." The creative brief was signed by the client which shows they agreed to it. If they need different work, they need a new creative brief and, more importantly, you get more time.

This also makes the work you've already done billable, not just wasted time and energy.

Present Your Brief to the Teams in Person

When you have a concise, creative brief that has approval from all parties, it's time to brief the creative team. Do it in person or via phone/video conference if a live meeting isn't possible. Don't get lazy and send an email or worse, leave a photocopy on the desk with "any questions, gimme a call" scrawled on it. This is your opportunity to start the project right. An in-person briefing also gives the creatives a chance to ask questions, clear up any possible gray areas, and feel you out on other issues that may come up.

If you want to get the best work, in a timely fashion, be there in person to brief the teams. 

Follow these steps and you should be well on your way to writing a brief that gets results, not just creatively, but also financially.