The Creative Brief: Mystery Solved

Last month’s article about creative briefs created a flood of emails. Six people submitted samples, and more than 100 asked to see the results!

That leads me to the conclusion that everyone is struggling to create the perfect document, or at least one that can be used rather than tossed as soon as it’s distributed.

I received a creative brief from Mary Baum, managing director of HerbertBaum Integrated Marketing in St. Louis, that seems to do the trick. It provides the right amount of information without turning the document into the Magna Carta.

Mary wrote me, “Here’s a form that I’m told started at Ted Bates & Company and got to me via one of his AEs who had his own agency in St. Louis in the 1980s. So make sure you give credit to Dick Vinyard!”

Mary continues, “I’ve added one field to the form, but otherwise still use it today unchanged, and very often I let the client sign off on it before we start creating anything. On paper it’s one page, but mostly these days it’s an email and really should only go one screen below the fold.”


    Client: The ABC company

    Product: Heat-treated flanges

    Project: Integrated web and direct mail campaign

    Target audience: End-user department managers at companies with revenue of $500 million to $1 billion

    Communications objective: Generate leads and some sales via web registration

    Key benefit/net objective: Improve the durability of your product and get free stuff at our web site


    1. Our heat-treatment process puts flanges through two stages of tempering to make them exceed by 25 percent the hardness rating set in national standards.

    2. That makes the flanges last longer, so the products you put them in last longer, too.
    3. Independent tests prove it: Come to our web site and download a free video that shows you how.
    4. You can also get these three free things (specify) just for registering on the site.


    1. You can also order direct from the web.

    2. We’ve been making flanges since 1868.
    3. We’re ISO-9001 certified.


    1. URL, company name, and contact information

    2. Should keep a campaign look with existing materials

That’s it! Here are the reasons I think this works:

  1. It’s short. If you don’t think brevity is important, go see “The Horse Whisperer.” (Note: If you ever find yourself on death row, order this movie. It’ll slow down time and make the end seem almost welcome.) Clients don’t like to read anymore than you like creating long, boring creative briefs.

  2. All the information you need is there. That being said, this brief should be customized to incorporate things like:
    • The exact specifications of deliverables (e.g., the agency will provide three design comps by 2/1/01, etc.)

    • Routing for copy and art
    • Format: web, DM, general, etc.
    • Due dates

    Since every agency is structured differently, you can customize the brief to include information that is useful to you.

  3. There’s enough wiggle room when inspiration hits. How many times have you nailed down the strategy and then you get that big bolt of lightning to make the project even better? Well, if your creative brief is so tight that your genius doesn’t exactly match the strategy, you may be in trouble. This brief allows for creativity that occurs during a project.

OK, now you’ve created a brief that you can live with internally and one that your clients will actually sign. Here’s a little secret document that you can add as your project hits its inevitable snags:

The Change Order

If you’ve been in the business for longer than 10 minutes, you know that stuff happens — often. Once you have the creative brief to use as a road map, you need a little something in your back pocket that needs a signature from your client before the extra work is completed.

Here’s how simple it can be:

Change Order No. 1

Date: January 17, 2001

Exact change to be made: Please create a second mailing that will target end-user department managers at companies with revenue of $1 billion or more.

Reason for change: The rough-draft copy was so compelling, we want to expand the audience. (Just give me this one, OK?)

How this affects the deadline: The copy will be due at the end of five business days from client sign-off. We will hold off on the first mailing so both can be printed at the same time, saving additional production costs.

Additional cost: Adding another cell to the mailing will increase the DM portion from 24 cents per piece to 29 cents per piece.

Once the information in the change order is complete, make sure to get it signed by those who need to sign it and then distribute it to everyone who needs to see it. If you can be a hard-ass on this point, you will be an infinitely happier person. Everyone on the project will know exactly what is happening, and your clients will respect your buttoned-down approach to project management.

Hope you have good luck if you try this brief. My thanks to Mary Baum for sharing it and to everyone who wrote in with suggestions.

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