The Creative Brief… Usually It’s Neither

If you want to read great fiction, you could pick up Wodehouse or Dickens. But nothing can beat the voluminous garbage that passes for creative briefs in agencies and in-house departments the world over.

This has been a particular sore spot for me for years. Account executives and strategists return from a client meeting and scribble together dozens of paragraphs that are supposed to give us clear creative direction.

I sent an email to many creative people I know asking them what their worst creative-brief snafus were. Here are the phrases we’d like to see permanently erased from creative briefs:

  • Break through the clutter. Obviously you want the package, commercial, or web site to be viewed.

  • Make it breakthrough creative! As soon as it gets through the client’s legal department, compliance department, and seven layers of management, it ends up being the same as the last time, only blue.
  • It should appeal to everyone. Wrong. No matter what you’re selling, it should appeal to a very specific market. It’s virtually impossible to appeal to the entire world.

What the Creative Brief Should Include

A clear, concise target audience. Who is the ultimate recipient of this ad? Arthritic volleyball players? Men in their fifties returning to college? Ph.D. circus performers? It makes a difference. Get this part right, and the rest falls into place.

What is the ONE unique selling proposition? Don’t give us the Magna Carta. Here’s an easy way to answer this question: When the reader or viewer is done seeing your work, what is the ONE thing you want him or her to remember about your product and company? As Herschell Gordon Lewis says, “When you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing.”

The “B” word. What is the budget? If it’s a direct mail piece for 100,000, is there money in the budget for a dimensional mailing or only enough to do a great self-mailer? It will prevent a lot of headaches if you get this information up front. Good strategists and account managers do it every day.

Let us show you 40 concepts we’ve been creating. Let’s face it, no matter how creative you are, you’re not going to come up with 40 winning ideas for each campaign. That leads to the obvious question: How many concepts should you present? Here’s the weasel’s answer: More than one but less than five. And remember, the client ALWAYS picks your least-favorite concept. Don’t present something that you don’t feel is strong, or it will inevitably be picked.

Internal presentation date and client presentation date. Yes, I’m advocating ALWAYS presenting to the internal team 24 hours before the real presentation. Presenting comps in the airport on the way to the meeting is no way to work. If you don’t have buy-in from everyone involved, they’ll do a poor job presenting your work. This also gives you a chance to make sure that you’re on strategy, haven’t offended anyone (unless that’s your intention), and can present your case to your team.

True story: While working for an ad agency, I was presenting to 11 members of the client’s executive team who had flown 2,500 miles to see my ingenious concepts for a new product rollout. Also present were my boss, his boss, HIS boss, an archduke (I think), and four members of the creative team. I was even wearing a tie. I stood up to do my presentation that I had practiced over and over again by myself. After wowing them, I sat down already planning where to spend my bonus check. All I heard were crickets chirping. One of the client’s looked at me and said, “Nice job. Too bad that’s not what we asked you to do.”

After crawling out of the conference room to update my risumi, I learned a lesson: Include internal presentations as part of your standard operating procedures.

Address the obvious stuff in the first dozen paragraphs of the brief. Don’t spend the first half of the brief telling us what the company does. If the client is signing off on this document, you have a real chance of getting something wrong. If everyone is working together, you already know what the company does. Get to the point, and get to the creative/strategic problem.

Keep it short. Very rarely does a good brief need to be lengthy. I’ve seen great one-page creative briefs that give all the information needed to do killer creative and five-page monstrosities that are a waste of good paper. (Insight: Creative people don’t read past page two anyway.) If you’re writing a five-page brief, it probably means you don’t have a clue what’s going on. If you can’t say it briefly, go back to the client for clarification.

If you have a great creative brief format that you’d like to share with the world, please send it to me at

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