Why we need to rethink the creative brief

Last week, at the 4A’s Strategy Festival, I noticed that a number of case studies followed a familiar and compelling story arc:

  • We are doomed.
  • We have an “aha!” moment.
  • We save the world.

It left me feeling inspired, but also wondering what role a creative brief played in these perfect stories.

In my own experience, the frequency and primacy of the brief has waned. And it turned out I was not alone. Venetia Taylor, the former planner turned strategist at Google, took the stage and confessed, “I haven’t written a brief in a long time.”

Then I remembered how R/GA and Beats by Dr. Dre stirred the pot at Cannes last year, with a presentation slide that read F**K BRIEFS (but without asterisks). 

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What a contrast to decades ago when David Ogilvy famously said, “Give me the freedom of a tight brief.”

Has the creative brief completely lost all relevance in our modern marketing world? It’s possible.

But rather than kill the brief altogether and give in to unstructured anarchy (human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria), I think some retooling is in order.

From bottleneck to bookend

The classic brief is a benevolent bottleneck – the center of a bow tie process, where a wide range of possibilities are narrowed then expand creatively out the other side.

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But for digital campaigns these days, time is tight, so primary research and rigorous discovery get shortchanged. Assumptions are made and iterated upon quickly. Being agile is nothing new in product development and start-up culture, but it has yet to really become standard in the way agency teams work and brief each other.

The creative brief has become a static object in an increasingly dynamic context. In the modern marketing world bow ties are on the outs.

The brief in two parts – alpha and beta

What we need is a new kind of brief that is designed to be flexible, useful, and interesting all at once. What if there was one document with two parts that served as bookends to the creative and strategic arc?

Let’s imagine how this type of brief would unfold in this new context.

Step 1: Alpha  

The Alpha brief is a conversation starter. It captures the client’s request clearly and in the form of a big question. Like products in an alpha phase, it’s an early stage version of the brief – a blunt instrument that sets things in motion.

It’s underpinned by pointed questions from each core discipline – the user experience (UX), design, media, analytics, tech, and so forth – and allows for early hunches and thought starters.

  • Purpose: Start the conversation with the big ambition, phrased as a question.
  • Includes: The central question restated through the lens of each discipline.
  • Consider: Hunches based on available research and intuition, and crucial details from client assignment brief.
  • Time required to alpha: one to three days.

After each discipline explores its answer to the central question, possibilities and choices multiply. The teams get together often to discuss and compare notes. Inspiration comes from around the table and patterns start to emerge.

Soon the team reaches an inflection point where disparate ideas start to gel. A way of thinking about the question feels right and a direction takes shape. At this stage the strategist works to connect these dots and works with the core team to capture the thinking in the Beta brief.

Step 2: Beta  

The Beta brief addresses the questions answered in the Alpha brief, creating a focused point-of-view that originates from multiple disciplines.

  • Purpose: Answer the core question with a clear point of view.
  • Includes: Each discipline’s answer to the question.
  • Consider: Experience pillars, creative expression, brand ambition, enemy, priority channels, how and why people would share.
  • Time required to beta: two to four weeks.

The most important feature of this approach is that it removes unreasonable expectations of nailing the problem at the outset. Instead, it takes advantage of everyone’s perspective and empowers the core team to solve it. When everyone’s on board, the basic structure can work for both campaign and platform projects.

A living brief is born

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The resulting brief is now a living asset that can inform the broader team – outside stakeholders – and give you a head start for the presentation to follow. It can be tweaked as needed, while still representing the best thinking of the whole team.

Seeing the brief as less of an initial declaration and more of a living document can free up teams to start with the big question, arriving at the most interesting and useful answers together as one.

Homepage and article images via Flickr. 

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