What to include in your next creative brief
Before you begin any marketing campaign, you must develop a creative brief. If you disagree or don’t quite understand what I mean, keep reading. You are my primary audience for this post.
Defining the box
A creative brief needs to be specific. It needs to define the box within which creativity can occur. This critical step is often bypassed because of tight timelines or assumptions that everyone involved in the project already understands what needs to be created.
The best creative director I ever worked for gave me a brilliant piece of advice on my first day:
“There’s no such thing as thinking outside the box, Bill. First, you have to define the box—the audience, purpose, message, media channel, budget, timing and everything else involved in the project that you know about. Only then can you get creative. Otherwise, you’ll fail before you begin.”
If you ask your creative team to create a new logo, redesign your website or develop a revolutionary direct mail piece—yet don’t give them enough parameters or guidance—you will make them feel like this:
Think inside the box
If you’ve ever painted a room in your house, you know that the preparation time is more than half the battle. You move furniture, put down drop cloths, tape, sand, scrape, spackle and caulk for hours before you ever pick up a brush.
Sure, you could just pop open a can of paint and start slapping it on the walls. But you’ll make a mess, get frustrated and the end result will look amateur.
Marketing follows a similar process.
If you take the time to do upfront preparation, your campaign will be much more likely to result in success. In the case of marketing, the first step of upfront preparation takes the form of the creative brief.
What goes in the brief
While no two creative briefs look alike, they have common features and categories of information. Here are the main elements of a brief, according to me:
- Main Takeaway
- Supporting Information
- Look & Feel
It sounds like common sense, but many people do not accurately describe the project they are working on.
For example, they may refer to it as the “Prospects Email.” However, I believe that is too broad. A brief needs to be as specific as possible. A better way to name the same project might be the “2018 Early-Bird Savings Email to Prospective Members.” Feel me?
Who are you trying to influence and what are their motivations?
Pretend you’re selling medical supplies. You can’t just say that your audience is “Doctors.” A quick check on WebMD tells me there are 61 types of doctors, and that doesn’t even include all of the sub-specialties. Plus, a person’s job is only one factor when trying to define their personality. What do you know about your audience and what do they care about?
To help answer those questions, try using the 6 filters of audience segmentation.
What are the business and communication goals for this piece?
Business goals sound like:
Increase sales of product XYZ.
Communication goals sound like:
Help prospective members save time and money with product XYZ.
See the difference? One is focused on your organization; one is focused on your audience. You need to share both goals with your creative team, so they know what to communicate and how success will be measured.
Some people refer to this section as the “Main Message.” I prefer “Main Takeaway” because it allows me to write in the first-person.
For example, if the product you’re selling is membership in an association, the main message may sound something like this:
Advance your career with world-class certification programs from ABC Association.
Whereas the main takeaway for your audience could sound more like this:
I need to join ABC Association because it can help me enhance my skills and land a great, new job.
Either way you approach it is fine, but try to keep the focus on the ONE specific message or takeaway. People are busy—keep it simple.
This information is often omitted from the brief because it’s not easy to find. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore it. You must provide supporting facts so that your main takeaway is believable and relevant to your audience.
- What statistics have you found that substantiate your claims?
- What evidence is there that someone should believe you?
- Are there testimonials available to support your messaging?
If you don’t include this information in the brief, your writers and designers are going to spend a lot of time searching for it themselves. Nobody wants your creative team wasting time doing research—especially them.
This is a very subjective part of the brief and usually requires some discussion between all parties involved in the project before it’s agreed upon.
Voice, which is made of Personality and Tone, helps guide the writing as much as the design.
Personality represents who the brand is every day. It is consistent. For example, I would say that the personality of GEICO advertising is unexpectedly funny. Whether or not you find an individual ad amusing is irrelevant. The point is, GEICO has built their brand by always striving to entertain you. Makes sense. Insurance is pretty boring stuff, after all.
Tone represents the attitude of the specific piece you’re creating. It is situational. For example, your tone is more casual on social media and more formal in your annual report. If you’re writing an email to a CEO about a deadline, your tone may be more direct. If you’re writing an email thanking a colleague for their help, your tone may be more sincere.
Aligning on voice is one of the most important parts of any good creative brief because it will have the most influence on the outcome of the piece you’re creating. If you get it wrong, you may have to start all over.
Look and Feel
The design direction should mirror the voice of the piece you’re creating. If the voice is conservative and straightforward, the design direction probably shouldn’t be bold and sarcastic.
Like the voice section, this area is highly subjective. While your designers require your guidance here, you don’t want to over-prescribe the direction. Instead, include your design team in the process of defining the look and feel. That way, everyone is on the same page.
Think about everything you need to be included in the piece, or definitely don’t want in the piece.
- Which logo or logos must be incorporated into the final execution?
- Are there brand style guidelines that must be adhered to?
- Is there legal copy that needs to be added before it’s final?
Knowing this information is necessary because, otherwise, you’ll end up creating an awesome ad that “suddenly” needs an extra logo or line of copy jammed in right before it gets released. It happens all the time. If your creative team knew all of the required items that needed to be included, they could have provided a better solution.
It’s impossible to create something great without knowing the parameters. Define that box!
- Where will the piece run?
- Is this digital-only or will it also be printed?
- What are the physical dimensions?
- What are the file type and size requirements?
Please, please, please promise me that you will never say to your creative team, “Give me a range of ideas and I’ll figure out what sort of budget I can get approved.” This is an exercise in futility and an easy way to waste time and frustrate your colleagues.
- What’s your maximum budget?
- In the case of direct mail, how many will you need to produce?
- Does your budget include photography, postage or insertion fees?
Even having a rough estimate helps the creative team deliver options of different tiers that stay within your parameters. Just put a stake in the ground with a budget you’re comfortable spending.
Simply asking, “When can I get this by?” is code for, “I don’t know what I need.”
Help your creative team understand what you DO know about your deadlines. For example, maybe you know that the piece has to be in homes by December 1st. Given that end goal, the creative team can help you work backward from there and develop a detailed production schedule.
Everyone is responsible for the brief
Developing a good brief is a collaborative process. Account teams and clients must provide the necessary information to begin the project. But the creative teams aren’t off the hook—they must remember to ask the right questions before jumping in too fast.
Take the time to prep and define the box.
Then, you’ll be more creative and effective in the work you produce.
P.S. I’d love to hear from you. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know what you include in your creative briefs. Don’t worry, I won’t judge.