June 6, 2022

Writing creative briefs the right way

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If there’s a key moment in the whole creative process, that is the briefing process. From a good brief comes the best creative. But nonetheless writing a good brief is something that very few people have mastered. 

This article is an attempt to help both sides of the table: creatives and clients. We are assuming that there’s a side of the table not too savvy with creative aspects, and another side of the table that is. 

The first side can be a client in need of a video, or a website, or a photography campaign, but it can also be a researcher that needs to communicate a project, or a cultural center that needs to stay relevant to their audience, or a person that needs help to get an idea accross. 

We will concentrate in the most classic workflows, the ones of a creative agency or a creative studio. That is, an organization that helps other organizations to convey messages to an audience. But you will see a pattern emerge that can help pretty much anyone in many other realms. 

What is a creative brief? 

Briefs should come from a need

Everybody has their own expertise. Athletes have an outstanding control of their body coordination. Mathematicians have a superb capacity of abstraction. Researchers an extraordinary amount of insight on a subject matter. But human kind in general, by nature, is creative. That is an evolutionary trait from having an intellect, and it is mostly appreciated, but also makes the creative work difficult. Because everybody feels to a certain extent that they know how to be creative.

It is tempting then to try to think about how a message should be conveyed, instead of simply thinking what should the message be, and mostly why it should be this and not that. 

Chances are that you, on the side of the table that need a creative service, are actually good at being creative. Maybe you have a good idea. But that is not enough. Just like in any other profession, it is not only a certain trait that makes the professional, but the experience that makes that professional valuable. A professional creative has been, is, and will be in contact with hundreds and hundreds of different ideas, methods, projects, techniques and examples that you will not. So the best advice when writing a brief is try to keep an open mind, and avoid putting too much thought into how something should be.

If you can’t avoid to think about the how, and you really want to be a part of the creative process in terms of style, then keep reading, there’s a way to do it right.

Mad Men Marketing GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Anatomy of the perfect creative brief

Where does it come from?

The best way to start a creative brief is to give context to the reader. How did we get here? What’s the background story? Why are you doing what you’re doing? Give a broad overview and then be a bit more detail when it becomes relevant for this particular brief.

Work Office GIF by Columbus Interactive - Find & Share on GIPHY

Goals and Challenges

Instead of thinking about the result, think about the challenge that needs to be addressed. You have an objective. That is your compass. You need to achieve something. Try to be articulated in the description of your challenge. Describe your goal, and then describe what makes difficult to reach that goal. That will help the creative to broaden the working space, and the angles from which a subject can be approached. 

Message

This, of course, is the most important part of the brief. This is the part where you shine. Describe your vision, your expectations. This description is the starting point for the creative conversation that will unfold when the project starts.

Target

There’s a huge temptation to say that a message is for “everyone”. Sometimes that is the right answer, but even then, there’s a priority among “everyone”. The more broad a target the fewer the chances become to the message to be effective. Some people believe making a message for a broad target will save them money, but that lack of effectiveness makes it more costly in the long run. 

Recognise Guess Who GIF by ewanjonesmorris - Find & Share on GIPHY

Think about who is going or shall receive that message. Today there are great tools around to define audiences analytically with great amounts of detail. Take advantage of those tools. Intuition and experience is also good, but it’s way better when it’s based on hard facts. You might surprise yourself if you challenge your own experience and intuitions with empiric data. 

That’s a good thing, don’t be afraid of it. 

Describe your audience the best you can, and if possible, share the data that support your description.  

Remember, the accuracy of your target can be the make or break factor of your results.

Distribution

Broadcasting Black And White GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Your distribution is key when it comes to creating a message. The way people will get in contact with it should define the characteristics of the message. It’s not the same to make a broadcast ad on TV, than playing it on a noisy fair, than sending it via mail to only 3 decision makers. Huge billboards have different characteristics than flyers. Be as specific as possible when describing your distribution. 

References

If you’re the one that can’t wait to talk about style, then this is your moment. References are the best possible way to interface with a creative when you are not one. 

Hd Reference GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

I can’t count the number of times that, when I asked for a reference, I’ve got the answer “We don’t look into other people’s work”. For some reason, some people think about that as some sort of sin, or a sign of weakness. Like if being mindful of what your competitor is doing is in some way staying behind it. That, of course, it’s a laughable idea. You should watch what your competitor is doing, not to copy it, but just to have a big picture of where everyone’s standing. 

Creativity is mixing, remixing. Presentation and Re-presentation. 

Godard used to say that it is “stealing with style”. Let’s explain this quote better.

References are not just copying and doing the same as someone else. It’s about using an example to describe a concept that is too complicated to simply put in words. References should never be taken as a whole. For some reason, lots of people cannot separate different aspects of a reference. This is the most important practice one should have instead. 

For example, let’s imagine we want to describe Jackie Chan to someone who has never seen him. We could describe him by saying he has the physical ability of Bruce Lee, and the comedy of Buster Keaton. What Jackie Chan does is something we call “influence”. That combination will bring something new, that is away from each one.  

Overlapping references, and quoting them for one single aspect is the fastest way to convey an aesthetic idea.

References by opposition 

References shouldn’t be only about things we like. Just as when driving on the road at night, the lines painted on the asphalt show us where the limits of the road are, so that we do not leave the path. The references by opposition are our limit, our sign of “closed road”. Saving and organizing things we hate is as constructive as the opposite. If you are sure about something you don’t like, why hide it and risk wasting time by not showing it? Never underestimate the power of negative references. 

If you love creativity, it’s always a good idea to keep a library of references somewhere. If you want to know how to organize a library, read the next articles, where we explain how to organize creative assets.

Stakeholders

Before and after writing a creative brief, think about who are the stakeholders of your project. Who will and/or shall have a voice in the decision making process of the project? Are they on board with the notions we wrote in this brief? 

Sometimes the stakeholders don’t have time to get into the nitty gritty details of a brief, but in that case be extremely mindful of their needs and requests. Writing a brief that is not coherent with the views of all stakeholders can be really burdensome on the development of the project. There’s nothing worse than wasting time on ideas that were not right in the first place (for someone whose opinion is important). Try to at least highlight the main points of the creative brief and have a pre-approval from everyone before delivering it. You will avoid way worse problems afterwards.

Deadlines

It’s a very well known fact that we as human beings are not good at assessing time and effort without practice. We tend to underestimate and overestimate efforts quite easily. 

Time Calendar GIF by Daniela Sherer - Find & Share on GIPHY

The attention economy also forces us to believe that we’re constantly late. We need everything “for yesterday”. That phrase will put you and everyone involved in a project from the very beginning in a frustrated state. If you’re already late, then no matter how good, performant and fast you are, it will never be enough. That’s a zero sum game. 

Moreover, creative projects are a lot about dialogue and feedback, and the more people involved, it’s only physiological that the time to answer, give feedback and review materials will grow. From personal experience, the bigger the organization, the slower they are to give feedback, and that’s the main drag for a project timeline. 

Define realistic deadlines that are not too tight nor too loose. To give you a quick example: If you have a boss, and that boss has a boss, and four or five busy people needs to review results to approve something, the review and approval phase cannot last only one day, because probably the discussion will not be held altogether, or not everybody will be able to give their opinion the same day.

Fail Season 4 GIF by The Office - Find & Share on GIPHY

On the other hand, not giving a deadline is as bad as giving an unrealistic one. If one doesn’t know when something is needed, it is hard to prioritize when to work on it, or when to engage collaborators effectively. There’s another phenomenon that I like to call “project fatigue”, and that happens when a project becomes eternal for no good reason. Everyone starts to feel a burden around it, no matter how cool the project is or how well it is paid.

These were the main pointers to create the perfect brief. In the next article we will get into assets organization. Where do we put stuff (and by stuff we mean creative assets), starting from the basics and getting into detail.

Pablo Apiolazza

Pablo Apiolazza

Creative director / Filmmaker

 I have over 20 years of transversal experience in VFX, production, and postproduction of film and digital, managing remote teams and projects internationally

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