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Creative Briefs in Shifting Times
by Terry Lee Stone

Creative briefs have always been necessary—now, maybe more than ever. With multidisciplinary teams (often virtual), the plethora of delivery media options, increasingly complex brand/consumer relationships and huge shifts in the business of communication, marketing, advertising and persuasion caused by technology, creatives need a road map. At best, creative briefs have always been a kind of mind map, leading creative thinking from problems to solutions, and they will continue to function that way if prepared properly.

What is a creative brief? In simplest terms it is a framework or foundation for your creative approach. It contains a well-identified and articulated summary of the key factors that can impact a project: background overview, target audience details, information on competitors, short- and long-term brand and business goals, as well as specific project particulars.

A creative brief will answer these questions:

• What is this project? What’s the task at hand?
• Why are we doing it? What is the problem or opportunity?
• Who is it really for? And why should they care?
• Where and how will it be used? When?
• Who will become engaged with it directly and indirectly?
• How will it be remembered and retold?
• What needs to be done? By whom? By when?

Answers to these questions may be simple, probably they’re not, but they inform creative. In order to be smart, timely, innovative and aesthetically pleasing, your solutions must be based on three-dimensional insights and genuine understanding, or they won’t be effective. Although the creative industry’s roles and responsibilities have gotten more complicated, it doesn’t mean that creative briefs need to get lengthier or more convoluted. It means that they must illuminate context and inspire thinking with just enough information to be thorough and kick-start work towards achievable goals, but not so much as to overwhelm the team. At the end of the day, an unread creative brief is an unused one—a complete waste of everyone’s time.

What form should it take?
That all depends. How does your creative team like to receive information? In writing? In person? Individually or in a group? The format isn’t the critical issue. It’s the brief’s content. Pure and simple. Creative briefs are meant to inspire original and exciting creative. It’s the message, not the medium. Make it a form, a conversation, a shared Web-based whiteboard, a physical “war” room that evolves over time or a formal no-nonsense client-attended catered meeting in the fancy conference room. Whatever works, works. Just remember that at some point someone is going to want/need to access and refer to the briefing info again.

Who should develop it? Optimally, a creative brief is developed from great client input via meetings, interviews, readings and research. Traditionally, creative briefs have been templated forms filled out by the person who manages the client relationship for the creative firm. To cover themselves, many account executives pile on words without a lot of analysis, often resulting in dense decks of useless paper that create busy-work just to read them. Someone in the firm needs to understand the real context in which the work will exist. They need to know a true consumer insight from a fad or a whim. If this person is inside the client’s hive mind, and better still, inside the client’s clients’ minds, they will help creatives unbundle intricate situations and open up possibilities. That is the person who should write the creative brief. It shouldn’t be some toady filling in boxes on a form to meet a quota and produce a brief full of meaningless unactionable information. It should be well-written and interesting. Better still, if the brief is written in the personality and point-of-view of the brand, just reading it will inspire the team in the right direction.

Who should use it?
Without making a framework, creatives won’t understand the fixed parameters of the project. The creative brief provides an objective strategic tool that can be agreed and acted upon. It can serve as a set of metrics by which to judge and evaluate the appropriateness of a solution. At the very least, all the relevant project information is contained in a single place. For these reasons, both the creative team and the client will find the creative brief valuable.

Creative briefs function to introduce the creative team to a client and an opportunity, but are very useful if they point to or even hint at a creative strategy. Developing and refining a strategy is the work of the team, not the brief. Here is what the creative brief should contain in order to make that happen:

1. Background summary. Who is the client? What is the product or service? What are their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT). What does this client value? What does this brand stand for? What is their position on social responsibility, culture and technology? Can the client provide any research and reports that help us understand their current situation?

2. Overview. What is the project? What are we creating and why? Why does the client need this project? What are the client’s key business challenges? What’s the real opportunity? Are there any emerging ideas and trends to consider? Lee Stone
Terry Lee Stone ( is a Los Angeles-based writer, manager and creative strategist. Stone teaches the business of design at Art Center College of Design. The author of several books on design, her recent two-book series is called, Managing The Design Process (Rockport Publishers). She wrote the Business column.