How to write a Creative Brief that will inspire smart, creative ads

I wish everyone would stop writing ugly Creative Briefs. The brief is a crucial way for brand leaders to control the strategy, but give freedom on execution to the experts who execute. Too many marketers have this backward, preferring to give freedom on strategy with various possible strategic options layered within the creative brief. They attempt to try to control the creative outcome by writing a long list of tangled mandatories.

When you write a big-wide creative brief with layers of options within the brief, the Agency just peels the brief apart and gives you strategic options. For instance, if you put a big wide target market of 18-55 years-old, your agency will present one ad for 18-25 years-old, another one for 25-40 years-old and the third ad for 40-55 years-old. If you put two objectives into the brief, asking to drive trial and drive usage, you will get one ad idea for driving trial and one ad idea for usage. This means you are picking your brand strategy based on which ad idea you like best. That is wrong. Pick your strategy first and use the creativity of execution to express that strategy.

A Creative Brief creates the box to play in

Most great creative advertising people I have met are problem solvers, not inventors. I would describe them as ‘in-the-box’ creative thinkers, not blue sky “out-of-the-box” thinkers. With that in mind, never give your creative team a blank slate or blank canvas and ask them to come up with an ad. They want your problems to solve, so never give them your solution. If they are ‘in-the-box thinkers’, then the role of the Creative Brief is to create the right box for them to solve. Here is what creative people do not want from you:
1. A Blank canvas: Creative people would prefer a business problem to solve, not a wide-open request for advertising options.
2. An unclear problem: Creative people need a tightly defined and focused problem to generate great work that meets your needs.
3. A long list of mandatories: Do not create a tangled web of mandatories that almost write the ad itself. These lists only trap the creative team, holding them back from doing anything breakthrough, surprising or spectacular.
4. Your Solutions: Creative people find it demotivating to be asked for their expertise (solving problems) and then not be fully utilized (given your answer).

Keep the brief small

A smart Creative Brief should be brief, not long. Avoid the “Just in Case” list by taking your pen and stroking a few things off your creative brief! It is always enlightening when you tighten your Creative Brief. Make tough decisions of what goes into the brief, so you narrow the brief down to:
One objective
  • One desired consumer response
  • One target tightly defined
  • One main benefit
  • Up to two main reasons to believe

Five ways to make your brief better

Here are some simple Rules for Writing a Smart Creative Brief:
Make sure you have a tight target: Do not spread your resources against a target so broad that leave everyone thinking your message is for someone else. Target the people who are the most motivated by what you do best, and you will make your brand feel personal. The best thing a brand can do is make consumers think, “This is for me.”

Talk benefits, and not features: Start a conversation that shows what the consumers get or how they will feel. Do not just yell features at the consumer.
Drive one objective at a time: Focus on getting consumers to do only one thing at a time, whether you want them to see, think, feel or do something. Force yourself to make a decision that links with the brand strategy.

Drive one main message at a time: If you put so many messages into your ad, consumers will just see and hear a cluttered mess. They will not know what you stand for, and you will never build a reputation for anything. Use your brand’s Big Idea to simplify and organize the brand messaging.

Connect with consumers where they are most likely to engage with the brand story: Where in the market you choose to stand out can be just as important as what you say. While efficient media is important, focusing solely on efficiency and ROI might lead to staying beneath the consumer’s radar.

Transform your Brand Communications Strategy into a Creative Brief

In the Brand Plan chapter, I laid out the seven questions of the Brand Communications Plan:
1. Who is in the consumer target?...

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