Working Towards A Better Creative Brief In A Connected World

Posted by

No one is going to argue that an agency is only as good as the last piece of creative work they have done.

Everyone within the agency – but few who have never been on that side of the Marketing and Communication meridian – understand the power, relevance and importance of a good, solid and well-thought-out creative brief. Since dinosaurs roamed the earth, agencies (and brands) have grappled with this document. From what it means, to how to make the creative brief better, to having something within the document that can be unique to both the brand it will serve and the agency that is expected to implement it.

If Social Media and Web 2.0 is helping to change the face of Marketing, Communications, Advertising and PR, then isn’t the time ripe to work together to create a better creative brief?

Twist Image (the company I co-own along with three other equal business partners) now employs over 100 full-time Digital Marketing professionals with two offices (Toronto and Montreal). As a full service Digital Marketing agency, we are expected to be able to lead the overall creative charge for some brands, be a part of a team of agencies for other brands and – on occasion – run our own Digital Marketing initiatives with little connectivity to the other agencies or programs running in the marketing mix. Internally, we are balancing strategy, creative, technology, marketing, media and client services teams to drive one (hopefully) perfect result for the client. A solid creative brief is the beginning, middle and end component that acts as the thread throughout the agencies’ internal teams and the lighthouse back to what the brand/client has chosen as the approved direction.

Let’s start a conversation about what the creative brief means to our world today and how we can make it better.

Instead of tasking our internal teams to make the creative brief better, we decided to ask people – both internal and external – about what the creative brief is and how we can create a better creative brief. The first phase of this project from the Twist Image team you can review below. It is a SlideShare deck titled, The Creative Brief – A Research Project, and it highlights some of our first-step internal thinking along with other influential Marketing thought leaders (from both mass advertising and digital marketing agencies) including Faris Yakob, Gareth Kay, Tim Brunelle, Darryl Ohrt and others.

You (me, we) are not alone.

Our hopes are that by discussing the creative brief in a broader social context and by using Social Media to share and collaborate on this content, we can all start evolving the way we each approach the brief in our own agencies and continue to share and collaborate in the discussion, debate and conversation about this pivotal and primary document. In the end, it’s about great work and great results but none of that happens without a functional creative brief.

So, let’s start the conversation: what do you see as the next steps? What’s your take on the creative brief?


  1. Although I have very minimal experience with creative briefs being brand-spakin’-new to the agency world, during my experience as an intern I gained some very wise insight from some seasoned veterans. I was told that sometimes the best briefs you will ever come across are the ones that lack the most information and instruction to begin with. Thus leaving more room for the creative possiblities of the project, and seemingly impressive final products to go with it. Maybe sometimes it’s what the client is not saying that could potential be the most exciting!

  2. Creative briefs require a statement on communications strategy. This isn’t where you say ‘the strategy is to start a facebook fan page” or “to send emails to generate leads.” That’s not strategy; that’s tactic or just the description of the task at hand. A communications strategy describes the role that communications will play to achieve marketing objectives. Communications represents one way to solve marketing challenges or take advantage of opportunities. There are other ways — e.g., the other Ps (product, place, price). Therefore, it deserves explanation: what will communications do/how will it work to address this challenge.

  3. Did you arrive at a consensus as to what keeps big companies buying creative briefs that are neither brief nor creative?
    Remember the famous Saul Bass movie, “Why Man Creates”?


    Fooling around-

    Why does man create?-

    I love the scene (couldn’t find it on YouTube) where the creative guy dies on stage like a cowboy, in a barrage of criticism. It’s risky to be creative, and even riskier to be brief. (“Parable” above speaks to the same issue.)
    George Wald, a Nobel prizewinner in physiology/medicine once observed: “There are more people living on cancer, than dying from it.” So I think if you follow the money it explains why an agency might crank out intellectual but ineffectual deliverables. It might be an attempt to serve their clients by helping those executives build consensus, while providing safety from stakeholder criticism. It’s only human for execs to rely on “experts” to do that for them…
    I think the truth is we’re all — clients and creatives alike — swimming in chaos. Today’s great idea is tomorrow’s fatal strategy. So my take is: focus on projects, and try to stay nimble, entrepreneurial, and experimental.

  4. Thanks for sharing, Mitch. As someone with one foot planted in the strategy field and the other squarely in the creative field, I’m tired of stepping in the cow crap that comes from your multi-stomach diagram. I think you’ve hit all the main problems right on the head. I’ve forwarded this to every agency person I know – there are a lot of great points and dialog starters here. Thanks for getting the conversation going.

  5. Thanks for the insights, Mitch. Very generous of you.
    To me, writing a good creative brief is analogous to trying to sum up a person’s life or achievements in a single sentence (or less)…
    Is Steven Spielberg a “groundbreaking cinematic visionary” or “one of the shrewdest businessmen in Hollywood”?…
    The answer: It depends.
    The focus is determining who is buying what we’re trying to sell and tailoring the message to suit the target audience.
    A good brief will distill a complex, multi-layered message into a singular thought or idea that can be creatively packaged and disseminated to the market through various media platforms.
    Defining the target audience, devising a clear and creative message and involving related departments are all critical in producing a viable brief.
    Thanks again!

  6. The biggest mistake I’ve seen with creative briefs used to kick off new campaigns – rather than briefs designed to address a particular client need (one-off ads, for example) – is when they came with pre-planned media buys. There’s no less effective way to motivate creative folks than to tell them what they need to produce and have them operate in a box.
    Instead, ask for the idea first and then determine how it can apply to both offline and online content.
    I do think, however, that it is important to give the creative team as much context as possible. Help them understand the brand’s environment,, state goals and so forth. But the most important thing is state what the creative has to convey – a single line that you can point to when reviewing work. If creative doesn’t reflect that single line in some way, then it should be rejected for not meeting the necessary criteria.
    I have lots of thoughts on this and look forward to following this conversation.

  7. Although I too am only a student of marketing and media and have little experience with using the creative brief, I have had a few courses dedicated to this topic specifically.
    What I learnt from the class and from the literature given – an article by Storey and Smit ” THE CREATIVE BRIEF AND ITS STRATEGIC ROLE IN THE CAMPAIGN DEVELOPMENT PROCESS. (2007) – is that a good brief needs to provide direction and inspiration. It has to simultaneously close down options while also providing precise direction. The best brief turns the description of the task form an instruction into a challenge.
    According to Storey and Smit, there are 3 roles that a good brief needs to play. It has many roles because of the different types of people involved in the process (creative team, strategic team, corp. exes).
    1. Cementing agreement: It is like a contract. It represents a summary of all current thinking on the task and indicates the kind of response that is expected.
    2. Aiding judgment: brief acts as an objective touch point to assess creative ideas as they are developed –like a checklist but the brief must still be able to evolve during the creative process.
    3. Inspiring creative thinking: catalyst for stimulating creative thinking.
    With new channels of communication, such as social media, that totally redefine the way we interact and connect, the creative brief is bound to adapt. My bet it that its structure will provide for more flexibility, allowing the creative team to build freely on what the client says.

  8. Mitch – Thanks for sparking real conversation here. I’ve also forwarded to along to the teams I work with and know. SO OFTEN we become such creatures of habit, slavishly working in “the process”, being told to “just trust the process”, when we know (and have demonstrated) that often the best work comes from a well-thought out (key!) diversion from the process. We’ll see where this lands us – thanks for the launch.

  9. I was fascinated to read the results of the study after contributing to it (LOVE my cartoon). I train agencies and clients on the ‘art’ of brief writing which is a sticky challenge at best. But what I’ve learned from my own experiences as a CD and as a trainer is that if you look at the brief as a holistic document that first asks the right questions to realistically achieve a clear communication objective, to BRIEFLY inspire (using delicious language, insights, perspectives and truths) and then inform (on ONLY that which is relevant to the ask), you’re off to a damn good start. Then its about communication and feedback between the client, planning, account and ultimately creative people to see whether the thing is resonating. Sounds simple on paper but is a never ending and iterative task. Kudos on your research and thanks for sharing it with the world!

  10. Thanks for posting this paper, Mitch!
    To answer your question regarding next steps, we’ve started trying out new planning-to-creative processes and creative brief templates on a variety of projects.
    Rather than trying to come up with a master plan right away, we’re using this research as a way to empower every person in our agency to push each other towards better thinking and better creative. It’s pretty awesome what we’ve seen so far!
    But the first step is to have these conversations in your own agency, get everyone on the same page, and start changing the way you approach your own projects, clients and teams.

  11. LOL! The cow diagram appears to be the favourite illustration! I’m so glad that you’re using this deck as a way to start internal conversations – that was the hope when we were creating it. Good luck and keep us posted on how it goes!

  12. That’s awesome! Once you start talking to your teams, you’ll find that your team is a lot more resourceful than you suspected and sometimes, just pointing out the elephant(s) in the room is enough to change people’s attitudes. I hope you’ll keep us posted on where this conversation takes you. Good luck!

  13. Wow, great point! It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to write a brief that makes everyone happy, especially the client. We work in an industry that requires a lot of courage – to come up with mind-blowing ideas and to stand behind them. To that I say: God, Guts & Creativity. Not sure where I picked that up from, but I feel like tattooing it to my arm.

  14. Just came off writting an Nth brief in my career and not happy about it. Again. Why? Weak insight. Unless you have a relevant and differentiated insight that connects to your audience, the WHAT we have to say, then and only then can you ask the HOW guys, the creatives, to start working on how to effectively convey that WHAT. And the WHAT is usually summed up in one key phrase. The rest is supporting evidence or marketing babble that creatives couldn’t really care for. The result is not a print, TV, Web, social or whatever execution but a media neutral, Big idea. Tell me a story I want to listen to. There. Now I feel better.

Comments are closed.