The Creative Brief: Everything You Need to Know

Marketer filling out a creative brief

Writing a full creative brief may not always be necessary — but in most cases, entering into a project without a creative brief is like flying blind. With many marketing departments producing high volumes of collateral and needing to be as agile as possible in their delivery, it’s critical that the process is as efficient as possible. And that starts with a well-written creative brief.

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In this creative brief guide you will discover:

What is a creative brief?

A creative brief is a document used to outline the strategy of a creative project. A creative brief contains project details including:

Usually developed in the project initiation phase, a creative brief will help a creative team better understand a project from the start, and may be presented to key stakeholders and clients.

Although not all creative briefs are created equal, they all share the same basic layout. And since some projects require more detailed planning than others, you’ll waste a lot of time and effort if you try to use one detailed creative brief template for all your work.

This is where electronic creative briefs in marketing work management tools come in handy. If it’s a quality tool, the briefs will be customizable so you can design them to only cover the information necessary for that specific type of project.

Effective creative briefs rely on good questions. Ask the right questions and you’ll write a creative brief that will make your life easier. Essentially, you have to clarify the who, what, where, when, and how of the deliverable. We describe how below.

Why you need a creative brief.

You need a plan.

Obviously, you can’t design something you don’t understand. Your project needs a reason to exist, as well as:

In a creative brief, you articulate your vision and justify its benefits, as well as plan how you will target your audience. From the beginning, a creative brief puts everyone on the same page before launching a project.

A well-written creative brief will save you time.

Creative briefing isn’t just cobbling together a document, it’s wielding a tool that facilitates clear and thorough communication from the beginning of the design process. A clear brief can prevent:

All of which will cost your team valuable time and money.

You’ll maintain accountability and communication.

Agreeing on your scope, deliverables, objectives, the persona and execution of a project will help anchor your team and your stakeholders. Establishing parameters and, perhaps most importantly, building trust at the outset will go a long way toward smoother processes.

Requests and approvals will be processed faster.

Ambiguous goals are difficult to achieve. Consider vague requests such as, ‘I just want a really clean-looking design.’ While some of this is simply a fact of life for design professionals, a creative brief forces clarity upstream, minimizing difficult confrontations during the review and approval cycle.

The creative briefing process is as much about anticipating obstacles as understanding and aligning objectives. Better to get clarification during the planning phase than when you’re in the middle of proofing.

The final product will be higher quality.

This is a direct result of setting clear objectives, aligning with business objectives, and vetting expectations up front. When everyone’s time is valued and expectations are made clear, it’s easier for the team to hit their mark, remain invested, motivated, and proud of their work.

“The brief was always supposed to be a springboard for great work. Not a straitjacket.”

David Trott, author of Creative Mischief

So let the design brief act as your guiding instrument and understand that time spent on a well-designed brief is an investment that pays off in the end with:

And, ultimately, a more trusting relationship between your team and client.

Ebook:  5 Tips to Get Back Time to be Creative
Whitepaper:  Agile Marketing for Creative Teams

Elements in a creative brief.

Before writing a creative brief, be sure to ask these 10 questions. Some are left out of briefs too often. Believe it or not, covering these bases can make the difference between a struggling content project and highly effective one.

1. Why are we doing this?

Anyone that’s going to create anything worthy of publishing needs to know some context to the assigned project. They need to know:

Your team may not need to know every nitty-gritty historical detail of the project, so don’t waste time trying to pin down every little thing — only divulge what’s most important to your team doing great work.

2. Who is our target audience?

How will you know how to target your deliverables unless you know who’s going to see, handle, watch, or read what you’re creating? Make sure you know the ‘who’ of the project before beginning. And I don’t just mean writing ‘potential customers.’ What about these potential customers?

This type of information could be the difference between a successful campaign and huge waste of time and money.

3. Who are our competitors?

After you’ve identified your target audience, include a list of your main business rivals on the brief. Add links to review what they offer and any similar projects to yours they have attempted. Consider:

Finally, consider how can you differentiate yourself from them with your creative content.

4. What do you want us to deliver?

This is the client’s chance to tell you the ‘what’ of the project — what they actually want your team to deliver. This is where the client unveils their overall vision for the project. This can require a little digging, however, because often clients have a picture in their head of what they want.

If you can't get them to describe that picture, the work your team completes, no matter how fabulous, can disappoint clients if it differs from their vision. This is the time to ask questions, get clarifications and manage expectations by communicating what expectations can or cannot be met and why.

5. What’s the big idea?

If this deliverable or campaign could be boiled down to a handful or less of key messages, what would they be? Some agencies call this the ‘big idea.’ What does this project most need to convey to, or evoke from, its audience?

6. How do we want it to look?

This section is especially important for external agencies that may have to learn a whole new brand with every project. This is where the ‘how’ gets answered, where you clarify the:

And any other guidelines related to the project.

7. What is our core business objective?

Before we get into the work of shaping content, we need clarity on its reason for being. Unless it’s meeting a business objective, even the most dazzling projects risks failing at its ultimate goal of creating value.

Discuss this thoroughly with your team and stakeholders at the outset, ensuring that creative projects aren’t just window dressing, but high-contributing parts of a larger strategy. Ultimately, when a creative asset is produced with the business objective top of mind, defending aesthetic choices becomes easier.

8. Who are the stakeholders?

This also addresses the ‘who,’ but from the working side. Who will work on the project from the creative team? Who are the client’s decision-makers? Who should you go to for approval on drafts and in what order?

9. When is the deadline?

This is the ‘when’ of the project. Some of the key timings to ensure you confirm are:

When gathering this information, it’s important to determine what actions and dates are required of the client to keep the project on track. For example, do they only have two days to provide feedback without pushing back the deadline? This must be clearly defined from the beginning so the client will understand that any delays on their part will cause overall delays for the project.

You would be surprised how many creative briefs leave out these critical pieces of information, whether because the team is focused entirely on the deliverables or because they’re not asking.

Create an example timeline.

Create a timeline that looks something like this, working backwards from when the content needs to be deliverable if possible.

Remember, the content you’re creating ties into a campaign with concrete launch dates and your delivery date will become a critical component of its success. You need to know and be able to work with this project constraint, setting it out in the creative brief.

10. Where will this content appear?

Context is crucial in content. Different venues carry unique audience expectations and ways of engagement. You’d never, for example, write a print ad the same way you write a social post.

Where your content appears will determine its:

And how it moves users to the next point on the customer journey. Be sure to hone in on where your end user will engage with your final product.

Learn more:  Workfront for Project Management
Whitepaper:  Process, Creativity, and the Need for Speed

When should you use a creative brief?

Creative briefs cover projects of different shapes, sizes, and styles. Because of this a tiering system is applied to projects to show what level of briefing is required. We explain Tier 1, 2 and 3 below:

  1. Tier 1: Non-standard, non-iterative, highly conceptual work — This work is the most prone to being ambiguous, which means creative briefs are a must. Otherwise, team members may not know where to start, or get started with a high risk of going in the wrong direction. Think about a full advertising campaign — you'll want a lot of direction from the client before your team begins work.
  2. Tier 2: Execution of previous work across deliverables — Deals with already defined and completed work, so doesn't need the detail of a Tier 1 creative brief. But your team will still run a risk if they don’t use one. This could be a website landing page for an internal client. Chances are, you’ve already created dozens of these, so you have a general idea of the expectations. But it’s always good to make sure you have all the information you need before you start.
  3. Tier 3: Edits, revisions, templated work — This requires the briefest brief of all, but even though it’s simple you'll want a project description. Plus, if you let the little things through with sticky notes and hallway conversations rather than requiring some form of a creative brief, you'll quickly run into problems.

Who should fill out the creative brief?

There have long been questions of who should fill out the creative brief. Is it the:

The answer is, it depends. If you’re an agency or an in-house agency, the best practice is to have the representative from client services, or the assigned account manager, meet the client to go through the creative brief. It may make sense to include the creative director as well to make sure everyone has a sound understanding of the project requirements.

If you’re an in-house creative services team, you will need to determine what process works best for your team’s unique workflow. Perhaps it makes the most sense for the creative director to meet with the internal client to complete the brief. Maybe your team has traffic managers or production managers that would better fill that role.

At the end of the day, the thing you want to avoid is sending a document to the client to fill out on their own. This can lead to a number of problems:

To save time and frustration, and whether you’re an agency or an in-house team, have an initial meeting with your client to fill out the creative brief together and clarify points as needed.

An alternative is to use a marketing work management software like Workfront with built-in creative briefs where, upon initial request, the client is required to provide certain information for the team. Even in this scenario, as a best practice it’s recommended you take the time to meet with the client and ensure everyone is on the same page before production begins.

Ebook:  6 Dangerous Myths Every Agency Creative Should Reject
Ebook:  How 5 Creative Geniuses Used Structure to Be More Creative

Creative brief template.

If your creative briefings include these principles, you have effectively implemented creative briefs into your workflow. The perfect creative brief template is not built in a day. It takes continual feedback and fine-tuning to match your organization’s needs. As you write more creative briefs, determine what common fields should be included and add them to continuously improve your creative brief template. To get a head start, download our creative brief template.

Remember though, it’s called a brief for a reason, so keep it short. Only ask for what your team absolutely needs. Also, be willing to adapt your creative brief to the tier your project fits under. Now you’re all set to escape ambiguity and finally get some clarity.

Frequently asked questions about how to write a creative brief.

What is a good creative brief?

To write a good creative brief you need to make sure it’s absolutely clear what needs to be done and by when. It should clarify the objective, make clear any deadlines, and provide as much information about the product or service as possible. Ideally both the agency and the client should have input into the brief.

What is a creative brief template?

A creative brief template is exactly that: a template you can use to make completing a creative brief easier. It should give you a clear structure to follow, with fields to include key information such as objective, target audience, and deadline.

Why is a creative brief important?

A creative brief is important for many reasons. Primarily because it helps to agree expectations, deliverables, and deadlines between the client and agency. Another important reason is it ensures work is done correctly and to the right standard. Often when a client or internal agency stakeholder is unhappy with a piece of work, a poor brief is to blame.

What is a creative brief video?

A creative brief video is a filmed version of a written brief. In the context of a project, a video brief is intended to provide the recipient with information about which actions rest with them and how their work relates to project goals.