The Art of Writing a Decent Creative Brief

Previously in this series, David Pierce, Acquia’s Content Manager and Web Producer, shared how to tackle content audits and SEO assessments when preparing for a website redesign. Catch up and read David’s blog, here.


When a marketer approaches an agency to develop a creative concept, that request usually takes the form of a “brief”: a short statement that defines the request, provides enough detail to anticipate a creative team’s questions, but is vague enough to give them the freedom to be creative. Marketers who overwork their briefs and use them to flex their own creative skills invariably stifle the agency and miss an opportunity to get the true value that comes from a good agency relationship.

Here’s a quick guide to how to compose a brief without resorting to a generic template. There are different types of agency briefs that cover everything from the selection of the agency itself to briefs for short-term campaigns or more extensive creative briefs for a complete re-branding and rethinking of the corporate brand from its name to its logo.

A good creative brief is … duh… brief. It’s called a ”brief” for a reason and if there was ever an occasion to tell yourself to “spare me the details” it’s when you start composing. Try to keep it short and tight for the agency will respond with questions to help them clarify the request. Resist the urge to over-share since the soul of a good brief is the objective, the data, and some directions -- not concepts -- to get the agency started.

The Setup

When approaching an agency for the first time it’s crucial to preface the brief with a concise statement of what the company’s current definition is. This should include a quick history, the corporate value proposition, it’s key products, competitors and customers. Look at the boilerplate on your press releases or your corporate website’s “about us” page -- that’s what you’re telling the outside world at that point in time. Don’t overthink the corporate definition and resist the temptation to speculate about any problems or issues. Just state the facts -- company size, global reach, number of customers and name a few of the key ones, awards, revenue, and existing agency relationships.

Then turn to the corporate strategy and cut-and-paste into the brief your vision, mission and purpose statements. If you have a tagline or slogan, include that as well but be sure to share the corporate strategy with the agency. That’s the “north star” or compass heading that the company is all steering towards, and ultimately the goal the brief is trying to support.

Write that background preface once and then save it. It can be reused on future briefs. If the agency comes back with a request for more information or background, use those questions to modify and sharpen the background information. Questions are indications you may be omitting some obvious information.

The Brief

Start the brief with a problem statement: “Acme will announce a new driverless car in the spring of 2018 and needs a name, logo, brand guide and global campaign for the new model.”

Then define the challenges and opportunities relevant to the brief. This is a chance to be candid about competition, delays, price.

Here’s an example of how to set up a new product launch brief:

  • We are late to the driverless car market and must launch a new model at the Detroit Car Show on March 1, 2018…
  • The competition is Tesla, BMW and Chevrolet but we also see competitors from services like ZipCar and Uber.
  • We believe the market for this new model is $15 billion USD in the first year and anticipate building 20,000 units to fulfill demand.

Data

Some agencies specialize in market research and prefer to conduct their own discovery process to quantify and qualify the target market and opportunity. This section is where you can share your own research and internal data to help inform the design of the campaign or the re-branding exercise.

  • Our research indicates the target buyer is a man in his late 20s with a preference for performance but a budget under $400 per month for a new car or lease.
  • Our dealership data indicates the 2nd quarter of the calendar year is when most Millennials start researching new cars, perhaps tied to graduation and end-of-school milestones.

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The Ask

This is where you make the “ask” of the agency. Be comprehensive -- you don’t want to omit something and have to come back to tack on another request later; that will usually mean a scramble at the agency and an up-charge to you, which will made the budget gods very unhappy.

The ask should give the agency a clear deadline to respond. Identify who on your team will be the primary contact.

Then deliver a concise set of requests and try to anticipate any questions the agency’s team will ask. Don’t offer creative suggestions or concepts, remember: the agency exists to create and amaze you. You’re paying for their ideas, not just their execution of your ideas.

  • By Nov. 1, we need candidate names for the new model based on consumer research to be performed by the agency.
  • Our current name architecture is based on “cute marsupials”: e.g. wallaby, lemur, etc.

Direction

It’s OK, indeed great, to give the creative team some direction. If your brand personality and tone is lighthearted and there are campaigns you like or directions taken by other brands in their creative, then point out those examples. Telling the agency you want a 30-second TV spot scored to Train’s “Hey Soul Sister” is taking things a little far and will insure you sound like every other TV spot circa 2010. If the agency has already developed a campaign concept and you want to stick to it, then say so, and give them the details about the who, what, when and where and be done with it.

There are some templates online that can help write an agency brief, but before you go searching for something to download and massage into your own, let me share some tips that were taught to me by two of the best marketers I’ve had the privilege to work with -- Glen Gilbert and Parker Ransom -- both of whom I met in 2006 when I was the VP of global digital marketing at Lenovo, the PC maker. Glen was the VP of brand strategy and Parker was the director of global advertising. The three of us worked together under CMO Deepak Advani to develop the new Lenovo brand with our agency team at Ogilvy & Mather, Lenovo’s global agency of record.

Glen was the consummate client-side marketing communications professional who sharpened his skills at American Express, where he was responsible for such legendary campaigns as the “Do you know me?” ads that used celebrities to market the classic American Express card. Parker was from the agency world, with more than a decade of experience at Ogilvy & Mather, where he too worked on the American Express account alongside Glen.

When it came time to develop a campaign of television commercials, out-of-home (billboards, airport light boxes, etc.) and digital advertising, Glen and Parker collaborated on a brief and took the time to coach me through the process.

Both were adamant that we not “over-manage” the brief and try to do the agency’s work for them. This was an exercise in amazing self-restraint for me. Glen and Parker “seeded” the brief with just enough detail about the product and its claims, gave some very succinct guidance around the target market and audience, and then waited for Ogilvy’s creative team under Andy Berndt (now the creative director of Google Labs) to come back with something brilliant.

Which Berndt delivered beautifully. The net result of the agency’s brand “bible” was the building of an entirely new brand in a very competitive market that went from an unknown to No. 1 in the PC industry within six years.

Anyway, these are my best practices for writing a creative brief. Drew Robertson, Acquia’s senior visual designer, and I relied on these tricks when writing our own brief to select an agency for the redesign of Acquia.com.

David Churbuck

Former VP of Corporate MarketingAcquia

David Churbuck joined Acquia in 2014 to lead the company’s brand, corporate communications and content marketing functions. He is an award-winning technology journalist and digital publishing pioneer who came to Acquia from Eastman Advisors, a New York City-based entertainment and technology strategy firm that serves some of the world’s best known entertainers and brands in the worlds of music, film and art.

David was the VP of Global Digital Marketing at Lenovo from 2005 to 2010, leading its content and social media marketing efforts as well as the activation of its brand and 2008 Summer Olympic sponsorship. He led the transformation of global technology publisher IDG from a print to digital model and, in 2005, won the American Business Media Association’s website of the year award for his work on CIO.com. David was the Chief Content Officer at McKinsey from 2000 to 2002, leading the team that rebuilt the firm’s knowledge management system into one of the world’s first multimedia distribution systems. David was the senior technology editor at Forbes Magazine from 1988 to 1994, winning consecutive first place awards for the business technology stories in 1989 and 1990 as well as a National Association of Science Writer award for his work on digital forgery with Catch Me if You Can author, Frank Abegnale. He founded Forbes.com in 1995. Some of his work there is chronicled in the 2003 movie, Shattered Glass. At Acquia, David is responsible for corporate marketing and leads a team responsible for Acquia’s brand, public relations, and content marketing development.

David grew up in Massachusetts, and graduated as a Scholar of the House from Yale in American History and English Literature. He and his wife have three children and live on Cape Cod.