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Sunday, February 27, 2011



More and more, one of the most controversial issues we encounter with our clients is this: Whose responsibility is it to write/compose the Creative Brief—the client’s or the communication agency’s? And our resolution to this issue is actually an obvious one—the responsibility is a shared one. In other words, this all-important “blueprint” document that will (1) direct the creative teams in communication campaign development and (2) serve as the only “filter” against which to assess the resulting creative work should be crafted by the joint client-agency team (including both account and creative agency teammates). When you consider the strategic, executional, and ultimately, financial stakes both parties have in the outcome of any new campaign development, to insist one of the parties has more responsibility in writing the Creative Brief is ludicrous.


So why is it that you often hear the agency insisting that they “own the brief”? Or, even after agreeing to co-author a brief with their client, insisting that they go back and write a second brief in their unique format, effectively creating a “dueling briefs” situation?   More to the point, what can we clients do to avoid being caught in such a situation? Let’s take these questions one at a time.


Why would agencies want to write the Creative Brief by themselves, every time, if they could? Why wouldn’t any of us prefer to set the ground rules by which we/our work were to be judged if we could? Call it human nature to want to control as much as possible the measurement system against which we’re going to be held accountable. But, in fairness, there are some other reasonable reasons why agencies would like to control the Creative Brief:

  1. Most agencies have lots of different types of clients; some of their clients are “strategy-savvy” and some aren’t. You can’t blame an agency for wanting to prevent a weak strategic client from leading everyone down a dark alley to nowhere. Then, too, there are some clients who may actually have the strategic talent and skill-sets within their companies, but because they typically operate in crisis mode, they often rush the strategic work (for example, being in too big a hurry to identify a precise demographic-psychographic target that’s based upon, say, some legitimate segmentation research). Again, who could fault an agency for wanting to take charge of the brief at times like these, rather than be false-started by the “ready, fire, aim” client? 
  1. Along these same lines, sometimes our agencies find themselves being led through the strategic part of the process by clients with little experience—you know, the junior brand people. It may even be that the agency account team has been serving the brand for a lot longer than their brand counterparts; perhaps they know the brand better than anyone else. But, it’s one thing to be better versed on the business than your day-to-day client counterparts; it’s yet another not to be able to engage your client senior management in the Creative Brief creation and approval process. Unfortunately, missing this engagement happens all to frequently…highlighting another reasonable explanation for agencies wanting brief-control.
  1. Regarding agencies’ oft-expressed desire to write a second brief in their unique format…why DO agencies have their own Creative Brief formats? Actually, there are a couple of very practical reasons why. First, each agency out there has its own set of “strategic tools” that they say sets them apart from their competitors; these tools (and the clever acronyms they use to name them) make up, in a way, each agency’s USP. When you hire an agency, they like to think that you’ve done so because of their own USP approach to the marketplace…and they don’t want to disappoint you. But there is an even bigger, more practical reason for each agency having its own Creative Brief format: this format becomes their “internal currency” for contracting work with all their creative teams, whether they are working on a car, detergent, beauty, or beverage brand. Because every creative team member understands the agency’s format in exactly the same way, there is little likelihood of confusion when a given brief hits the creative cubicles. Life’s a lot simpler.

So, these are some of the realities behind so much of the arm-wrestling between clients and their agencies over who writes the Creative Brief or why we so often end up with two, “dueling briefs.” Are there no alternatives? We think there is an alternative—check it out below in this week’s Boats & Helicopters.


How to co-author the Creative Brief (client + agency team) and avoid the fiasco of dueling briefs:

  1. First, you and your agency teammates have got to think differently about the Creative Brief: stop regarding it as a document or form to be routinely filled in (such as an income tax form, or an office supplies order form); rather, start regarding it as THE deliverable from an intense, jointly-experienced process. Included in this process are research reviews, ideation sessions, consumer check-out qualitative research (at least), a Creative Brief “pull-together” session or two, and a final Senior Management presentation & sign-off meeting. Each of these process steps needs to be scheduled on the definitive timeline for the campaign’s development.
  1. Prior to embarking on this process, set aside a time to have a dialogue (between you and your agency teammates) on How We Will Operate. This should include considerations about what critical elements will appear on the single Creative Brief that everyone will use. We always urge our clients to include the following critical elements in their briefs: Marketing, or Communication Behavior Objective, Assignment (Including Key Customer TouchPoints/Media formats) and Timing, Consumer Insight, Communication Strategy (Target, Benefits, Reason Why), Brand Character, and Legal Mandatories. If there are some elements that the agency includes on their USP format and that are (a) non-conflicting with these and (b) truly added-value to these, then you and they can agree to add them to the “master brief.”   But no work should ever commence without both parties agreeing to a single Creative Brief. 


You should also agree at this dialogue meeting on who will lead or facilitate the process and what the key dates are for each of the steps. Most of all, you should agree in spirit to use all the team’s talents to deliver the tightest, most insightful, winning Creative Brief possible.


  1. One other very important step: once the Creative Brief process is underway, someone has got to be responsible for sticking with it. We tend to think that the ideal person for this leadership role is the Brand Manager (but the key is to have someone truly accountable for completing the process).

Maybe it sounds like we just added weeks of time to what for most client-agency teams is already a “never-enough-time” campaign development process. Well, look at it this way: by adding a few weeks up-front in the strategic part of the process, you’ve probably eliminated the likelihood of failing altogether or starting over downstream because of a weak brief or because of no senior management buy-in to the brief. But don’t just take our word for it. Find out for yourself the next time you begin to pursue a new communication campaign.


Richard Czerniawski & Mike Maloney


Richard Czerniawski

430 Abbotsford Road

Kenilworth, Illinois 60043

tel 847.256.8820 fax 847.256.8847

reply to Richard: or



Mike Maloney

1506 West 13th

Austin, Texas 78703

tel 512.236.0971 fax 512.236.0972

reply to Mike: or

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