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Monday, March 25, 2013



We recently completed two workshops aimed at helping clients and their agencies think through and write more precise, more effective Creative Briefs—for new communication campaign development. This is a service we have engaged in for a long time. And while times have changed the typical outputs of these briefs (from traditional media like television and print advertising to a broader scope of traditional plus new “360°” media and digital “user content”), one thing seems not to have changed: the barriers marketers and their agency colleagues face in getting to a crystal clear, compelling, and more effective Creative Brief have not changed.


When we say “crystal clear, compelling, and more effective” we mean only one thing: that from the brief the agency creative teams come up with many potentially big ideas—to give the brand an advantage over its competition. That’s it. A tight Creative Brief should, by definition, open up many possibilities to deliver the brand’s benefits in ways that make it an obviously better choice than other brands. The trouble is, getting to possibilities like these is much more the exception than the rule. And, as already noted, it’s pretty clear to us that there are several barriers to success inherent in both (1) the process marketers use to write a brief, and (2) some of the elements that seem to always be included in the brief (but that, instead of adding value, invariably add confusion and subtract value). 


Barriers to a Great Brief


1. Misunderstanding the Brief’s Target—There’s a really good reason why it’s best to refer to the brief as a “Creative Brief” (rather than, say, as “Communications Brief” or “Agency Brief”): namely, there is only one Target Audience for it—the Creative Teams who are charged with creating ideas. When both the brand client and its agency partners keep this Target Audience in mind, it’s so natural to restrict the information in the Creative Brief only to that information creative teams require to develop ideas. Creative teams do not requires latest share trends, recent competitive maneuvers, or future innovation moves for the brand. Nor do they require volume and share goals (we’ve never met a creative team member who could write or depict ideas to “grow share 1.5 points”).   What they do require, though, are: the specific consumer/customer behavior the brand desires to reach those volume and share goals; a detailed and robust definition of the customer or consumer Target; a legitimate Insight that will link to the brand’s Benefits and make them exceedingly relevant; and, naturally, Benefits that are meaningfully differentiated for that Target. 


When Brand and Agency Teams really and truly understand that the brief they are building is aimed only and squarely at the creative resources who will be held accountable for the communication ideas, it’s amazing how quickly all the other BS that often gets dumped in a brief vanishes!


2.   Not Collaborating on THE (as in ONE) Brief—How can we state this any more clearly: the single, biggest and best practice marketers and their agencies can follow is to co-develop the Creative Brief. Who can say where the age-old practice began wherein the client writes the brief and then “presents” it to the agency? Maybe it grew out of that expression, “We need to brief the agency.” For sure, there is nothing wrong (and everything right) with “briefing” a new agency or even new account and creative teams who come onto an assignment—as in briefing them about the brand’s history, its competitive context, and its performance trends. But this kind of briefing is required at a different time and place from the one needed to develop a new communications campaign. We shouldn’t mix the two together because, as already noted, it overloads the creative teams with information that will get in their way when they’re aiming to create big, juicy ideas.


Then, too, by not collaborating together on a Creative Brief, we invariably find that the agency must craft their “own” brief back at their shop—which they may or may not ever share with the client. We have written in these Dispatches a few times in the past about the dangers of “dueling briefs.”   Honestly, if you were spending big money to build a new house, would you really want two differently formatted or drawn sets of plans—including one set that, maybe, you had never seen? Why do we clients continue to accept or settle for multiple briefs? It makes so much more sense to prevent the barriers imposed by multiple briefs by collaborating on ONE, TRUE BRIEF together.


3. Delaying or (Worse Yet) Neglecting to Secure Sign-Off—We often joke with our clients that the most expensive taxi rides in the world (for Americans, anyway) are the ones in London.   The numbers on the meter read similarly to those in US taxis, but they’re in pounds, not dollars. Imagine, we say, getting into a taxi at Heathrow and, when asked by the driver, “Where to?” you respond, “I’m not sure exactly; just start driving and I’ll figure it out on the way.” This is what it’s like when we tell our agency colleagues to “get going on the creative development and we’ll cover our management along the way.” Just like those London taxi meters, the invoices for creative work can add up awfully fast…and, well, if your senior management catches up with you later and doesn’t agree with the direction in the Creative Brief, it’s not a happy time.


In fact, what we really must discipline ourselves to do is gain approval to our Creative Brief from (a) the senior-most person in the Company accountable for the investment to be made in the communication campaign, and (b) the senior-most person in the agency accountable for delivering the campaign. And we must gain this approval before we get into the taxi!


4. Including Executional Mandatories—Surely, these client-driven “mandates” must be the bane of a creative team’s existence? Imagine that, as a creative head, you and your team have been asked to come up with a Big Campaign Idea capable of lasting for ten or more years (something like the MasterCard “Priceless” Idea) and then, towards the end of the Creative Brief you see a section called “Executional Mandates” containing around ten different demands…such as, “Must show a shower scene”; “must introduce the package within the first five seconds”; “must show consumer reaction shot.” You and your team have just watched about a million potential ideas go out the window. 


Make no mistake about it: if a brand already has a very successful campaign, there is every reason to list the “essential executional elements” that make the campaign work—and to remind our agency colleagues of these each time they embark upon fresh executions of the campaign. But, when you’re looking for the next Big Campaign Idea, that’s the absolute worst time to hamstring your creative resources with a series of “musts” that, if we’re honest, are not mandates at all but merely one manager’s predilections or personal desires. Our best advice: omit anything called “Executional Mandatories” from any Creative Brief aimed at developing a new communications campaign.


So, in summary, if you and your communications agency teammates are looking for a crystal clear, compelling and more effective Creative Brief, take away the barriers by:

  • Aiming the brief at the rightful Target, the creative teams;
  • Co-developing a single brief;
  • Securing senior management approvals to the brief before commencing creative work
  • And, eliminating restricting Executional Mandates entirely.
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

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