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Monday, February 22, 2016




“The Creative Brief is the single most-important
piece of paper in the building.”


--Andy Langer, Principal, Roberts + Langer


Quite an unequivocal statement, right?  After all, there are plenty of super-important pieces of paper in any company at any time.  Clearly, though, Andy is exaggerating (slightly, perhaps) to make a point:  at least from the perspective of a lifelong, highly successful Creative Head and Agency CEO, when work is being done for a client there is nothing more critically important to success than the “blueprint” for that work—the Creative Brief.  Or, more specifically, the thought quality and choice-full precision of that brief.


With such a perspective, you can begin to appreciate why our agency colleagues so often push clients with statements like:


  • “We’ll write the brief and present it to you…’’
  • “Our Creative Brief format is special and we want our all of creative teams to follow it for consistent success…”
  •  “We’re ultimately responsible for the work, so we own the brief….”


But here’s the rub:  why is it that we clients so rarely share a similar perspective about the critical importance of this single piece of paper?  More to the point, why is it that we clients so readily either (1) acquiesce and permit multiple creative agencies who work for our brands to use multiple Creative Brief formats (rather than insisting upon a standard company format for all of our brands); or (2) worse still, permit a virtual on-going “re-creation” of the one standard CB format we have adopted for all of our brands? When a company does make the commitment to formalize its own Creative Brief format, so many things clear up…just as when a company establishes its own Marketing Plan format.  Everyone knows—by both what the format includes and excludes--exactly what is important; and senior management can view relative investment options from brand to brand on an “apples to apples” basis.


Naturally, when pulling together a single Creative Brief format for all the brands in the company, it’s always a smart practice to gather insight and input from whichever creative agencies the company is working with…and to make sure that each agency understands precisely what “unique role” each part of the brief must play.   To be clear, we are not suggesting that a company effectively “build a camel” by including in their single CB format every element that every agency likes.  What we are suggesting is that the company (under its Marketing Leadership) listen to, carefully consider, and then decide which elements are important for more consistently delivering leadership communications…which elements Brand and Creative Teams must be held accountable for. 


For sure, having a single, company-approved Creative Brief is a best practice.  But back to the second question we raised, why is it so hard to “stick with” this approved brief format?  Why is it that marketing organizations can’t seem to keep their hands of it, keep tinkering with it, and effectively keep “re-creating” their Creative Brief?  This re-creating is much more common than you might think.  And the obvious result is that the company never settles on a workable blueprint for all of their communication development.  We have some hypotheses about why…


1.Too little appreciation…mainly by senior management (both marketing and company).  Too often the Creative Brief is merely one of a myriad of formats circulating around; it is rarely perceived for its specialness as the single “authorization” for significant company investment.  As such it represents what many companies call a “CAPEX” or capital expenditure approval form.  Think about it.  A tight Creative Brief should not only specify precisely what communication content and media will be invested in; it also demands an approving concurrence signature—from both the senior-most company executive accountable for the investment and from the senior-most creative agency executive accountable for the investment deliverables.


2.Too little focus on the primary Target…the creative resource team.  As one of our most admired clients has explained to us, the Creative Brief always has two target audiences:  senior management and the creative teams.  In his words, “Without buy-in from senior management, no brief will ever reach the creative teams.”  This was a jarring perspective when we first heard it because we have always maintained that the Creative Brief is the “spec sheet” for whichever creative resources the brand is working with. It is the ultimate “filter” against which the brand team will view and assess any creative outputs. 


Of course we have always believed in senior management buy-in (as noted in #1 above).  So, sure, we understand that the brief’s content must meet with the “investment approvers’” approval.  But no Creative Brief should be constantly updated and overloaded with more internally-focused information.  Why?  Simple.  More information always ups the odds of more creative team confusion about where they should focus in crafting their ideas.  A good rule of thumb is this:  ensure that no more than 5% of the Creative Brief info is aimed at senior management (even call that 5% “Senior Management Basis-for-Interest”).  The better we focus our strategic direction at the principal “CB Target,” the creative teams, the better they will focus their creative invention at our brand’s customer/consumer target.


3.Too much stuff…following from above.  The best Creative Briefs are the ones that can be written, laser-like, on one page.  What keeps them to one (or at most, two) pages is a disciplined insistence to include only that strategic direction that will help the creative teams come up with many, potentially big ideas.  You can count this direction on one hand:  a robust target definition; a SMART communication behavior/marketing objective; a compelling customer or consumer insight; a meaningful point-of-difference benefit and reason-to-believe.  But when marketing organizations add more than these a funny thing starts to happen:  more begets more.  People inside the company begin to suggest revising the brief to include content that is not only non-strategic but downright unhelpful to the creation of big ideas—content such as “Secondary benefits (time permitting)” and “Executional Considerations.”


4.Too little precision…particularly in making choices.  Since no brand can successfully be all things to all people, nor does any brand have unlimited resources to aim at all people, the money best spent is that that is well-targeted, well-“chosen.”  We’ve observed that Creative Briefs that are the most often revised or augmented are the ones that have failed their brands or agencies—due to imprecision.  They lack the clear choices that specify “this is our target, this is not our target” or “this is the behavior we seek from our chosen target now, not that behavior.”  But instead of recognizing that the failure is in imprecision, the company typically adds some content that is, really, redundant…or that further obfuscates any choices.


Getting back to the beginning, our wish would be that every marketing organization would regard their Creative Brief—especially its single format designed to their needs—as the “single most-important piece of paper in the building…at least when valuable resources are being invested against communication development.  That takes Appreciation, Focus, and Precision!


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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