How to write an Effective Creative Brief

BBI Learning LogoThe best Advertising is well planned, not some random creative thing that happens.  The value of a creative brief is focus!  Like a good positioning statement, you’re taking everything you know and everything you could possibly say, and starting to make choices on what will give you the greatest return on your media dollars. If you’re not making choices then you’re not making decisions.  

Unlike other creativity, advertising is “In the Box” creativity.  The best advertising creative people  are problem solvers, not blue sky thinkers.  Therefore, the role of the creative brief is to create the right box, enough room to move, but enough direction that defines the problem.

Advertising is a balance of freedom and control.  But, oddly enough, most Brand Managers allow too much FREEDOM on the strategy but want to exhibit CONTROL on the creative.  It should be the reverse.   Brand Managers should control the strategy not the execution.  Briefs with multiple objectives or many main benefits send the signal to agencies that you aren’t quite sure and want the agency to pick the strategy.  But a long list of mandatories sends the signal that even though we don’t know the strategy, we do think we know what we want the creative to look like.  This is where the marketer should get a bit more comfortable in dealing with ambiguity and allow some creativity to come about.

The agency should write the brief.  I’m not sure why this is so contentious–but it seems that half of brand people still want to write the brief.  Let it go!  You can still write an advertising strategy, but let the Agency Translate it into a brief, in their words and their format.   You can still debate every word for hours or even days to ensure that it aligns to your strategy.   But having them write it, allows the agency to own it and believe in it.  It also allows the account team to communicate with their creative teams–which is the main role of that brief.  Using the agency format makes it simpler for the creative teams.  This is the first step in giving the agency some freedom, while still maintaining control over the strategy.

The smaller the brief, the bigger the idea.  A good brief should be brief.  One page maximum.  I’m still in shock when I see briefs reaching 5 or 6 pages.  That’s not a brief, that’s a long!  Take the pen and start stroking out words, forcing yourself to start making decisions.  Avoid the “just in case” type of thinking.

The Brand Plan and Advertising Strategy

In the smallest of words, the brand plan should be focused

  • We have some long-term thoughts on where the brand can go (vision) and the special assignment to get us on our way.  (mission)  And help shape the things we want to achieve with our brand (objectives) To get started, the brand has different options (strategies) for how to get there (tactics)
  • We try to find a slice of the population (target) to get them to take an action (expected result) that makes our brand bigger.   We then find out what to say and how to talk to them to trigger that action (main message) We need to re-enforce why we can do it and others can’t (support)
  • We then create the most motivating stimulus (product, ad, promotion) to get them to take action and put it in part of their life where they are most likely to hear it and act on it (the medium

Within a good brand plan,you should have an advertising strategy that should answer the following six key questions.

  1. Who Do We want to sell to?  (target)
  2. What are we selling?  (benefit)
  3. Why should they believe us?  (RTB)
  4. What Do We want the Advertising to do?  (Strategy)
  5. What do Want people to do?  (Response)
  6. What do we want people to feel?   (Brand Equity)

For those looking for a basic creative brief format, the best I like includes something that outlines a) the long-term consistent brand essence and strategy b) consumer knowledge including target definition and insights and c) the core of the brief, outlining the problem to solve, focusing on stimulus and response.


Most Brand Managers struggle with the target.   I once sat in a room where a brand manager had a target of 18 to 65, current customers, potential customers and employees.  Basically, everyone but prisoners and tourists.   While it’s tempting to sell to everyone, you should focus your resources on those most likely to buy, pays off.  Focus on those who may love you, not everyone who just might tolerate you.  Spreading your limited resources across an entire population is cost prohibitive.  While targeting everyone with a “just in case” attitude might make you feel safe at first, it’s actually less safe because you never get to see the full impact.  You should use consumer insights to bring the target to life.  The dictionary definition of the word Insight is “seeing below the surface”.   Too many people think data, trends and facts are insights.  However, these facts are merely on the surface—so they miss out on the depth. Insights can be sorted into three types: life Insights, brand insights and category insights.   You are really looking for these “aha” moments that brings the focus onto the consumer.

Brand Managers also struggle with the main message.   Sell the Solution, Not Just Your Product.  Keep in mind that “people don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole!”   Agencies use so many tricks to get it down to the ONE THING.  And whatever works for them or you, the better.  If it’s a

postcard, a bumper sticker, “what would you say to get someone to marry you”….find your own way to think about one thing.  One of my favourites is the “SHOUT FROM THE MOUNTAIN”.  It forces you to want to scream just ONE THING about your brand—keep it simple.  Yelling just one word is so much easier than a 13 word sentence or even worse, a long list of 6 bullet points.  Another good exercise, once you are close on the brief is to challenge yourself to go through the brief one more time, and see if you can take out 5-15 words.  You’ll be surprised how much better it gets.  And lastly, I always have fun throwing three objects at people, starting one at a time and then all 3 at once.  It’s so much easier to catch one than all three.

To read about how to write a mini version of a brief follow this link.  How to Write a MINI BRIEF

The Smaller The Brief the Bigger the Ideas

To read more on Creative Briefs, follow this presentation

email-Logo copyABOUT BELOVED BRANDS INC.:  At Beloved Brands, we are only focused on making brands better and making brand leaders better.Our motivation is that we love knowing we were part of helping someone to unleash their full potential.  We promise to challenge you to Think Different.  We believe the thinking that got you here, will not get you where you want to go.  grOur President and Chief Marketing Officer, Graham Robertson is a brand leader at heart, who loves everything about brands.  He comes with 20 years of experience at companies such as Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer Consumer, General Mills and Coke, where he was always able to find and drive growth.  Graham has won numerous new product and advertising awards. Graham brings his experience to your table, strong on leadership and facilitation at very high levels and training of Brand Leaders around the world.  To reach out directly, email me at or follow on Twitter @grayrobertson1


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120 thoughts on “How to write an Effective Creative Brief

  1. I’d like to complement your post about briefs by not restricting the commentary to advertising. We are a branding and design agency that expresses the majority of our work as consumer packaging and the merits of a well-written brief are every bit as important for this aspect of brand expression. In fact, I contend that it is more important in that every CPG brand has a package by definition while an increasing amount of brands are challenged by trade spending and cannot afford the luxury of advertising so must rely on shelf presence and retailers’ flyers to create awareness and stimulate consumer purchase (and repurchase).
    When we introduced our quality program within our agency almost a decade ago, the first thing that our designers asked for was better written briefs. The better written the brief is, the better the yield will be from the designers’ work.

    PS: Love your posts – keep up the great writing

  2. When I read, “even though we don’t know the strategy, we do think we know what we want the creative to look like”, I had the strange feeling you have been in too many of my meetings! Well done. This should be required reading for clients.

  3. Nice one Graham. Delightful articulation of all the headaches that plagued my years in advertising. A brief seldom is. When it isn’t, it just communicates a lack of discipline and focus. Those factors directly impact creative team morale, rounds of revision and, ultimately, agency fee. There is a financial impact for every poor brief. I wrote a similar piece on my blog too:

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  5. This posting can be applied to ANY communication project — From Ads to Press Releases to Websites to Social Media. Any and all of these channels should be using creative briefs at the outset of every project. But, to your point, it seems like the process is so daunting many decide to wade in without it and pay the price in budget losses, time lost, brands diluted and [sadly] sometimes with their jobs.

    CLEARLY this post was based on your real world experience. Thanks for tackling this phenomenon so rationally and eloquently. (I especially like the quarter-inch drill vs. quarter inch hole analogy — perfect).

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  47. I strongly agree that the marketing team should control the strategy. The evaluation of the creative against that strategy should determine whether the creative is right or not. Does it answer the brief?
    If so, great. If not, it is necessary to go back to the drawing board. It is very disheartening when a creative submission is received with a comment along the lines of “I don’t really like it, but I’m not sure why.”
    Far better to analyse it objectively and decide if it is right. That is not to say that the ad agency cannot contribute to the strategy, but their input should be incorporated into the brief.
    In other words, adjust the creative to meet the strategy, but don’t amend the strategy to suit creative that people have fallen in love with.

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  50. “Brand Managers allow too much FREEDOM on the strategy but want to exhibit CONTROL on the creative”. Well said. Most briefs I’ve seen seem lazy. In those cases, it’s almost as if the marketer sees the document as an administrative step required to get the agency to start working on stuff (“I’m not sure what I want, but I’ll know when I see it”). The consumer insight often isn’t one or, even worse, is described in terms of the product you’re trying to sell as opposed to the feelings and motivations you are trying to address.

  51. Good post. Nice job summarizing what needs to be in a brief. I agree, too many briefs are too long. A good creative team will get their head around a single idea and create solid options that fit the strategy. I believe there are at least three reasons why many ad messages are so weak: 1) brands are trying to reach everybody; and nobody pays attention 2) brands have not dug deep enough to uncover their true relevant difference 3) brands are too product focused; they should shift to the consumer.

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  102. Great article wish I’d seen it a tad earlier in my 40 years of working with agency clients. There’s one thing I disagree with, however. The client should write the brief, not the agency.
    Why? The client knows more about his products/services, customers & prospects, marketing plan…than the agency ever will. Consequently the agency brief must be sub-optimal. That helps no-one and discussing an agency version wastes time.
    OK I have only had one client – and I’ve had ones with $220m to spend to less than $20,000 – who has done so and I’ve written them. That doesn’t detract from my argument that agency initiated briefs don’t expose the creative team to the full challenge.
    In my experience, account planners can provide valuable insights to inform the agency’s distillation of the client brief to drive better creative – and media – proposals. A sub-optimal brief will generate sub-optimal outcomes.
    Of course we have to assume that the client can write a creative brief, many can’t and your presentation would be an ideal primer.

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  107. Appreciating the persistence you put into your blog and detailed information
    you provide. It’s nice to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same
    out of date rehashed information. Great read! I’ve bookmarked your site and I’m including your RSS feeds to my Google account.

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  109. “Brand Managers allow too much FREEDOM on the strategy but want to exhibit CONTROL on the creative”. Well said indeed. While weeks and weeks of research might go into a creative brief there’s something magical that happens when it’s forced to fit onto a single page. All the details and complicated data suddenly clarify into a single, single-minded vision of what the creative team is meant to achieve.

    More on the importance of a creative brief i did on this article.

    Keep rocking!

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