The Tuesday Rant: All I Want Is A Decent Creative Brief

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Volume 7 In a Series By Felix

Well, some say I could use a personality transplant, too, but that’s for their benefit. No, I’m a selfish bastard and I look forward to the day when I can sit down, read a creative brief and not want to cause grievous bodily harm to the person, or thing, that wrote it. Because in all honesty, I can’t remember the last time I saw a truly inspiring creative brief. Or a good brief. Or even a mildly OK brief that could use some work.

If you’re a copywriter, designer, art director or, dare I say it, creative director, you should know where I’m coming from. (And if this is all news to you, please leave the name and number of your hiring manager in the comments box.)

Most of us are well aware that creative briefs are neither creative nor brief. I’m astounded, daily, by the incompetence and sheer ignorance that the average (nay, very average) creative brief embodies. The single-minded proposition, or USP, is rarely single-minded or unique and is so bland and generic as to make a hardened criminal on death row weep. This is supposed to be the material that inspires creatives to do great work; the place to start digging for those killer ideas; the Mona Lisa to our Da Vinci. And yet if a typical account manager had to find a muse to inspire Leonardo to paint a masterpiece, he’d have come back with a department store mannequin.

And then there’s the glut of information. If you’ve seen the painfully funny Truth In Advertising, you’ll know exactly what I mean – “So as I was saying… I’ve tried to cram as many ideas as possible into this brief because I’m really TOO WEAK and TOO STUPID to make a decision.” If only it were ideas that the sappy account manager threw out (or up). Usually it’s just a barrage of platitudes and cheap clichés that help no-one but the printer ink companies.

Oh sure, creative briefs have the usual subheads that taunt you with the possibility that the words beneath them may actually help you do your job. Alas, when you start reading, you feel like you’re looking for Waldo… and unfortunately, you won’t find him. The subhead may say “background,” “target demographic” or “objective” but rarely is that information nestled snugly beneath that phrase. Instead, when you look at “target demographic,” you’ll see that you’re talking to men between the ages of 18 and 98, and women of roughly the same age. Oh, and minors.

When you look at “objective” you will often see phrases like “increase sales by 10%” or “increase product/brand awareness in the marketplace.” No shit Sherlock, it’s an advertising campaign! What’s it supposed to do, hide the product from the public eye and decrease sales?

There are other classics, too. Like “budget” which is often TBD. There are the “emotional/rational reasons to believe” which are usually supported with big, bold and confident messages like “one of the larger suppliers of this service in the region” and that is often followed by an asterisk. I kid you not; I’ve seen “none” in that space.

Worse still than all of that is the mis-brief. That’s when you spin your wheels on a job for days and present work that is “bang on brief” only to have the client say “that’s not what I wanted at all, you guys are wayyyyy off.” And as you sit in the office at 11:47pm, reworking the concepts or copy while drinking flat beer and eating cold pizza, you curse the names of the account team and stick pins into large voodoo dolls. When they screw up, everyone gets screwed… period.

I suspect I’m spoiled because once, long ago, I worked at an agency that held creative briefs in the highest regard. They actually allotted more time in the schedule for the brief than was given to doing the creative. But, it worked. The brief was a thing of beauty; concise, well-written, full of pertinent information and lovingly crafted onto a single page. Not four pages. Not six. Just one page.

In a strong, bold face at the very top of the page was the USP; you could tell people had sweated over this sucker to get it spot on. Nights had been spent working on the direction and the strategy. The background work was done, but wasn’t overwhelming. It was simply there to give as much support as was necessary, nothing less and nothing more. The target audience was so clear, I could picture this person in my mind and have a conversation. The objective was definite and achievable. The supporting arguments were solid. From this one page, this advertising treasure map, any half-decent creative team in the land could have picked it up and churned out great work within a few days. That was, and is, the power of a good brief. And man, I miss it.

So, listen up account people (and creative directors, because you guys should never be approving a shitty brief). When you sit down to write the creative brief, ponder every section carefully. Put yourself in the position of the person(s) working on it. Do they have enough information? Have you given too much information? Is the objective clear? Are the reasons to believe confident and compelling? Is there a single-minded proposition? Is the target audience well-defined? Has the media buy and budget been determined? Above all, is this a brief that gives the creatives a good place to start digging? If you’re not sure, ask the creatives… that’s what used to happen in the agency I now refer to as “ah, good times.”

A former creative director and mentor once told the account team – “if the creative brief is dull and uninspiring, why would you expect work that is any different?” Why, indeed.


Hire an VCU Brandcenter strategist. Those guys are already more talented/insightful than most people in the area.

Amen. I’m printing out 50 copies of this rant. I will be stapling each one to the forehead of every account manager I have the misfortune to work with.

This was really fun to read. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Chris, let’s not fight about grammar anymore. Consider it dropped.

The ever-shrinking timeline is used WAY too much as an excuse to skip the brief. “We need the house built quickly, let’s save time by skipping laying its foundation.” Fast forward six months: “Everything is crumbling, don’t you builders know what you’re doing??!!” The builders then begin to fantasize about bashing foreheads with their pipe wrenches. Good times.

As an AE I find this article quite interesting…in college we had the above philosophies beaten into our brains! And having taken the creative track in college I was taught why the more succinct the creative brief the better the creative is, so I truly believe in your above comments. However since having started in the industry, I have been told the exact opposite…that the more information you provide to the creative team, the better equipped they are to produce good creative. And I was told that from creatives!

Hey Mel,
Cool to hear from an AE. The ideal is a singular-minded, insightful brief AND a big pile of background info. (I’m a dick!) A good brief provides your team with a context and frame of reference as they start educating themselves on the marketing problem they have to solve. It gives one an idea of what to look for, what’s important. And down the road, a good brief is the ultimate reality check on the work.
I’m glad Felix brought this up. One too many times I’ve heard “The strategy is to sell more of our client’s product.” or “The objective is to communicate with our audience in a meaningful, relevant way.”

Got it, thanks. You can go home now.

Depends what you mean by information. You need to give the creative team everything they need to work on the project and nothing more. I’ve been overloaded by a glut of information, and spent hours fishing through it for stuff that’s needed for the project. Other times I’ve had barely enough to get started. It’s a balancing act, as I think Felix is implying when he says “Do they have enough information? Have you given too much information?”

and all i want is world peace. unfortunately, i think i have a better shot at my seeing my wish granted than you do.

great article, though. and it’s nice to see someone from account service jumping in to the mix. put me in the camp of wanting a singular proposition with an adequate amount of background info. like i said, world peace is probably easier.

on a related note, does anyone have their clients sign off on the brief before work is started? back home, that was s.o.p. out here, it seems to be the exception rather than the norm.

What’s with the long-copy article? Bor-ing.

We’re suppose to have clients sign off on the creative brief, but rarely have time to actually get it. Usually we only get sign off on big campaigns that have more lead time rather than one off projects. But, that may be contributing to the bigger picture issue discussed above.

meh, who needs briefs?

I would love it if you would have ended this article with the sample of a creative brief from 'the good times' era that you mentioned.

And seriously, do you think the account team is ever going to think on that level and write a brief that makes sense? I am still waiting for that one.

I read those rants and wonder, when have creatives ever really held true to a creative brief anyway? Even the good briefs I've seen in my day have hardly ever lasted long after the "briefing".

The most I know disregard any type of "direction" from a brief and do whatever they want anyway.. and the mediocrity of the bulk of work can't be blamed just on a shitty creative brief.

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