Creating Marketing

Want to Master Your Next Creative Brief? 10 Key Sections to Cover

mastering creative briefs 10 keys

Ah yes, the well-written creative brief. It’s a dying art form on par with handwritten notes and voicemail. Given shrinking bandwidth, tighter deadlines and the need to parse through research, analytics and strategy documents, the creative brief is often the first thing to suffer. A casualty of the overly committed who perceive the process of creating them anything but, well… brief.

When creative briefs do suffer or, worse, disappear altogether, it can wreak all sorts of havoc by inspiring unfocused work, unworkable ideas and leaps made on faulty assumptions. And when that happens, nobody wins. Resources get misspent and mediocre work misses the mark due to a flagrant lack of insight or direction. The blame game starts and discontent ensues.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are a slew of simple guidelines that each author can follow. Given creative, marketing or campaign briefs exist in all areas of business — advertising, media, PR, design, architecture — understanding the art of how to produce a good one is important. One that targets teams tasked with pitching or creating great content in response to an RFP (request for proposal) — or client request — is a much-needed (and sincerely welcomed) cog in the ever-churning marketing wheel.

I’ve interpreted hundreds in my days as a copywriter, creative director and managing editor. I’ve seen briefs so comprehensive and well-researched that inspired ideas poured out immediately after reading them. I’ve also seen ones with fields left blank and populated with more cryptic sentiment than a ‘Da Vinci Code’ painting, leaving a lot of head-scratching and follow-up questions for the client. In efforts to prevent the latter scenario from ensuing, I’d like to share some basic guidelines from my experience for:

  1. Clients tasked with creating in-depth campaign or project briefs for dissemination to content creators/freelancers.
  2. Content creators/freelancers charged with writing or dissecting said creative briefs from clients.

In my day, I’ve seen enough range and variety to wonder: What elements do the best briefs possess that can make everyone in the marketing food chain’s life easier? If you follow the template/checklist below, you might just be celebrated as someone who didn’t just kick-start a project with proper forethought and an impressive amount of due diligence, but someone who showed enough respect for the process and other people’s time that you inspired the team to create great work. And isn’t that everything?

Quick rundown of the 10 sections in a creative brief:

  1. Objective — Premise for what the campaign needs to achieve
  2. What — Information about your product or service
  3. Why — Why your product or service is important
  4. Who — The audience you are targeting
  5. Key Takeaways — Key points you want the audience to remember
  6. Metrics — The metric goals that determine success
  7. Tone of Voice — The way you communicate your message
  8. Thought Starters — Ideas to kick off brainstorming
  9. Budget — The scope of investment, whether time or money
  10. Timeline — The calendar of deliverables and action items
Want to avoid writing a #creativebrief with more cryptic sentiment than a 'Da Vinci Code' painting? Then take heed — here are the 10 sections you'll want people to read. #contentmarketing | #freelancing Click To Tweet

Here are 10 key sections to whip out your next creative brief into shape:

Setting the objective for a creative brief

Section 1: Objective

The best way to set the right tone for a creative brief is to lay out the campaign goals in a clear, concise Objective section at the top. Doing this may seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many marketers put ambiguous filler here that creates more questions than answers. So, what is the objective? The simple premise for what this campaign needs to achieve in terms of overall success, awareness and impact. Essentially, the most relevant thing you hope will be accomplished with this work.

Descriptors that work like mandates such as: “Develop an integrated, multi-platform campaign and unforgettable content experience” and “Create a ‘must-see’ level of anticipation across all consumer touch points” are variations inspired by snippets I’ve seen in creative briefs before. These objective morsels give the reader an immediate grasp of what’s expected, a snapshot at the deliverables, and a peek at the high-bar desired for the first round of ideas and ultimately, the final work.

As the author of a creative brief, your objective should be to take the objective seriously. That way, you’ll engage the newly enlightened reader and keep them reading down the page to the next section…

Section 2: What

Here’s where the brief should give the right amount of background about the product for the team to create around — be it a toy, a deodorant or a new season of a TV show. The context, insight and background into what it took to bring such a radically innovative thing to fruition.

Here’s where the marketer should hold nothing back to instruct, inform and enthrall when it comes to letting agnostics know about their spectacular product or service. But, beware: Don’t go into so much detail that the most important details get lost. One time, as a copywriter, I was tasked with coming up with headlines for a Steven Seagal reality TV show on A&E. I’ll always remember this line from the creative brief from the marketing agency because I found it highly revealing about the main subject:

“He is cool and collected, yet an amazingly fast, defensive fighter. He waits for your first move then beats the crap out of you with your own limbs.”

Think what you will about Steven Seagal, but that is an awesome sentence. The more thought and color you put into describing what your product is…  the harder its desired audience will work for you. Here’s the ad that came out of that assignment.

Understanding the "why" behind your creative brief

Section 3: Why

In my opinion, Why is probably the most important part of the brief template next to objective. It’s the part that isolates why this thing you’re being asked to market was created, why people should care, and why it should be separated from the rest.

For example, is your product an answer to all the things currently wrong with the world? Is it a solution to a human problem? Does it give people something they never knew they needed? Does it tell story people need to hear? Why is it… different?

Here’s an excerpt from a creative brief I once saw for Avión Tequila. I remember it clearly because I appreciated their angle when it came to expressing why they were different from other tequila makers:

Meticulously Inefficient: The process of creating Avión is one of painstaking passion and dedication to tradition – which elevates Avión to an art. It is inefficient in every aspect of the process: Agave from only the highest elevation is used, the Agave is allowed 7-10 years for maturation before harvesting, it is hand-made and hand-processed rather than mass produced or outsourced, and it is slow roasted for 3 days allowing for ultra slow filtration and aging. An almost forgotten path of craftmanship and love – that’s the meticulous part. Where the art form of tequila takes all precedence over time and money. When you are elevating Tequila to an art, efficiency becomes meaningless.

I’ll never forget the phrase “meticulously inefficient.” That line was most likely part of a marketing message they had concocted, but including it in the brief spoke volumes about Avión’s tone, philosophy and how they see themselves.

All of which informed how we pitched our ideas in response to the RFP. All an answer to the simple question… why.

Section 4: Who

Remember a second ago, when I said Why is the most important part of a brief? Well, I’m changing that to Who. Is there any more valuable section than knowing exactly who you’re targeting with your work – and sharing any insights around what you know about them?

In this area, I’ve seen the gamut of explanations, ranging from short and sweet (i.e., “People who are health/fitness conscious, runners, athletes”) to in-depth and thoroughly researched segmentation studies that breakdown the psychographics of who you’re trying to appeal to. Either could work depending on the context of everything else in the brief. Just make sure you give a snapshot of not just who your desired audience is, but the aspirational targets as well. Markets both current… and untapped.

Sometimes you’ll even see a first-person description from the desired audience that gives you a quick peek into how they think. Here’s one such Who section from a brief I was once handed from high-end luxury audio manufacturer I was copywriting for:

I want to hear music as the artist intended and I search for equipment that offers the absolute best listening and quality construction. I don’t buy that often so I want something that will last and provide me with a warm, intimate listening experience with my music; whether it’s on vinyl, SACD or wide-bandwidth, online listening.

What is the "Key Takeaways" section of a creative brief?

Section 5: Key Takeaways

In a world fueled by distraction, the occasional synopsis summing things up in the form of a few brief bullets is never a bad thing. In that realm, a nice and tidy Key Takeaways section serves a dual purpose by doing the following:

  1. It sums up in a few short words what you want the audience to ultimately take away.
  2. It delivers a short/sweet buffer against people who don’t like reading — the scanners of the world — who are too busy to digest your entire brief.

Essentially, here’s your chance to convey the central idea you want your audience to ultimately take away from your impressive, well-thought out, insanely well-executed content campaign.

For example, if you were marketing a fictitious board game for the holidays called “WTF! The Board Game” where people get to play embarrassing practical jokes on each other, your desired takeaways for the audience might sound something like this:

  • “WTF!” is a dark, fun, must-have stocking stuffer that will make me and my family LOL for years to come.
  • This stunt-y aspect sounds a lot different from all other board games before it.
  • “WTF! The Board Game” is going to create amazing social media moments that will help me win the Internet.

Section 6: Metrics

It always helps to know at the launch of a brief how the success of a campaign will ultimately be judged by the client putting it out. So, when you’re filling out this section, ask yourself:

  • What are reasonable guardrails to expect given the work and media budget allotted for this campaign? 
  • How many impressions do you hope to gain? 
  • Likes, shares and comments? 
  • What amount of earned media will make this your best case study yet? 

This doesn’t just create transparency, but it gives the content creators the gift of focus at the beginning of an ideation to steer their explorations and creative development in a refreshing and healthy way.

Section 7: Tone of Voice

If you were writing a radio ad for a funeral home, would you invoke a comedic tone about how people are literally dying to get in? I mean… probably not. (Although, it could be the way to go if you want people to notice you… for the wrong reasons!) Similarly, a creative brief is a great place to give a general sense of how a client perceives their product in terms of voice, tone and style. 

In that realm, come up with simple adjectives that indicate how creative teams should be communicating your message and the overall emotions you’re looking to evoke with the creative work, campaign or video executions.

For instance, using the previous example of “WTF! The Board Game”, your tone-of-voice description might look like this:

Bold, youthful, humorous, entertaining, witty, millennial-minded, etc.

All descriptive words that will jump off your brief and check a box along the way.

Include a "Though Starters" section in your creative brief to help guide brainstorming

Section 8: Thought Starters

As a writer and creative individual, I have a special place in my heart for the marketers who include thought starters to kickoff a brainstorm. Not because we’re expecting them to do the assignment for us (that would seriously nullify our reason for being), but because getting a directional snapshot from them can provide invaluable inspiration once everyone retreats to their corners.

On more than one occasion, client thought starters have served to inspire the final ideas that became part of the bought campaign. When they’re good, they narrow the focus. When they’re not, you can simply ignore them. But having solid thought starters and keeping them in mind as you ideate is never a bad idea. Politically speaking, it can help generate buy-in and ultimately even make the client feel like they have a stake in the final campaign.

Not a bad idea if you want collaborate in the future.

Section 9: Budget

Now that we’ve covered the must-have sections you’ll want to include in your next brief, there’s one more ingredient that can help in the realm of managing expectations: Budget. Small ones can help reign in big P.T. Barnum-like thinking. And big ones will give creatives the ability to think free-range without too many constraints at the start.

Sharing what funds are dedicated to the cause will not only steer the ideation, but will provide necessary guardrails that will keep the inevitable brainstorm from going off the rails. There’s nothing worse than getting a ton of ideas you’ll never be able to execute because budget precludes it. Put a few dollar signs in there — if just to ballpark it — and the teams tasked with interpreting the brief will always be better off.

Include a timeline section in our creative brief to help capture scope

Section 10: Timeline

Finally, don’t forget dates. Not the kind you’re on Tinder for. But the ones that keep all key stakeholders on track and accountable. If you’re tasked with constructing (or deconstructing) a brief, including the dates for deliverables will be crucial to convey:

  1. When initial proposals and the first round of ideas are due
  2. Dates for feedback and revision rounds
  3. The media plan rollout (if applicable)
  4. When the content/campaign will ultimately launch

Number four being key. Because that’s when you get to experience the rollout for all that amazing work completed because you had a super-informative, thoroughly researched creative brief to work off from the very start.

Now, here’s to wishing only the greatest of creative briefs to all!

It's not about *if* you have a creative brief, it's about what you put inside it. These 10 things will help you hit your target. #contentstrategy | #freelancing | #agency Click To Tweet

[Author’s Note for the Provided Template: As mentioned, there are a many kinds of marketing briefs that support work across a wide range of range of industries. This suggested template is for directional purposes only. Feel free to adjust accordingly based on need.] 

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About the author

Gregg Rosenzweig

Over the past two decades, Gregg Rosenzweig has spent his career writing, producing and publishing engaging content for American mass consumption in the digital, TV and branded content spaces. From serving as a Creative Director on commercial spots to pitching/winning/executing branded content campaigns for Fortune 100 companies, Gregg's been fortunate to work for (and with) top advertising and digital media agencies... as well as some of the most highly respected publishers across the media landscape.