25 Feb 2014

The What & How of the Creative Brief

Article Summary:

In my nine years of working in Advertising / Marketing industry, I have seen, written, signed off on, and rejected many a creative brief; and that's just it, they are all very different in quality. The quality of the creative brief will have a profound affect on the end result; that is the creative and advertising itself. 

As per the old children's song of the 'Wise man built his house upon the rocks' versus the 'Foolish man who built his house upon the sand' - your 'house' (creative) will only really be as effective as its foundations (the creative brief) will allow. If the creatives don't clearly understand the point of the required advertising, its objectives, the audience and the strategy, then you are fighting a losing battle from the onset, and the advertising will demonstrate that. It probably isn't the creative's fault, it is result of the (bad) process.

The content within this post has been largely influenced by one of the first books I ever read regarding Advertising; Jon Steel's Truth, Lies, & Advertising. Although technology and the industry have evolved since he wrote this brilliant book, I believe his core thoughts regarding many elements of advertising, such as the Creative Brief, still ring very true. 

As a Digital Strategist and someone who believes Digital is often and unfortunately added to the conversation too late in the creative process, it goes without saying that I believe 'Digital' should be a paramount consideration throughout the entire creative process. 

One last thing - this post is not a guide to the perfect 'one hat fits all' creative brief, because that simply is not possible. It should be used a reference guide to understand the key core elements that I believe should be presented, challenged, and answered within a creative brief. 

The role of the Creative Brief:

  • Creative briefs introduce the creative team to a client and opportunity. 
  • It is a kind of mind map that leads creative thinking from problems to solutions. 
  • It is a framework to inspire a creative team, a document that holds all of the key/relevant information about the problem/opportunity, and can be used as a set of metrics by which to judge and evaluate the appropriateness of a solution. 

Key Factors: 

  • Remove the jargon and keep the advertising lingo to a minimum. Words like Strategy, Proposition, Positioning are often defined and understood in different ways by different people. By removing these terms, you are keeping the brief as simple and comprehendible as possible, whilst not wasting time discussing/debating semantics. 
  • The creative brief is not just the work of a planner - It should be a living/working document and team collaboration from the onset; including getting initial feedback from Creatives during the brief development process. 
  • Keep it simple. 

Core Questions for the Creative Brief: 

Below are the key core questions that need to be answered. A creative brief can be a flexible working document where other questions need to be asked and added. That said, it is critical that the brief is kept as lean as possible, it is very easy to keep adding information into the creative brief, which will then dilute its relevancy/message, make it confusing to understand, and cull inspiration. Keep it simple.

  1. Why are we advertising at all? 
  2. What is the advertising trying to achieve? 
  3. Who are we talking to? (Also who are we not talking to) 
  4. What do we know about them? 
  5. What’s the main idea we need to communicate? 
  6. What is the best way of planting that idea (The How/Strategy)?
  7. How do we know we’re right? 

1. Why are we advertising at all? 

It’s tempting to answer this question with something flippant (and possibly slightly true) like ‘we have an empty page in a magazine to fill, we have some remaining marketing budget we need to spend’, but that isn’t going to excite or inspire anybody, and even less likely to lead to an interesting ad campaign.

This question begs a succinct description of the clients current business situation, and the problems that advertising needs to overcome, along with a clear sense that advertising can help.


  • Brand x have just launched a new SUV car model, yet despite the increase in other competitor cars in its category, sales are underwelming. 
  • Delve into the Why? What does the process of researching / buying a new car involve? 
  • What are the consumers considerations (if any) of brand x versus the competition?
  • Research shows that there is a little awareness of Brand X, therefore even less consumer prospect consideration of their SUV offering. 
Reason for advertising in this example - “To let people know that brand x actually exists, and that their SUV is the ‘same’ as other cars in its category, so therefore should be considered”

2. What is the advertising trying to achieve? 

Put a different way - what are the objectives?

Unless we are talking about Direct Response, the advertising itself can’t sell a product (that isn’t actually there) - what it can do is interest someone enough to want to find out more about it, and thus change their considerations of said product.

It also cannot makeup for inherent product deficiencies.

  • What are the desired effects in order of priority? (Be clear, realistic and concise)
Examples: (Below are different objectives re a product)

  • Persuade potential buyers to visit a shop / online store
  • To inspire non owners of product x to consider buying
  • Increase frequency of usage of a particular product
  • Generate trial of a particular product 

3. Who are we talking to? (Also who are we not talking to?) 

This element provides focus, it will rarely if at all provide inspiration. The ad campaign may have several divined groups to target, all of which may be quite different from one another. This is completely acceptable, and each group should be listed, however the target audience should NEVER be everyone.

It is actually ludicrous to say everyone, no matter how much you (or rather the client) may want to appeal to everyone. When there are more than one target group, it is necessary to find a common denominator that either explicitly unites the two audiences under one thought, or is at least capable of interpretation by each group, in its own way, that leaves each feeling it has got what it is looking for.

  • Demographic / Psychographic / Geographic / Behavioural etc 
  • List of who to exclude 

4. What do we know about them? 

The answer here should provide the creative team with an intimate understanding of what makes these people (the target) tick.

The answer to this question evolves the previous answer (who are we talking to?) from a relatively abstract group, to the tangible level of an individual. The creatives need to relate to the individual as they create the advertising, and key to achieving this is for the answer to provide a real understanding of the targets’s lives and minds.

The portrait of these people, the individual, will be:

  • Qualitative
  • Descriptive
  • Emotional
  • Creative 

On hearing the answer to this question the creatives will understand:

  • How the individual relates to the particular category or product?
  • Whether they care about it?
  • How it fits into other parts of their lives?
  • How they feel about it?
  • Whether it is easy or difficult for them to talk about it?

5. What’s the main idea we need to communicate? 

Often known as the Proposition, the emphasis of this section should be firmly on the message that should be communicated to people, rather than on what the advertising should directly say.

I.E What people take away from the ads, NOT the what advertiser puts in.

This can be known as the Single Minded Proposition (SMP), or Unique Selling Point (USP).

The main idea is:

  • A single idea that is expressed in a single sentence
  • There are times where a proposition is used as the creative tag/headline, that said it is not the primary function of its existence. It is the one thing that is most likely to make people reconsider their views on an existing product, or form new opinions about a new product, and take some action as a result, and is created to set the Creatives on the right course. 
As a bit of background information, Rosser Reeves several decades ago in 1961 stated in his book ‘Reality in Advertising’ the following about a USP. These three points are still relevant and worth considering now when developing a USP.

  1. Each advertisement must make a proposition to the consumer. Not just words, not just product puffery, not just show-window advertising. Each advertisement must say to each reader: "Buy this product, and you will get this specific benefit." 
  2. The proposition must be one that the competition either cannot, or does not, offer. It must be unique-either a uniqueness of the brand or a claim not otherwise made in that particular field of advertising. 
  3. The proposition must be so strong that it can move the mass millions, i.e., pull over new customers to your product. 
Examples of a Proposition:

  • Cuervo Tequila: A party waiting to happen
  • Isuzu Trooper: Swiss Army Knife of SUV’s
  • Isuzu Rodeo: The normal restrictions don’t apply with an Isuzu Rodeo.
  • Avis: We're Number Two, So We Try Harder. 
  • M&Ms: The Milk Chocolate Melts In Your Mouth, Not In Your Hand. 
  • Nike: Just Do It 
  • DeBeers: A Diamond Is Forever 
  • FedEx: When It Absolutely, Positively Has To Be There Overnight. 
  • Domino's: You Get Your Fresh, Hot Pizza Delivered To Your Door In 30 Minutes Or Less - Or It's Free.

6. What is the best way of planting that idea (The How/Strategy) 

Key to this section is to provide some suggestions that may trigger an idea. It is not the idea, and it should definitely not be written in an instructional way. I.E Use language such as perhaps, maybe, think about’ etc.

Below are a few examples for a product led brief with the product being Polaroid. 
  • Maybe highlight innovative or unusual ways that people are using Polaroids. 
  • Perhaps focus on the effects of a Polaroid Picture - the chain of events that it sets in motion.
  • Think about how Polaroid is a tool for communication - how pictures can be a language in and of themselves. 

7. How do we know we’re right? 

This is the evidence bit. Any evidence used should support the view of the brief. If additional information does not support what is already written within the brief, then resist the temptation to include it. You don’t need it, and it will just add unnecessary clutter to the creatives mind. Writing the Creative Brief.


People are different, companies are different, don't get caught up in semantics and rigid processes. The above is a holistic summary example of the core elements that I believe should be in every creative brief. It is not, and should not be read as the definitive guide to a creative brief but rather (and hopefully) a helpful tool that helps you keep the brief as consumer insight focused as possible, which will result in inspiring relevant creative that yields results.

About the author
Si Muddell is a Digital Strategist who has worked extensively both agency and client side. Si is fascinated about marketing, psychology & what motivates people, and loves guitar, surfing and travelling.

Get connected with Si on TwitterLinkedIn &

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