Mastering Creative Briefs: Best Practices for Eliminating Ambiguity

by Sam Petersen
, 8 min read

It usually starts innocently, but then dominoes into a catastrophic nightmare of misinformation and unmet expectations. First, a client makes an ambiguous request with a few vague expectations (sometimes these even come in the form of instant messages, sticky notes left on desks, or awkward hallway conversations). The creative team or account manager does their best to interpret the vague details and then everyone gets to work. After hours of labor, the creative team sends the work back to the client for review and watches as the client suddenly unloads a heap of expectations that were never previously discussed or understood. So, the team makes a second attempt at understanding the client's vision clearly and goes back to the drawing board, scraps the hours of work they've already done, and begins reworking a second version. You're probably familiar with how the rest of the story goes; in some cases it takes more than ten iterations of this scenario before the client can even pretend to be happy.

Here's the thing; ambiguity stems from unclear objectives and poor communication and, in the creative industry, it's lurking everywhere.

The biggest problem is that ambiguity about projects and deliverables quickly wears on budgets and team morale. Every iteration, every revision, takes hours of time and drains the patience of anyone working on the project, and all this could be avoided if client and creative would communicate better. Now the creative process, understandably, has an element or two of natural ambiguity that allows for brainstorming, problem solving and innovative ideas to take place; but ideally, this occurs long before stakes are high and emotions are charged.

Storyboards & Creative Briefs

Walt Disney was an ambiguity hater. In his early cartoon days, Walt thought it was pointless to start production on a film until he and his artists had reviewed the whole story. So, he started the storyboard—a simple but complete view of a story that could be worked and reworked before a camera ever started rolling. Disney later took storyboards into live-action films and even used them in planning rides and shows at theme parks. Now, the whole film industry uses storyboards as a crucial element of the workflow.

A storyboard is to film professionals as a creative brief is to creative teams. Some teams may have their own name for it; I've heard "statement of work," "strategy brief," "creative request form," just "brief," and others. The creative brief's purpose is the same as the storyboard's: to provide a clear view of the project before throwing time and resources at it. Creative teams that use creative briefs religiously will find they rarely face detrimental ambiguity in their work, which translates to happier clients and happier designers, and a happier world in general.

Creative Briefs 101

Although not all creative briefs are created equal, they all share the same basic layout. And since some projects require more detailed planning than others, you'll waste a lot of time and effort if you try to use one detailed creative brief template for all your work. This is where electronic creative briefs in marketing work management tools come in handy; if it's a quality tool, the briefs will be customizable so you can design them to only cover the information necessary for that specific type of project.

Effective creative briefs rely on good questions. If you can ask the right questions then you can make a creative brief that will make your life easier. Essentially, you just have to clarify the who, what, where, when, and how of the deliverable. To give you an idea of what this should look like, here are the main sections every creative brief should include:

1. Project Context

  • Background/Challenge

Anyone that's going to create anything worthy of publishing needs to know some context to the assigned project. They need to know the "why" of the project—what's the need? What's the pain? What's the opportunity or challenge? Your team may not need to know every nitty-gritty historical detail of the project, so don't waste time trying to peg down every little thing; only require what's most important to your team doing great work.

  • Target Audience/Market

How will you know how to target your deliverables unless you know who's going to see, handle, watch, or read what you're creating? Make sure you know the "who" of the project before beginning. And I don't just mean writing, "potential customers." What about these potential customers? How old are they? Where are they from? What's their average salary? What are their self-interests? This type of information could be the difference between a successful campaign and huge waste of time and money.

2. Desired Deliverable(s)

  • Description/Summary

This is the client's chance to tell you the "what" of the project—what they actually want your team to do. This is where the client really unveils the overall vision they have for the project. This can require a little digging, however, because often clients have a picture in their head of what they want. If you can't get them to describe that picture, the work your team does, no matter how fabulous, can end up being disappointing if it differs from that vision. This is the time to ask questions, get clarifications, and manage expectations by communicating what expectations can or cannot be met and why.

  • Key Messages

If this deliverable or campaign could be boiled down to just a handful or less of key messages, what would they be? Some agencies call this the "big idea." What is it that this project most needs to convey to or evoke from the audience?

  • Brand/Campaign Details

This section is especially important for external agencies that may have to learn a whole new brand with every project. This is where the "how" gets answered, where you clarify the tone, color, font, size, logo specs, and any other guidelines related to the project.

3. Expected Accountability

  • Deadlines

This is the "when" of the project. When is the start date? When is the final version due? What are the milestones? When are subtasks due? How many iterations are expected/agreed upon and when are they due? When gathering this information, it's important to determine what actions and dates are required of the client in order to keep the project on track. For example, do they only have two days to provide feedback without pushing back the deadline? These items and dates must be clearly defined from the beginning so the client will understand that any delays on their part will cause overall delays for the project.

  • Stakeholders

This also addresses the "who," but from the working side. Who will work on the project from the creative team? Who are the client's decision-makers? Who should you go to for approval on drafts and in what order?

Click here to download our free creative brief template.

When Should You Use a Creative Brief?

As a best practice, I've found the advice found in Cella's 2014 In-house Creative Services Report to be sound:

"All ‘Tier 1' projects (highly creative, conceptual projects) should include a creative brief. Requiring a creative brief for non-Tier 1 projects may require too much effort on the part of your team and/or your clients. An abbreviated brief for your Tier 2 projects and simply an intake form for your Tier 3 projects are best practices."

[caption id="attachment_18381" align="aligncenter" width="674"]Who uses creative briefs? One-fourth of creative teams currently aren't using creative briefs and only 16 percent use them for all projects.[/caption]

Now, since creative briefs are called "briefs" for a reason, and since not all creative projects look alike, creative briefs don't always come in "one size fits all" packages. I recommend using the three tiers of creative projects outlined in the Cella report as your guide when determining how detailed a creative brief should be:

  • Tier 1: Non-standard, non-iterative, highly conceptual work This work is the most prone to being ambiguous, which means creative briefs are a must—otherwise, team members will either stress out from not knowing where to start, or get started with a high risk of going in a completely wrong direction. Think about a full advertising campaign; you'll want a lot of direction from the client before you set your team loose.

  • Tier 2: Execution of previous work across deliverables Since Tier 2 deals with already defined and completed work, it doesn't need quite the detail that a Tier 1 creative brief calls for—but your team will still run a high risk if they don't use one. This could be a website landing page for an internal client. Chances are, you've already created dozens of these so you already have a general feel for what the expectations are, but it's always good to make sure you have all the information you need before you start.

  • Tier 3: Edits, revisions, templated work Tier 3 requires the briefest brief of all, but even though it's simple you'll want a project description to refer to; plus, if you let the little things through with sticky notes and hallway conversations rather than requiring some form of a creative brief, you'll quickly become like a fast food joint that delivers fast and cheap to anyone that comes to the drive-thru.

Who Should Fill Out the Creative Brief?

There have long been questions of who should fill out the creative brief. Is it the client? Is it the creative director? The account manager? The designer or writer assigned to the project? The answer is, it depends. If you're an agency or an in-house agency the best practice is to have the representative from client services or the assigned account manager meet together with the client to go through the creative brief. It may make sense for your agency to include the creative director in this process as well to make sure everyone has a sound understanding of the project requirements.

If you're an in-house creative services team, you will need to determine what process works best for your team's unique workflow. Perhaps it makes the most sense for the creative director to meet with the internal client to fill out the brief. Maybe your team has traffic managers or production managers that would better fill that role. At the end of the day, the thing you want to avoid is sending a document to the client to fill out on their own. This can lead to a number of problems:

  • Client takes too long to fill it out
  • Client doesn't fill it out at all and gets frustrated
  • Client only fills out some of the information
  • Your team reads the brief and doesn't understand what the client means

To save time and frustration, and whether you're an agency or an in-house team, have an initial meeting with your client to fill out the brief together and get clarification as needed.

An alternative to this is to use a Marketing Work Management system with built-in creative briefs where, upon initial request, the client is required to provide certain information for the team. Even in this scenario, as a best practice it's recommended that you take the time to meet with the client and ensure that everyone is one the same page before production begins.

Escape Ambiguity and Spread Clarity

If your creative briefs include these principles, then pat yourself on the back because you have effectively implemented creative briefs into your workflow. If your team has never even used a brief then download our free creative brief template, or make your own based on the above principles. Remember though, it's called a brief for a reason, so make it brief. Only ask for what your team absolutely needs. Also, be willing to adapt your brief to the tier your project fits under. Now you're all set to escape ambiguity and finally get some clarity.

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