Creative Brief

Marketer filling out a creative brief

What is a creative brief?

A creative brief is a document used to outline the strategy of a creative project. A creative brief contains project details including the project’s purpose, goals, requirements, messaging, demographics, and other key information. Usually developed in the project initiation phase, a creative brief will help a creative team better understand a project from the start, and may be presented to key stakeholders and clients. 

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.

Why you need a creative brief.

You need a plan.

Obviously, you can’t design something you don’t understand. Your project needs a purpose, objectives, expectations, and a clear reason for existing. In a creative brief, you articulate your vision and justify its benefits, as well as plan how you will target your audience. From the beginning, a creative brief puts everyone on the same page before launching a project. 

A well-written creative brief will save you time.

Your creative brief isn’t just a document, it’s a tool that facilitates clear and thorough communication from the beginning of the design process. A clear brief can prevent last-minute project changes, misunderstandings, and conflicting objectives—all of which will cost your team valuable time and money. 

You’ll maintain accountability and communication.

Agreeing on your scope, deliverables, objectives, persona, and execution of a project will help anchor your team and your stakeholders. Establishing parameters and, perhaps most importantly, building trust at the outset will go a long way toward smoother processes. 

Requests and approvals will get processed faster.

Ambiguous goals are difficult to achieve. Consider vague requests like, "I just want a really clean-looking design." While some of this is simply a fact of life for design professionals, a creative brief forces clarity upstream, minimizing difficult confrontations during the review and approval cycle. The briefing process is as much about anticipating obstacles as understanding and aligning objectives. Better to get clarification during the planning phase than when you’re in the middle of proofing.

The final product will be higher quality.

This is a direct result of setting clear objectives, aligning with business objectives, and vetting expectations up front. When everyone’s time is valued and expectations are made clear, it’s easier for the team to hit their mark, remain invested, motivated, and proud of their work.

As David Trott, author of Creative Mischief says, “The brief was always supposed to be a springboard for great work. Not a straitjacket.” So let the design brief act as your guiding instrument and understand that time spent on a well-designed brief is an investment that pays off in the end with a greatly improved process, a higher quality of output, and, ultimately, a more trusting relationship between your team and client.

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What is in a creative brief?

When writing a creative brief, be sure you don’t miss the following three items that get left out of briefs far too often. Believe it or not, these items can make the difference between a struggling content project and highly effective one.

1. Project context and background.

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.

2. Target audience.

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.

3. Deliverable description.

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.

4. Messaging.

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?

5. 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.

6. Core business objective.

Before we get into the work of shaping content, we need to have clarity on its reason for being. Unless it’s meeting a business objective, even the most dazzling projects risks failing at its ultimate goal of creating value. This is something you should discuss thoroughly with your team and stakeholders at the outset, ensuring that creative projects aren’t just window dressing, but high-contributing parts of a larger strategy. Ultimately, when a creative asset is produced with the business objective top of mind, defending aesthetic choices becomes easier.

7. 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?

8. Due date.

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.

You would be surprised how many creative briefs leave out the critical piece, whether because the team is focused entirely on the deliverables or because they’re not asking. Remember that the content you’re creating ties into a campaign with concrete launch dates and your delivery date will become a critical component of its success. You need to know and be able to work with this project constraint, setting it in the creative brief

9. Publication or promotion venue.

Context is crucial in content. Different venues carry unique audience expectations and ways of engagement. You’d never, for example, write a print ad the same way you write a social post. Where your content appears will determine it’s design, tone, style, size and scale, and how it moves users to the next point on the customer journey. Be sure to hone in on where your end user will engage with your final product.

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When should you use a creative brief?

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.

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 creative brief together and get clarification as needed.

An alternative to this is to use a marketing work management software like Workfront 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.

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Creative brief template.

If your creative briefs include these principles, then pat yourself on the back because you have effectively implemented creative briefs into your workflow. Like so much in creative work, the perfect creative brief template is not built in a day. It takes continual feedback and fine-tuning to match your organization's needs. As you start writing more creative briefs, determine what common fields should be included and add them to continuously improve your creative brief template. To get a head start, download our creative brief template.

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 creative brief to the tier your project fits under. Now you're all set to escape ambiguity and finally get some clarity.

How to Optimize Your Process So You Can Be More Creative

Join Jackie Schaffer, VP at Cella, and Brent Bird, Director of Integrated Marketing at Workfront, for an insightful webinar as they review key takeaways from the 2019 In-House Creative Industry Report. You’ll find out how your team measures up and gain actionable insights from over 425 creative leaders on how to:

  • Retain top talent and prevent team burnout
  • Streamline your workflows to reclaim time for creativity
  • Better manage requests and resources to get more done
  • Empower creative ops managers for greater efficiency, accountability, and results