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A Great Brief

The creative brief does three jobs. Describe the product. Outline the problem. And inspire the creative team to say something worth paying attention to.

David Kippen | APRIL 5, 2016

EVER WONDER WHAT A GREAT CREATIVE BRIEF IS? Or what makes one brief great and another one bad? You’re not alone. And it’s a huge topic. The best way to understand a great brief is in the rear-view mirror, by looking at a great ad or great campaign, then looking at the brief. But if the brief’s any good, it’s probably confusing. You’ll find yourself saying, “This is a beautiful ad about a new finance app. But the brief was, ‘what can we learn about baby food by looking at tables?’” Maybe you get it. Maybe you don’t. Sometimes it’s like that, because going from strategy to expression via the brief is the most creative, wooliest part of the creative process. And understanding how the art came from the brief when the art’s great doesn’t necessarily prove the brief was great. It proves that the creative team was great—or that somebody got lucky with one great idea.

So are briefs nonsense? Absolutely not. A great brief is its own form of art.

Every creative brief starts just like this blog post: a blank page. Words are added, to about a page, and it’s done. It’s brief. But between no words and too many is the first key to a great brief. The hardest brief is a blank page. The worst brief is a comprehensive, factually-grounded document full of facts. A great brief, one that gives the creative team what they need to be brilliant and aligned with the goals of the work, is somewhere in the middle.

Beyond that, it’s hard to generalize. Every agency has its own form of briefing document and briefing process. For some, the briefing is an internal document the client never sees. For many, the brief is something the client signs off on and “approves” before the creative team sees it. In settings where the client’s not involved, the briefing document can be incredibly thin—just a few lines. But when the client’s in the mix, there’s usually a section for the client specifying the technical specs. But however different they may look on paper—or in a room—I believe every great brief has a few things in common.

Technical Specs

Technical specs tell the team what they’re building. (“It’s a website…”) and provide limitations and requirements (“…no flash, works within the current CSS…”) as well as information on timing, delivery form, review cycles, and so on. In a perfect world, technical specs wouldn’t be part of the brief at all. Technical specs are to briefs as hammers and nails are to the first sketches that will someday become blueprints. They’re premature; they can focus the team on what we’re building too early, before we’ve decided how we’re thinking.

In our agency, we keep the technical specs in a digital version of a job jacket. The brief sits in the job jacket, too, but aside from very general descriptions, it’s a thing apart.

Creative Challenge

The heart of a brief has two parts, the creative challenge and the creative inspiration. The challenge describes the problem the creative needs to solve. It doesn’t solve it, just says it: “People want to be healthy. But they think of health care as sick care. How do we put ‘health’ and ‘healthcare’ back together?” Sometimes the creative challenge is just a key insight: “people think milk is unhealthy, but some foods just go better with milk.” Brands exist to make people take selective action and the creative challenge is where the change is outlined. “People think this. We want them to think that.”

Get this right, and by itself, a strong creative challenge generally makes for a good brief. A great team will rise to the challenge and do great work. But a great brief seeks to be more than just a challenge. It seeks to inspire.

Creative Inspiration

Advertising is the poetry of commerce. And people hate poetry. So great advertising has to work exceptionally hard to connect. And that begins at the brief. The briefing doesn’t come from the creative side of the house; it usually comes from account or research. It’s their briefing for the creative team on what matters most. So very often, the research team or the client team—the team writing the brief—ends up with a strong emotional sense of what the right thing will feel like. They obviously don’t know what the creative outcome will be, but they know the ideas it needs to pair well with. So the brief often contains creative inspiration, inspiration that helps the creatives get on the same emotional page. “Feels like this. Smells like that. Reminds me of this.” And so on. (At our agency, this has taken the form of poetry, physics, philosophy, pet food and a lot of inspirations that don’t begin with “p,” too, like math, music, water…the list is as long as the client list.

Creative Tension

As a general rule, good decoration is bad advertising. The job of creative is to make people take selective action, but in order to do that, the creative has to get noticed. So in addition to inspiration, great briefs have tension. Tension is the catalyst to action. It’s the “I want to be” behind every, “I am.” Like the scent of grilling meat (or baking bread, if meat’s not your thing), it’s what makes you hungry. The tension between the current state and the future state—the state in which you’ve given in and done what the advertising’s trying to get you to do—must be experienced by the creative team, not just described. I can describe the feeling of being hot, sweaty and thirsty in a sweltering hot conference room on a hot, muggy day. The feeling of looking at a pitcher of iced tea, watching the condensation bead on the glass and run in rivulets down the side to puddle on the table. The frustration, because somebody forgot to bring glasses, the cafeteria’s closed and this isn’t a group that drinks from the pitcher. But if you’re sitting in our Edinburgh office in mid-winter with winds and freezing rain howling outside, wind so strong it’s pushing waterfalls uphill on a dark late afternoon, even though you’ll understand the words, I’m wasting my breath. Because creative tension has to be felt to be useful.

So what makes a great brief? A great creative challenge. Inspiration that helps the brief land right. The right kind of tension. A great creative team. And a whole lot of practice.

Dr. David Kippen serves as Chief Strategist and CEO of Evviva Brands. With a background spanning advertising and communications and a client base spanning the globe and including top brands in every sector, Dr. David Kippen is a world-renowned leader in brand strategy.  David’s past clients include Amazon, Ameriprise Financial, Bain & Company, Blackrock, Burger King, Chevron, Coca-Cola, Dell, Dignity Health, Disney, Energy RecoveryE.ON, HP, HSBC, General Mills, Intel, Kaiser Permanente, Kentz, KLA-Tencor, Lam Research, Marriott InternationalMethanex, Moss Adams, Microsoft, Nokia, Premera Blue Cross, Teva, T-Mobile and Xilinx. 

David earned a PhD in English (rhetoric) from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Prior to founding Evviva Brands he was Head of Global Brand Strategy for TMP Worldwide.

Phone: (415) 320-9777

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