Who writes the best creative briefs?

My answer: Account planners at ad agencies. When I teach brief writing, I follow their model. Some client-side marketers are skeptical of this approach. This is what I tell them.

Account planning and the creative brief are products of the ad agency world. Some 50 years ago, Stanley Pollitt and Stephen King, working at separate London agencies, created this discipline and the document we know as the creative brief.

The discipline and this document speak for consumers so that everyone in general, and creatives in particular, can hear the voice of someone who uses, or might use, the product the agency is charged with selling.

But the process doesn’t start with the agency, of course. It begins with the client. The client is responsible for teaching the agency about its brand so that the agency can create compelling ideas that translate into selling messages, i.e. tv spots, mobile ads, outdoor, websites, on and on. 

In other words, there is a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” proposition. The egg comes first, which is the client, and the client provides its own brief to the ad agency (the chicken). Whatever you call it (client brief, mar-com brief), this short document gets the conversation going.

The agency receives this brief and responds with its own, the one we know as the creative brief.

Here’s where things get sticky. Because I argue that even though it makes sense to call the brief from the client one thing and the brief from the agency another thing, the essence of the document is identical.

Repeat that: IT IS IDENTICAL.

The purpose of the document is universal: to bring clarity about why the product matters to the people who it is meant to serve. It must be relevant to their lives and solve some problem for them, real or imagined.

When I share exceptionally written creative briefs with the attendees of my workshops, the vast majority of whom are client-side marketers, what surprises and delights them are these qualities:


Inspirational power

Narrative quality

Complete lack of jargon and business-speak

The pushback comes when marketers ask me why the document they provide to their creative partners needs to be as well-written as the examples I show them. 

“Why should I write a brief this good when I can get it from my ad agency?” they ask.

Happily, I don’t get this question often. But I do get it.

Client-side marketers are the guardians of the universe, so to speak. The universe of their brand. They are the experts, the zealots, the all-knowing gurus. As gurus, however, they are supposed to be smart enough to know where their powers of brand knowledge begin … and where they end. Brand knowledge doesn’t translate automatically to brand creativity. That’s why we have creative gurus.

But that argument doesn’t hold water when it comes to explaining the whys of a brand, as well as the whos, whats, wheres, and the other details that make a creative brief, well, creative. Inspiring. Insightful.

If you want the best work possible from you creative partners, learn to speak their language. That language is on display in a well-written creative brief. Produce a creative brief even half as well done as the best creative briefs that agencies write, and I promise you’ll inspire your creative partners to respond in kind.

In fact, you’ll surprise them. They aren’t expecting anything of the kind. You’ll also raise the bar of what they deliver in response. You’ll be farther along the creative development process if you begin with a clearer, inspiring brief.

Is that more work for the client-side marketer? You bet. A brief is hard because so much is at stake, so much is riding on it. 

But when I hear from marketers that they’re not happy with their agencies, I have to ask: Whose fault is that?

Write an inspiring creative brief to set up high expectations. Then manage those expectations.

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