What comes before the creative brief?

In the ideal world, no creative brief would be written without one very important piece of information.
The strategy.

In fact, most creative-brief templates include a box that asks, in varying ways, “What is the strategy?”

But let’s be real. I’ve seen my share of creative briefs without this key piece of information.

Let me go on record here and now and say,

This is just not acceptable.

While you can write a brief without knowing the strategy behind your communication efforts, you shouldn’t do it.

I’m also going to say that anyone who claims, as I’ve heard many times over my career, that one person’s strategy is another’s tactic, ought to find a new line of work. Because that, too, is not only unacceptable thinking, it’s simply moronic.

Allow me to make it simple for those of you who subscribe to this faulty logic.

Let’s say I’m the CMO of Coca Cola. I’m not satisfied with the Coke’s ranking among colas worldwide. I want to return Coke to its former status as the #1 cola on the planet (I know nothing about Coke’s relative ranking among colas or its market share; I’m just making this up to prove a point. Humor me.)

So I communicate my new marketing objective to Coke’s advertising agencies: We need to make Coke #1 on the planet.

Come up with a marketing big idea to accomplish this goal: a strategy.

Time passes.

My lead agency delivers the following as its proposed strategy to achieve my objective:

Launch a new website and a huge new television campaign, supported by print, online & viral campaigns, plus a PR effort and word of mouth. This will put Coke back on top.

Ta-da! A grand strategy. Right?

Okay, be honest. How many of you agreed, even applauded?

Please administer ten lashes to your backside.

That was not a strategy.

Those, my friends, are tactics. I’m not sure they were good or even appropriate tactics, but they are indeed tactics.

Put another way, they are empty vehicles for delivering a yet-to-be-articulated message that one hopes will do their job of…what?

Changing minds, persuading people to do or feel something they didn’t want to do or feel before, or just engaging them in a conversation about something new.

Strategy means a plan: How you’re going to achieve your objective.

A tactic, like building a new website or producing a direct-mail or television campaign, is the method by which you deliver the message that will achieve your objective.

You need a plan, a BIG IDEA, to fill up your tactical delivery devices with CONTENT that will persuade the people whom you hope will buy your product to do what you want them to do. Or in today’s new world, to engage them in a two-way conversation with you about your product.

Here’s what constitutes a strategy to put Coke back on top as the #1 cola on the planet.


Engage as many people as possible on every continent, in every country, in as many cities — large and small — in the most comprehensive taste test ever conducted in the history of taste tests.

Now that’s a strategy. That’s a plan.

Is it original?

Who cares? If it achieves my objective to make Coke #1 again, I don’t give a hoot! But it might be original in the sense that this strategy seems to be incredibly ambitious. I don’t know if any company has attempted to do a planet-wide taste test before.

Is it a good strategy?

Yeah, sure it is. It’s a no-brainer. It satisfies the direct-response geek in me that wants something measurable and also gives me testimonial fodder. One of the best methods of selling anything is to get regular Joes and Janes to tell you how much they love something.

Is this strategy going to deliver break-through creative?

I doubt it. But maybe. Depends on how inspired the creative brief is.

The point is, this is a plan. A real, honest-to-goodness plan. You may not like it. You may roll your eyes and say it’s been done a thousand times.

But you can’t argue with this: you can develop a host of tactics to put the plan into effect. And you can write very clear creative briefs from this strategy.

Here’s just one tactic:

Create a new website that challenges Coke lovers to conduct their own taste tests. Ask them to video tape these tests and post them YouTube-style on this website. The more unusual, creative and interesting, the better.

Reward the quirkiest taste-test creator with a year’s supply of free Coke.

Okay, you get the idea.

Strategy is the marketing big idea.

Once you have a strategy, you can write a communications plan, which is essentially a list of tactics you’ll use to put your strategy into effect.

And then you can write creative briefs to put content — the creative big idea — into the tactical delivery devices (web, TV, DM, print, PR, word of mouth) you want to employ to get your message out or start your conversation with consumers.

If you don’t know the strategy to sell your product or service, it’s pretty hard to write a creative brief.

And I guarantee this: even if you tried to write such a brief, it will never be inspired.

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