Six questions creatives must ask about a creative brief before the briefing.

Wait, you don’t see the brief until the project kicks off? You look through the document for the first time as you listen to the briefing?

Whoa. That’s a problem.

You’re a creative. You have to make magic from the words on this page (let’s hope it’s only one page, maybe half a second page).

Why is this a problem? Because you have skin in this game, right?

As a former ad copywriter, I know how this works. Only until late in my career did I change the conditions of a kick-off and make certain I saw the brief in advance. I was a creative director by this time, so I had some clout.

Creatives are the primary audience for the creative brief. We are asked to hit home runs every time we’re briefed on a new project. No exceptions.

“Failure is not an option” is not a line spoken only by Ed Harris’s character in the Tom Hanks movie, Apollo 13. Those are words that echo in every creative’s head every day we’re on the job.

If you do not get to see the brief before the kick-off, speak up. You have the right to see it in advance.

So, assuming you do see it, I believe you need to quiz your brief writer (or writers) and have a say. Which means the brief you review in advance might be the penultimate draft before the kick-off.

Ask these questions. Because you need to know the answers.

Explain, or amplify, the problem our customer faces, and how the product will solve her problem.

The brief should have a sentence, maybe two, that spells out why the creative department/in-house agency has been engaged to create a communication or a campaign. Listen to your brief writer as she explains her reasoning behind the words on the brief.

Is this a real problem?

Take note of the verb she chose to describe it. Yes, pay attention to the verb. If the answer is something like, “We need an awareness campaign…” stop and ask for more clarity.

Every ad is about “awareness,” but nobody cares about awareness.

The best definition of a creative brief I’ve ever heard comes from Faris Yakob, a planner and co-founder of Genius/Steals. He said, “A creative brief is a request for change.”

Change. An idea that scares most people.

Is a request for “awareness” a change? No.

Here’s an answer from a brief for Zippo lighters: “To make smokers trash their disposable lighters for a Zippo.”

Two verbs here, “To make smokers trash…”

Nothing passive about this request. Nothing status quo.

The brief is unambiguously asking for change.

Verbs matter. They do. Nouns are. Verbs are the Dwayne Johnson of words. Use them. Creatives want briefs that evoke, that provoke.

What is the emotion you want me, the creative, to appeal to?

If this isn’t stated explicitly, I’ll look around the draft to see if I can deduce the emotion. Most briefs don’t say, “The emotion is love” or “The emotion is fear.”

On the other hand, the emotion shouldn’t be hidden either.

Remember this rule: FACTS TELL, EMOTIONS SELL.

If I know the emotion, I already have an insight into the state of mind of the customer.

But if the brief hides the emotion, or plays games with me, I will call it out.

Where’s the best place on the brief to find the emotion? I start with the proposition. The single-minded proposition.

Here is the prop from a creative brief for the BBC. The agency was tasked with developing a campaign to draw viewers to its coverage of the 2012 London Olympics.

Yeah, I know: plumb assignment. Who’s not going to watch the Olympics?

Here’s the SMP from the brief. Can you figure out the emotion?

“The Olympics is made of heroes.”

I love this proposition. It’s a slap-my-forehead-duh-why-didn’t-I-think-of-that line. That’s how good it is.

I know that the brief was written by a London-based agency for a British broadcaster appealing to citizens of the UK to tune in and watch as their home island plays host to the quadrennial Olympic games.

I’m hinting not-so-subtly at the emotion. Do you see it?


If the emotion is not stated clearly, or easily descernable, I will ask, “What is the emotion?” I want the answer before the briefing.

How did you arrive at the final description of the customer? Did you leave something out? What would the customer say to you if she read this part of the brief?

This is a reality check.

Look, the most important element on every brief is something never asked for, never addressed directly, but required for the document and its readers to function:


I need to trust my planner/brief writer/brief-writer team. And he/she/they to trust me/us. It’s a two-way street. It takes a village.

I don’t begin a conversation about a brief as if I were a father giving my daughter’s date the third degree.

I only want to consider what was left off the brief. Brief writers must make these decisions every time they sit at their keyboard. A brief is an exercise in reduction. Not addition.

But it doesn’t hurt to hear about the missing details. Maybe one tidbit is worth reinstating. Maybe one tidbit is better than what was included. Maybe. Let’s talk about it.

If your insight is not stated directly, I will say out loud what I think the insight is on the brief in my hands. I’ll ask, “Am I drawing the right conclusion?”

The most inspiring briefs I’ve read in the last 30 years never asked the question, “What is the insight?” Not one.

The best brief synthesizes the insight into the answers to many questions because an insight can often be iterated in many ways.

Which is a way to bring insight into an insight.

Here’s an example, from a brief written by The Richards Group for Kiwi shoe polish.

Whom are we talking to?

Men who take pride in their look and feel that their appearance is a direct reflection on themselves.

What do they currently think?

“It’s important to look my best on special occasions, but I can get by on a day-to-day basis without my shoes looking great.”

What would we like them to think?

“I never realized the statement my shoes make about me. If others are going to judge me by my shoes, I need to do something about it.”

What is the single most persuasive idea we can convey?

Though you might not be looking down, others are.

So something to consider: The entire Kiwi brief asks only seven questions. What I showed you here is more than half of the brief.

The total number of words on the brief, not including the questions, is 127. I counted them.

Not only can you figure out the insight, but you also see clearly the emotion the brief writer evoked.

When I use this brief in my workshops, I ask, “Who is this brief not talking to?”

After a moment of thought, someone speaks up and says, “Guys who don’t care about how they look.”


So who is the customer in this brief?

If you answer “Guys who care about their appearance” you’re only partly correct. The brief doesn’t say so explicitly, but who else is being addressed here?

The people who care about the guy who cares about his appearance: A mom. A girlfriend. A boyfriend. A wife. A sister.

Shouldn’t the brief writer have been more explicit and just said all that?

Why? I’m not stupid. I can figure it out.

And I want to have this discussion before the briefing. I want to ask some “duh” questions so I am onboard with my brief writer.

This brief writer respected the creative teams who worked from this brief.

I love this brief. And it’s probably 20 years old.

How are you going to use this brief to make the briefing exciting? Where will we do the briefing? If we can’t go somewhere related to the product or service, like a store or a showroom to see the product in real life, what will you do to re-create a real-life setting? In other words, if your brief is inspiring, how will you make the briefing equally inspiring?

The brief is the first step in the creative process. It’s the opening scene. The first pitch. The lede in your story. Don’t bore me with another Zoom session or conference room lecture.

You expect magic from my work. I expect you to put magic into your briefing.

Impress me.

Are you absolutely satisfied with the content and tone of this brief? How can I help you improve it?

No one is immune to time pressures today. That’s why it’s so important for a brief writer to have the time she needs to think and to play around with the words that make up her brief.

As a creative, I want to help. When the brief is brilliant, my work is easier.

When I ask this question, I’m not trying to catch the brief writer in a “gotcha” moment. We are in this together.

If the brief writer needs my help, I want to help.

Which is the entire point of his pre-briefing exercise. In a way, the creative gets an early briefing and can jump start their thinking. This is a good thing. Even if wording is tweaked before the actual briefing, my creative engine is running.

Ask good questions. The brief and the brief writer will thank you for it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Verified by MonsterInsights