Why creative briefs fail.

I tip my hat to Tim Brunelle, copywriter, creative director, strategist, lover of creative briefs, and a recent guest on The Brief Bros., for inspiring this post in response to a question put to him by my friend and co-host Henry Gomez.

I’ll give you four reasons why I think a creative brief fails, plus a reasonable definition of “fail” so we’re talking about the same thing. You, no doubt, can think of additional reasons why a brief fails. Feel free to weigh in if you think I’ve missed something.

First, what do I mean when I say “fail”? What is a “failed” creative brief? The answer is also open to debate, so I will try to arrive at as universal an answer as I can. Remember, I’m defining “fail” from the perspective of a creative, which was my role for 26 years. Also, “creative” remains the lens I see through as a teacher of creative brief writing, which I like to believe gives me an advantage over marketers and strategists who teach brief writing. I’m not saying my perspective is better, but it is inarguably different.

Here’s my definition:

A creative brief fails when it does not inspire creatives to immediately begin ideating once they’ve read the document. A good brief produces a visceral response. A bad brief, e.g. an uninspiring, uncreative document, causes creatives to ask for clarification, such as “So, what is it you want me to do?”

From my perspective, a brief does not need to be anything more complicated than “It inspires me” or “It inflames my imagination” (I stole that phrasing from Tim!) or “I can work with this right now” and the creative thinking commences.

A failed brief falls flat on inspiration, imagination, or creativity.

Think of it this way: If you write an uninspired creative brief, you should expect uninspired creative work. The onus is on you, the brief writer, to inspire your creative partners. The creative brief is the first step of the creative process.

Reason #1: The wrong person writes the brief

“Wrong person” covers a lot of territory. The wrong person could be someone with little or no experience at writing a brief and, worse, someone who is given no guidance other than a blank document and a deadline.

Another “wrong person” could be someone who has experience writing a brief, but works in a culture where they write alone, in isolation, and do not value, or are not expected to seek out, collaboration. Even the best, most experienced brief writers know they need a writing partner or someone to bounce ideas off of. For the same reason copywriters and art directors form creative teams, experienced brief writers know they do not work in a vacuum.

Reason #2: The brief writer doesn’t take the brief seriously

A senior account person working on the global brand I oversaw as creative director tried to pull a fast one on me by cutting and pasting the client’s mar-comm brief directly into our creative brief. Whether the account person was rushed on this day or figured I would not be paying attention I cannot say. I noticed.

This was an example of someone who did not care about the brief, someone who did not understand the power of the brief’s potential for inspiration and magic.

I launched my creative brief workshop on the day I discovered this criminal behavior on the part of my senior account person. Blame it on her.

Reason #3: The brief writer doesn’t know enough to write the brief

Account management people sometimes do not have training in writing a brief. I’ve heard many times from account folks who take my workshops who tell me they learned by copying the last brief their boss or more senior colleague wrote. It happens a lot. Marketers make this same mistake. The result is that they treat the brief as a form to fill out and they think they know the answers by rote.

The truth is much different. Only when brief writers see and understand the brief as a thinking document that requires imaginative answers will the document have a chance to achieve a level of magic.

Reason #4: The brief writer doesn’t know who the brief is for

The answer is in the name of the document: a brief for creatives.

Sometimes, especially among younger, less experienced brief writers, the marketing department boss becomes the audience. The brief writer writes for the boss instead of for the creative team. And thus an echo chamber emerges. And creatives, when they finally get a copy of the brief not written for them, scratch their heads and speak out loud the example of confusion I cited above in my definition of a failed brief: “So, what is it you want me to do?”

The audience for a creative brief is creatives, first, second and third. Forget this and you fail before you begin.

I could have expanded all the above answers into individual essays, but for this one, I chose brevity. I had the time to edit. I could have edited even more. That could be a fifth reason why creative briefs fail. So I may return to this subject.

2 Responses

  1. [Said this on LinkedIn originally…] Thanks to Howard and Henry for continuing to inspire a world of better marketing/advertising strategies and for elevating the practice of creative briefing.

    I loved this notion: That we frame "the (creative) brief as a thinking document… to achieve a level of magic."

    First and foremost—a "thinking document" implies a distinct engagement, a conversation perhaps, differentiating the moment, the event, the "ask" from other agency tasks. If I ask you to develop a thinking document, I hope you’d pause and give the assignment some energy. And that’s entirely the point here!

    As to "magic," well, that is the goal of every briefing proposition whether the authors realize it or not. "Please [take this brief and] transform the world for us [with ideas]" is the unsaid/unwritten request. Take this piece of paper, this brief, and conjure magic. Your odds of success improve if the brief is itself a work of art.


  2. Love the "for the creatives 1st, 2nd, 3rd" comment. So many briefs are written "to be approved" by clients. Or more accurately to CYA of the writer. And my person peeve is support points that don’t actually support the key idea or brand promise.

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