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How to Give a Project Liftoff With a Creative Brief

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How to Give a Project Liftoff With a Creative Brief
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How to Give a Project Liftoff With a Creative Brief

It’s easy to relish excellence when we see it. Not a few of us watch the Super Bowl just for all those creative commercials that reel us in, inspire us and make us laugh. Or we might have made a memorable trip to an iconic building that captures the soul of a city, such as the Dancing House in Prague. And all of us have discovered a product that fits so well into our lifestyles that after just a few weeks we wonder how we ever lived without it.

In all of these instances, the creator had a firm grasp of the project’s essence, and the function it was meant to serve.

More often than not, however, the final deliverable in a creative project conjures up a ‘meh’ response. Every day we come across architecture that’s blah, products that are full of flaws, and commercials that land with a dud. In these instances, it’s quite likely the project lacked coherence from the start. The client and creative team never crystalised the project’s “why” and so the deliverable was fuzzy and subpar.

During the initial conversations of any project, the job of creatives on a team is to assemble the hodgepodge of musts, desires and ideas a client brings to them. In essence, this criteria comprises the creative brief. It identifies the limitations and clarifies the essence of what “there” looks like, as well as propels the team onto innovation and creativity.

Let’s take a deeper dive into the topic of creative briefs and consider the functions and components of one, then look at a few examples of creative briefs shared by professional artists and makers.

Image represents the Function of a Creative Brief

The Function of a Creative Brief

A creative brief is written at the inception stage for a project or marketing campaign. It is a statement put together by the client and the creative team.

The creative brief is the project’s vision. It’s been given a variety of descriptions to clarify its function within a project. Some call it the project’s DNA, others call it the plot starter for the creative journey and still others call it the “project starter” that allows the project to ferment and bubble during the execution stage. The creative brief articulates the “why” of the project.

True to its name, a creative brief is short. Some say that the best can be summarized in a sentence or two, while most never exceed two pages.

A creative brief sets necessary limits on the project and propels the team to think creatively. This entails including certain information within the brief and keeping other information out.

What a Creative Brief Includes

A creative brief describes the idea or the purpose of a project. More than providing specificity, it explains how the deliverable adds value, what it enables in someone’s lifestyle, or what it compels the end user to do.

Take the example of a project to redesign a backyard. The creative brief doesn’t lay out a lot of specifics to include the end result, such as a fire pit, several Adirondack chairs, a pizza oven and a pergola. Rather, it states that the final deliverable must create a welcoming space for people to gather in the summer.

For a technological product, the brief might state that the aim is to minimize multitasking in the lives of busy professionals. Clearly, a product that solves this problem could take a variety of forms.

And ideally, the brief doesn’t include a whole lot of redundancy. In its final form, it’s a lean document that cuts to the heart of the project.

Creative John C Jay of the marketing agency GX outlines the parameters of a good brief: “The more concise, the sharper the point of view as to what is the problem, the better the work will be.”

A creative brief without too much specificity gives the team clearance to come up with creative and innovative solutions. However, a brief does have one foot firmly planted in reality. For example, it generally includes a timeline and a budget. Oftentimes a project has other limitations as well. The right mix of limitation and latitude positions the team in a sweet spot for creativity to flourish.

What a Creative Brief Doesn’t Include

Although in days gone by, creative briefs laid out specifics around the materials or the media to utilize in the project, the modern briefs tend to exclusively focus on the project’s “why” and to leave the “what” and the “how” for the team to dig in and solve during the project’s execution.

A creative brief that is too long or specific may function like a pair of handcuffs rather than a pair of wings. And so any excess has been carefully trimmed out.

How a Creative Brief Works Into the Project

A creative brief, again, functions as the yeast that allows a project to propagate and grow. It propels the team. And while a solution develops out of the brief, it doesn’t function like a timeline or a Gantt chart and provide a linear solution.

A team might even push up against a creative brief. As he recounts in the film Briefly, designer Yves Béhar of the company Fuseproject assumed the role of the contrarian when designing a chair for a European company. The client pointed out that all mid-range chairs in Europe have a foam or cushion backrest, implying that this chair must as well. Béhar instead designed a chair with a metal backrest.

The creative brief develops and evolves with the project. It’s a reflection of the relationship between the client and the team. Although it provides a creative with a place to start, it may very well change as the project evolves. If the brief starts to constrain or frustrate the team, it may be scrapped entirely. It’s not uncommon for a creative brief to be rewritten several times throughout a project as new ideas emerge or the consumer needs change.

With these parameters in mind, let’s look at a simple formula for creating the outline of a creative brief.

Image represents a Creative Brief Formula

A Creative Brief Formula

Although in its final form, a creative brief often ends up at around two pages, the essence of a strong, well-defined brief can be encapsulated in a few sentences.

Let’s look at a simple formula that helps to distill the essence of the brief and provide it with focus. This formula is known as the “get, who, to, by” method. Here are its four components:

  • Get: This identifies the audience of the campaign or project. Who is going to take action on the outcome?
  • Who: This characterizes the target customers and outlines things like their lifestyle and any problems they need to have solved.
  • To: This states the specific action the target customer is intended to take.
  • By: This explains the “what” of the project. What will the product do? What will the advertising demonstrate?

Let’s look at an example of a creative brief using this formula. This example outlines the vision for a campaign promoting the app for a meal-delivery company.

  • “This advertising campaign aims to GET busy soccer moms WHO struggle to provide their kids with healthy meals because they don’t have a lot of free time in the evening TO order to-go meals BY showing that a healthy, affordable meal is just a click away.”

See how so much about the campaign is crystallized in just one sentence? The customer is identified, her problems are clear and the substance of the advertisement is outlined as well.

In order to maximize the effectiveness of this formula, keep these pointers in mind:

  • A good creative brief uses visual language and isn’t full of business jargon. It paints a picture in the head of the person who’s reading it. In the example above, for example, the audience could have been described as “35-45 year old mothers,” but “busy soccer moms” gives a better visual of the target audience.
  • The formula fleshes out the audience’s problem. The example above might have read like “mothers who need to make dinner for their kids in the evening.” However, the language instead clarifies the central struggle and aspiration of these mothers: They want to provide healthy meals but they cannot find the time. When the problem is stated in sharp relief, it provides a path toward creating a solution that addresses it.

This “get, to, who, by” formula allows you to encapsulate the creative brief into a pithy statement that’s easy for everyone to grasp right away. At this point, depending on the specificity necessary for the project, it’s possible to break things down a bit further.

Image represents components of a Creative Brief

The Components of a Creative Brief

A creative brief blends the pragmatic and concrete with the creative, elusive and romantic. It emerges from close communication with the client, outlining the vision, the shoulds, the musts, the limitations and the unique market position of the client.

Although every creative brief looks a little different, each one includes some elements of the following.

  • Research
    Though short, a creative brief is developed out of lengthy research. It grows out of interviews with the customer, a study of the target audience, and investigation into the competition and competing products. Although much of this knowledge won’t make its way into the brief, any key findings help to shape and mold the parameters of the final brief.
  • The Dream
    A brief, as explained, is a vision. It includes a deep sense of where the company wants to go and its aspirations. It might say something like, “With this product, we aim to incorporate music into people’s everyday lifestyle.”
  • Background on the Company
    In order to provide a deliverable that jibes with a client, it’s essential to have a firm grasp of the company’s culture, its previous products and its customers. This, too, entails research into the company’s history and its mission statement. Culture is often unstated, and so it can be appreciated just by spending time with the client and getting to understand what they stand for.
  • The Problem & the Objective
    The brief identifies and states the problem that the project seeks to solve. It might include something like, “With this alarm clock, we seek to reduce an aversion to waking up in the morning.”
  • The Audience
    The brief describes the target audience with pertinent demographic details. What are their ages, their incomes, their lifestyles? It doesn’t go into great detail here, but it specifies details as they relate to the problem and the objective. It also clarifies the actions required from this audience.
  • Challenges to the Objective
    The creative brief may outline any obvious hurdles to achieving the objective. Maybe there’s a technological hurdle, fierce competition or permits that need to be obtained.
  • The Competition
    Although an organization doesn’t follow its competition, it certainly keeps a scrutinizing eye on them. It identifies how they’ve positioned themselves in the market, what they’re currently working on, where they’re excelling and where they’re lagging behind.
  • Timeline & Budget
    The brief also outlines key constraints such as the budget. It states a realistic timeline, given the work required. These constraints keep the project in check, and can even serve to propel creativity.

This summarizes some of the key components to a creative brief. It’s important to note that a brief shouldn’t read like a list of instructions. Ultimately, the client wants a creative solution, and isn’t looking to have a prescription filled. A good brief propels and enthuses rather than restricts, and so it may not necessarily outline all of these details, but just so many as to clearly define the scope of the project.

Image represents Examples of a Creative Brief

Three Examples of Creative Briefs

Let’s look at some creative briefs shared by professionals in the film “Briefly,” produced by Bassett and Partners.

David Rockwell, Rockwell Group

David Rockwell is the founder and president of the company Rockwell Group, which melds his love for technology, theater, craft and architecture. Rockwell Group provides multi-disciplinary services to clients that include product design, set design and interior design.

In the early 2000s, the Cosmopolitan, a resort and casino in Las Vegas, hired the Rockwell Group to assist with the building’s interior. At this point, the construction on the building was midway. Here’s how Rockwell summarizes the creative brief for the project:

  • “Help us create a resort that is substantially more urban than anything that exists in Las Vegas, will be more contemporary and might in fact relate to the way the world changes so quickly in a way Las Vegas doesn’t.”
  • The brief further acknowledged the limitations and givens of the project. As the building was already half complete, much of the layout couldn’t be changed, including eight concrete columns on the first floor. The layout also required placing restaurants on the third floor, a somewhat inaccessible location.

While one aspect of this project stimulated the creative team, another component limited it. As it turned out, these limitations in fact became features of the project.

The request for mobility and change found expression in enormous open source canvases hung along the eight concrete columns in the resort’s lobby. These canvases became a rotating showcase for contemporary art. Rockwell Group further suggested drilling a hole through the first and second floors, providing a dramatic visual into the restaurant and lounge area, and a space to hang an immense crystal chandelier that’s become a trademark of the resort.

Rockwell’s anecdote demonstrates how a good creative brief balances provocation and limitation. When supplemented with inspiration, constraints in fact provide a project with a fertile creative soil.

John C Jay, GX and Wieden & Kennedy

John C Jay is the president and executive director of the independent global creative agency GX, as well as a partner at the advertising agency Wieden & Kennedy. He’s served as the creative director for Nike and has worked with Microsoft and Coca Cola.

In 1996, Nike hired his agency to create advertisements for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. After an intense summer of interviewing hundreds of athletes, Jay and his associates came up with this exceptionally terse and provocative creative brief:

  • “Sport is war, minus the killing.”

This set the tone for the campaign, and resulted in images that fell just short of athletes shedding blood. The fierce, unsmiling athletes were captioned with aggressive phrases such as “I’m not just happy to be here,” “You don’t win silver, you lose gold,” “Pageantry is a distraction” and “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of Atlanta.”

And although this brief perfectly aligned with the spirit of the athletes and the event, Jay acknowledges that the team stumbled and felt around in the dark for a long time before arriving at it. Ultimately, it emerged out of a consistent message communicated by the athletes around how they approached competition.

Jay’s anecdote demonstrates that even a short brief is the result of hard work and is backed up with lengthy research.

John Boiler, 72andSunny

John Boiler is a co-founder of the global advertising agency 72andSunny, which is headquartered in Los Angeles and Amsterdam. With his friendly demeanor and signature derby hat, Boiler aims to foster creativity in an ego free environment. The agency’s clients include Target, Nike, Bugaboo, General Mills and Starbucks.

In the late 2000s, Samsung approached the agency with innovative smartphone technology but no marketing plan. Boiler summarizes their creative brief as:

  • “We want to be a credible #2 to the smartphone leader.”
  • The brief also stated that Samsung products featured technologies superior to any other smartphones on the market.

The advertising campaign that developed out of this brief preceded the 2011 debut of the Samsung Galaxy S II, a phone that positioned Samsung as a contender with Apple, the number one in smartphone sales.

This creative brief provides one clear strategy: to emphasize the technological advantage of Samsung’s products over the competition. It also contains a marketing power pellet: an element of secrecy. “See what you’re missing out on,” is a no-fail message to send when pitching any product.

As you can see, in each of these examples the professional artist developed a simple brief. Each scenario encapsulates how a brief functions within a project. The brief captures the vision of the project and leaves out the excess.


From the scope document to the procurement plan, any well-planned project produces several documents in the planning stage. But in a creative project, the creative brief is the project’s secret weapon.

It allows a deliverable to rise above the mediocre. When the brief is focused, supported by diligent research, and includes the right mix of provocation and limitation, it sets the right tone for the project and lights a fire of enthusiasm into a team.

So if you’re aiming for excellence, it really pays to put diligent research and collaboration into producing a sharp creative brief.

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