Copywriting Q&A: What’s a Creative Brief?

Learn about creative briefs—copywriters' most important documents!When it comes to copywriting, there is one magical document that you cannot do without. It guides you, it protects you and, yes, sometimes it even calls you out if you fall short. This is the beauty of the creative brief. But just what constitutes a creative brief? And who writes it? Read on!

Today’s question comes from Khamil C. who asks, “I hear this term used all the time, so I’m a little embarrassed to ask, but what is a creative brief?”

First, let me reassure you that there aren’t any questions you should be embarrassed to ask me! Everyone starts somewhere, right? Besides, this is a great question.

In the simplest terms, a creative brief is a write-up of everything a forthcoming project should entail. It gives all of the background information, as well as all of the requirements and expectations for a project.

Usually, a creative brief is written up by the person requesting a project. In an in-house agency, that person is usually the project manager, brand manager or marketing manager. In an agency, that person is usually the project manager (or someone with a similar title), who is writing it up on behalf of the client.

If you’re working with a small business client or even a company that is relatively new to having a formalized creative process, you may actually have to create the creative brief yourself. It seems a bit like an easy step to take…but you never want to work without a creative brief.

Because it contains everything you need to know about a project, a creative brief is your go-to reference for how to create a project. Who’s the target audience? Check the brief. How many iterations do they want? Check the brief. Are we trying to get the reader to purchase or request more information? Check the brief. All of your building blocks should be in it.

Another important element is that the creative brief is agreed on by all of the relevant parties. You, your graphic designer, the project manager and anyone else who has a stake in the project will review the creative brief in the kick-off and have the chance to ask questions or suggest changes.

The reason this is so important is two-fold. Number one, it means that everyone has the same idea and understanding of what the project is based on, what the project request is and what the deliverables should entail. Without one written document to record all of this, you end up with five different people with five different expectations of how the creative should turn out. And you’ve never seen chaos like a creative review for a piece created without a brief.

Second, frankly, it covers everyone’s butts. If you execute on the creative brief but the project manager changes his or her mind in the review and wants something different, you’ve still done your job well. You delivered what they asked for and if they change their mind later, it’s annoying, but it’s not any failing on your part.

At the same time, though, it also covers the project manager’s rear. If the request an element in the creative brief and you neglect to put it in your finished creative, that’s your mistake. It’s in the brief and you should have done it.

So, as you can see, the creative brief is a super-important document. And, as such, you need to treat it that way. Don’t ever leave a kick-off until you completely understand the creative brief and everything that’s being asked of you. (After all, if you don’t get it, it’s no one’s responsibility but yours to ask! And, if you don’t get it, you’re just going to deliver creative that doesn’t work, wastes people’s time and reflects poorly on you.)

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At the same time, don’t ever begin to execute your project until both you and your designer have thoroughly read the brief. Even if you get the overall concept, you don’t want to miss any details. It’s pretty embarrassing to have to answer a question in a creative review like, “But where’s the second CTA I asked for in the brief?” with “Oops.” And, as you know, “I don’t know” is never going to be a good answer.

Let’s close out our discussion of the creative brief with a listing of the most important elements a brief needs to have. If these aren’t covered in the brief you’re given for some reason, you need to get this info. And, if you’re creating a brief yourself for you and a freelance client to agree on (or for a spec piece you’re creating), this is a good place to start.

Every brief needs to include:

  • The target audience
  • The ONE next action you want the target audience to take  (and if there are any secondary actions you want them to take)
  • The benefit to the target audience
  • The business objective (why the company wants this piece created)
  • What tone the project should have (it should always be written in the brand voice, but does it also need to be urgent, friendly, promotional, educational, etc.?
  • What the deliverables are (what, exactly, are you expected to produce? An email? A banner ad? A direct mail piece?)
  • Any sizing information and how many versions are needed if
  • Any mandatory elements (things that have to be in the piece, like a link to the product page or a Facebook like button or something like that; anything considered non-negotiable)

In addition to these elements, it’s also good to determine if the company has done a project similar to this one before and, if so, what the results were. This can help you build on previous wins—and avoid previous mistakes. It’s also a good idea to ask if any competitors are doing anything similar, just so you have that information to compare your work to, get inspired by any good ideas and avoid any of their mistakes.

So there you have it: the creative brief. A creative’s very best friend.

Your turn! Have you worked with a creative brief yet? What did you find most helpful? Or what did you not find helpful? Let us know in the comments below!

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