What Does an Inspired Creative Brief Look Like?

Adapted from How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief (iUniverse.com)

By Howard Ibach

Dateline: October 5, 2009
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It turns out that no two briefs look exactly alike. That’s good.

It speaks well for a document that it can be so important and still be adaptable. It’s organic, not static. (And it’s not rocket science!)

The creative briefs you’ll review here are, quite simply, well-written and inspired documents. And they’re different in one way or another from each other.

But pay close attention to what they have in common. And to the vocabulary used by the writers to answer each section. These examples are from UK agencies. The UK is the birthplace of the art and science of account planning. Many believe that our British cousins are the finest creative-brief writers on the planet. I agree.

It’s my job to help correct this imbalance. Beginning with you. Let’s examine each brief for its strengths and, if we can find them, weaknesses.

This creative brief was written by the folks at a UK agency called hhcl/red cell, which shut its doors in 2007, regrettably. It was a well-known branding agency that won tons of awards and accolades for its creativity. In fact, you may have seen some of its TV spots, particularly for soft drink Black Currant and Maxwell tapes.

There are lots of things to love about this brief, and nothing at all to not love.

Start with the opener:

What is...

What if...

As they like to say in the UK, that’s brilliant.

What is defines the status quo.

What if is the equivalent of what I’d call communication objectives, which I’ll define more clearly in a moment.

So in a typical brief, that question might be posited this way instead:

Reveal some of Iceland’s hidden secrets. Inform (tell) Mum about all the other great reasons to shop there.

Either way works fine, but I’m intrigued by the use of a question. Why? Questions get you thinking. Creatives are naturally curious and a question is hard to ignore.

More importantly, notice the use of verbs here, revealed and told. These are key to writing a clear and inspiring brief. I recommend verbs over adjectives.

Now understand something: I love verbs. They have a need to be doing something. As a writer I have a special affinity for anything that suggests action. I want my reader to do something. To act when she reads my ad.

“Action is character,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald said.

Use verbs to describe your objectives so creatives get a clear understanding of what the advertising (TV, DM, billboard, banner ad, etc) must accomplish.

Creatives get verbs. Simple, straightforward. They’re the John Wayne of words: strong, silent, action-hero types. Further down in the brief you get to the section Who are we talking to? I think this is especially well written. You don’t see any bullet points, no acronyms such as HHI. The writer painted a word picture of the typical Mum who shops at Iceland.

Here’s another Rule of Thumb: Don’t give creatives a list a statistics. Use statistics to create a three-dimensional person, someone real. Create a mini-narrative, a compelling story if you can.

Next is the core thought. This is equivalent to the proposition mentioned earlier in the book by John Hegarty. I prefer single-minded proposition but they’re all synonymous.

So if I were to write “There’s more to Iceland than anyone ever knew” on a piece of paper above or below a photograph of an Iceland supermarket, I’d have to agree with John Hegarty that I held in my hand the first ad for the campaign as outlined on the creative brief.

My job as a copywriter would be to write a better headline.

Finally, I’m very impressed with the brief writer’s use of insights under the section called What are the ranges? My guess is that ranges refers to a product category.

These insights are like their own propositions, and therefore work as first ads, as if they were headlines.

An even briefer brief comes from glue, a London-based ad agency. The product is called Ello and it’s made by Mattel. It’s a toy for girls.

This is a tight brief. Very sure footed, no wasted words, to the point.

Notice first the use of verbs in the section called What are we trying to achieve? I gravitate toward verbs a lot, and here’s another example:

To communicate...
To ensure...
To excite...and to launch...

Noticing a pattern?

Notice as well that you don’t find a laundry list. Four things, very specific.

Next, look at Proposition:

Endless expression.

Put that line next to a photo of the product. How would it work as a first ad?

The brief below is part of a PowerPoint presentation that I found on Slide Share. Tango is a popular fruit soft drink in the UK.

This is one of the finest, most interesting and well-written creative briefs I’ve seen in years. Go to school on this document.

My single bone of contention: The first item under What do we need to do?

“Increase sales of Tango.”

Okay, I’m in favor of clarity as much as the next guy, but c’mon folks. It helps no one in the creative department make an ad when you’re told you need to increase sales.

That’s a great big “duh.”

I actually live for the day when a brief appears before me that reads, “Sales are too high. Create an ad that cools things off.”

Now look at the rest of the entries.

What do you see? Verbs:


These statements offer clear instructions to creatives about the task at hand. They get what the advertising has to do.

There’s a reason why I keep harping on this. (Keep reading. Slow wind up to the pitch.)

Next, insights! Creatives love insights! If you have them, and this brief is loaded with both market and consumer insights, share!

There’s no one, universal way to write about insights. It’s not like you always use verbs and never nouns and adverbs. When you don’t have insights, it’s a dilemma. But there are ways around that.

What is the single most important thing to say?

Another great variation on single-minded proposition.

It works.

And I love the answer:

Join the Tango resistance.

Here, Tango becomes the modifier, the adjective. The key word is resistance. And what a great word it is.

The single thing is also a great first ad. In fact, it would be a challenge for the creatives to improve on it. And if you’ve seen the history of Tango’s TV spots, the work always shines. Still, this is a great brief. I wish I’d had the chance to work from it.

Finally, the brief writer, a fellow named Vincent Thomé, a French account planner working in London, included creative starters. If you ask me, he’s a creative in planner’s clothing!

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Excerpted with permission from How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief (iUniverse.com) by Howard Ibach. Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved.