Skip to main content

How to Write Effective Creative Briefs and Why It's Important

Jim Copacino discusses the importance of creative briefs

The Creative Brief is the blueprint of a marketing communications effort. It provides guidance and vision for all the disciplines required to construct a successful integrated campaign—Research, Strategy, Account Management, Creative, Media, Production, PR, Social, Search, and Experiential. Unfortunately, most briefs are poorly crafted, overly long and often ignored. An effective brief, by contrast, inspires collaborative excellence among all involved in the process. In an era when brands bring together multiple agencies to execute an integrated campaign, clear and effective Creative Briefs are more important than ever. Jim Copacino, the co-founder and chief creative officer of Copacino+Fujikado, joined us on our Marketing Communications Today podcast to share how to write creative briefs effectively and why it is important.

Michael Lynch: What is a creative brief?

Jim Copacino: I think every marketing communications team, in agencies or on the client-side, has some form of creative brief. It’s a document that serves as a blueprint for a communications effort. In essence, it outlines the communications objective, the target audience, and it gives us a point of view about the content and tone of the message. So it's really a starting point for a campaign or for a marketing program.

ML: Why are creative briefs important?

JC: It should serve as the foundation of the entire effort, a road map that provides guidance and vision for what we want to do and what we want to accomplish. It creates a shared point of view among all the stakeholders who will be involved in the campaign or in a program. It provides an agreed-upon baseline for evaluating the creative work which follows. So it takes some of the subjectivity out of that process.

ML: Who owns the creative brief?

JC: It really varies from organization to organization. In some cases, it's the account planner or the research specialist, and generally, they represent the consumer's perspective. In some cases, it's the brand manager or the account director who represents the business needs of the product or service that's being promoted. In some cases, it's the creative director whose goal is to inspire expansive thinking by the creative team. I think, personally, my experience and the best approach is to have all the major stakeholders collaborate on the brief, and that is to say research and creative and brand leadership, and it's more complicated, but I think it tends to resolve the document that acknowledges the business problem we have to solve. It's based on consumer insights and it's a document that inspires an elegant and effective solution by the creative team. I don't think one person or one department should hold it. It’s a shared process, so the brief should be a shared document created by all those involved.

ML: Are most creative briefs effective? Are there flaws and problems that you have with ones that are presented to you?

WVU Marketing Communications Today

JC: I think one of the problems is that briefs are often done in sort of a perfunctory way and too often are ignored by the people who really need them, and the reason for that is briefs are usually too long. I see five-page briefs that are jam-packed with charts and statistics and multiple bullet points that tend to confuse rather than clarify. Also, too many briefs are boring, written in dry business-speak that doesn't really inspire creative enthusiasm. There is a creative brief by a British creative director that is a great example. It imagines the creative brief that Pope Julius II might've given to Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, and it demonstrates where many briefs go wrong. I'll just read quickly from some of this. One bad brief that's given as an example that simply says, "Please paint the ceiling." It certainly tells Michelangelo what to do, but it gives him no direction whatsoever. Another brief said, "We've got a problem with the cracks in the ceiling. Can you cover it up for us?" Well, this is not a very good brief, because it gives Michelangelo irrelevant and depressing information that suggests that nobody cares what he paints, because the ceiling's going to fall in any way. Then there's a brief that's a little closer to what a good brief should be, which is, "Please paint the ceiling for the greater glory of God and as an inspiration and lesson to his people." So this is a successful brief, because Michelangelo knew what to do, he understood the importance of the project, and while it gave him guidelines, it didn't limit his creative thinking. The point is to always remember the creative brief is an act of inspiration and motivation that will encourage vibrant, creative thinking to solve a real-world problem.

ML: What would you say is the ideal format for a brief?

JC: A one-word answer would be simplicity. Marketing problems are complex, but our job is to simplify the complex. A brief should be a simple, but have a specific explanation of the communications objective. Whether it's to boost attendance by 5% or increase traffic to the website by 25%, it should paint a picture of the target audience, and it should have a really key insight into consumer or audience behavior that will enable the creative team to craft messages that are both informational and emotional.

ML: Can you give us an example of a creative brief you’ve worked on?

JC: We do work for the Seattle Aquarium. It's an interesting proposition. What our research shows is that the Seattle Aquarium, the prime audience are parents with kids age five to 14 who want to provide their kids with entertainment with a purpose, to enjoy seeing the amazing and exciting creatures in the aquarium, but at the same time, sort of gain an understanding of the marine environment and the importance to protect it. We boil that down into, "What do we want people to think and what do we want people to feel?" So the key proposition there was the aquarium is filled with amazing and fascinating stories of marine life, and then we put it in a sentence that says, "Jaws will drop, eyes will pop," and this was an effective and award-winning campaign featuring fanciful illustrations of the animals and sea life that are on display at the aquarium, accompanied by interesting facts. So one had depicted an illustration of two really cute and adorable sea otters floating side by side and holding her with her paws intertwined, and the headline said, "We sleep holding hands so we don't drift apart," which is a true story. It was that kind of emotional approach to the problem that also has sort of a scientific basis in terms of the true facts about the amazing animals you will see at the occurrence.

ML: Excellent. Thank you very much. Obviously, the data marketing communication program at West Virginia University is very near and dear to my heart, so I'm just going to start you off here. Jim, if I have an idea that I want to get some more exposure for the data marketing communication program, I want to get the word out, and I've been told I need to come up with a creative brief, where do I go from here? How am I going to put this thing together?

JC: I'd start with research. A creative brief has to be based in a real-world understanding of your product and the market you're trying to display it in. When you come down to a single and meaningful audience benefit, any brief has to paint a clear picture of that target audience—not just dry demographics, but flesh and blood insight into the challenges and the opportunities of the people who you're trying to reach. That's because the brief has to appeal to both the head and the heart. In other words, what do we want people to think about the product or service, and what do we want them to feel about it? The brief has to be written in a way that encourages the creative team. When you think about some of the great brands that you see out there, they always get down to this key nugget, that a brand truth about their product will lead to human truth about the people they're trying to reach. Think about Geico. Very simple. "15 minutes can save you 15%," and what they offer is a more affordable and convenient way to buy insurance. You start to shape the message around the audience. Apple computers, intuitive technology that enriches our lives, and Nike, empowering the athlete in all of us, from elite professionals to weekend warriors. There's drama in every product or service, and the key is to find that truth about the product that leads to a truth about the consumer.

Want to subscribe to our podcast and to hear more from industry professionals? Check us out on  SpotifyPodBeaniTunes, and  YouTube! Join Whitney Drake on our  Marketing Communications Today podcast as she discusses how to drive integrated marketing communications in a large, matrixed organization on Thursday, November 7 at 1 p.m. EST.