How to Write a Creative Brief That Inspires Your Team

Grant Olsen
how to write an inspiring creative brief - Punchlist blog

Learning how to write a creative brief might sound tedious, but it’s one of the most important aspects of any creative endeavor. To understand the relationship between a creative brief and finished project, let’s talk structural engineering for a moment.

We’re all familiar with Italy’s Tower of Pisa. Did you know that a faulty foundation on soft ground resulted in the tower beginning its famous “lean” during the construction phase? The higher they built the tower, the more egregious the problems became.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to ancient structures. San Francisco’s tallest residential building, the Millenium Tower, was constructed in 2009 and has been sinking ever since. What’s making this $350 million dollar luxury property tilt like a modern-day Tower of Pisa? Once again, the culprit is an inadequate foundation on unstable ground.

When a project is fundamentally flawed from the onset, there is little you can do to correct it. You can add proverbial band-aids, such as the braces that were used in the past to limit the Tower of Pisa’s tilting. But the issues will likely persist, and you’ll never be able to get back the time and effort dedicated to your salvage mission.

Creative briefs are the foundation of every project. When your creative leadership is committed to putting in the resources to create strong briefs, you’ll experience more efficient timelines and better results. Problems might still arise, but they can be realigned thanks to the stability provided by the brief, rather than exacerbated by its fragility.

The Role of the Creative Brief

Creative briefs are one of the most effective tools available for creative management. More than just a set of instructions, they’re the measuring stick upon which all aspects of a project are evaluated. Yes, assembling an exceptional brief takes time. But every hour invested in this development stage has the potential to save you 2-3 hours on the back end.

The good news is that once you’ve developed an effective creative brief template, you can use it for all your briefs moving forward. There has long been debate regarding the amount of detail to include in an effective creative brief. Some people in creative leadership favor multipage tomes, while others promote the power of a two-paragraph brief.

When it comes to detail, we recommend erring on the side of precision rather than abundance. Even when team members have questions regarding a lean brief, they can be addressed with productive conversations. The more conversations you have throughout the process, the better the results. So if your brief serves as a catalyst for a few chats, then it has served its ancillary purpose.

Too much detail, on the other hand, floods the brief and dilutes the essential points. After all, it’s difficult to identify a “single-minded proposition” or “key objective” in a 600-word brief.

Involve All Levels of Creative Management

You might be wondering who should be involved in the development of the creative brief. The answer is that everyone who will be involved with the project should be enrolled early on. This could include project managers, producers, program managers, account managers, designers, strategists, copywriters, graphic designers, and videographers.

The level of collaboration can take a few different forms:

  1. Hold a pre-download brainstorm where all relevant parties share their insights and help spur ideas for the brief.
  2. Develop a draft of the brief among key stakeholders and then hold a meeting with the larger group where input can be shared.
  3. Develop a draft of the brief among key stakeholders and then send it out to the larger group with an invitation to submit any revisions or updates.

What matters is that those who will be involved in the project have a chance to weigh in prior to the download. Presenting the brief cold turkey makes for less effective dialogue and can potentially leave people feeling disenfranchised.

Making Your Creative Briefs Truly Sing

Your project download will set the tone for the entire project. When the information is clear, the objectives strong, and the collaboration solid, there’s almost nothing that can knock your team off track.

For your brief to get everyone on the same page, it needs to contain the “Five Journalistic W’s.” These questions have been used for centuries to capture the core details of a story:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Why?

Some readers might think the question “How?” is missing from this list, but that always comes after the download, as your team leverages unique skills and quirky epiphanies to come up with an amazing concept. The brief doesn’t tell them how to solve the problem at hand, but instead gives them everything they need in order to make it happen.

Let’s review the key components of a standard creative brief. Once you understand them, you’ll be able to adapt this general template to your own needs, which obviously elevates it from a “standard” brief to an exceptional one.

The Problem that Needs to be Solved

Here’s your chance to provide context. Outline the challenge and its relevance, so your experts can come up with a solution.

The Audience You’re Targeting

Every exceptional project is tailored to a specific group of people. In this section, you’ll describe the target audience and share insights that’ll make it easier for your team to connect with them.

The Deliverable Requested

Rather than describe exactly what you need, you should outline the expectations. Feel free to share your vision as a jump-off point, but it shouldn’t be taken as a description of the execution.

The Objective

Asserting the purpose for a project not only helps to justify its existence but can also get your people motivated. When they’re working toward a shared goal, the project will move smoother and ultimately have a bigger impact.

The Single-Minded Proposition (SMP)

What is the one thing you want your audience to internalize? What message gets to the heart of the entire project? Perhaps the most heralded SMP of all time is what Apple used to launch their iPod: “1,000 songs in your pocket.”

The Supporting Messages

Include the facts and aspirational lines that support the SMP. Your team can draw upon these supporting messages for inspiration and clarification as they work, and they might even end up in the final product.

The Nitty-Gritty Details

Here’s where you include relevant ad specs, fonts, sizes, color, logo preferences, and other details.

The Stakeholders

It’s crucial to establish the decision-makers early on. Likewise, you can highlight the various individuals who will be handling the different tasks within the project.

The Important Dates

Finally, you need to make your brief actionable by including a timeline. If some of the scheduling takes place after the download, it’s important to update the brief to reflect the start date, various milestones, and final due date.

If you’re unsure of which of these sections are most important for your team, start by talking to your team. Ask what information will make their jobs easier and which sections would only gum up the works.

For a small internal team, the brief might only take up half a sheet of paper. But the brief for a multi-team project would likely require more real estate to contain the necessary details and analysis.

To illustrate this dynamic, let’s review some creative brief examples. Here’s an ultra-lean brief for a small team creating blog content. As this is a recurring task, they’re already familiar with the supplemental information such as word count, fonts, logos, and decision-makers.

Topic:Keywords:CTA:Due Date for Draft:Additional Notes:

And here’s an example of a more robust creative brief template that contains the extra details that would benefit a collaboration with diverse contributors.

Title of Project:Project Owner:Due Date:Description:Objective:Audience:Messaging and Tone:Assets and Deliverables:Stakeholders:Budget:Timeline:Additional Notes:

Go Forth & Write Your Creative Brief

Now that you’ve seen a couple of creative brief examples and have a clearer sense of the purpose of these documents, it’s time to craft your own creative brief template. Be sure to involve your team in the discussion, as they’ll be able to offer insights you never would’ve otherwise considered.

When everyone gets a seat at the table in these early discussions, it boosts morale and enhances collaboration. And having such a strong foundation for your team’s work leads to some truly stunning results once you start using your new brief for projects.