With all apologies to that noted Mad Man, William Shakespeare, the question is not “to brief or not to brief”—as not briefing should never be an option.

First and foremost, the question on your mind should be: Are the briefs you write really helping to produce better creatives? But, alas, poor Bernbach, the art of writing a good brief sometimes seems as lost as the composition of an Elizabethan sonnet (and, we promise, that is the last of the Shakespeare quotes).

At Marketsmith we view the creative brief as not only necessary, but as the single most important document of the entire creative process. We make sure that all our employees have a strong foundation and knowledge in how to write a brief that is informational and easily understood. After all, our continued success depends not only on the level of talent we attract, but also on our ability to continually train and enrich all our employees as technically skilled and well-informed marketers.

To that end we thought we would share a few tips and tricks on writing a creative brief we have collected through the years. We hope it inspires new thinking among you and your team. Why share our secret sauce? Heck, we love a good competition—it only makes our own work sharper.

Here are five key things to writing an award-winning brief:

  1. “Why” is the most critical question to answer on any brief.
    Most briefs answer the first four Ws of journalism: who, what, when, where. Who are we talking to? What is the key message? Where and when will the media run? But there is a more important question behind each of those facts: Why? When you can adequately and confidently answer “why” to every single thing on a brief, you have defined your strategy. Having our creative team in house, we can assure you, creative team members are skeptical beings. They will ask “why” constantly when they are briefed. Be prepared.
  2. A client’s brief is NOT an agency brief.
    With all due apologies to clients everywhere, we will rewrite your brief. Generally, a client brief outlines only the definition of an assignment. It is the agency’s job to add value every step of the way, and that begins with the direction an ad, campaign, or marketing program should take. The clients state their end goal, and the marketing firm provides the journey to get them there. It should challenge the clients’ assumptions and take them in an unexpected new direction. Take chances. Be bold. Don’t wait for the creative team to surprise the client with new thinking; great new thinking starts with the ideas expressed in the creative brief. No idea is a dumb idea. Brainstorming has created some of our favorite pieces, and it all started with a single idea.
  3. A brief is not a briefing.
    As great as a brief can be, it is a piece of paper. It informs. A briefing is your chance to inspire and continue to inform and grow off what was written. Don’t call a meeting just to read—could have done that through an email. Treat a briefing like a presentation. After all, you are presenting your ideas—and yes, good strategy is an idea. You want the creative teams to buy in and, better yet, be absolutely enthused to start the assignment, convinced that the direction you set for us will put us on the path to more award-winning work for our books. (Check out this spot, which earned us a recent Gold Telly Award!) What product are you briefing on? Is it food? Serve it. A car? Let us drive it. (No, really, there is no substitute for firsthand experience.) Make us understand the problem, the brand, the audience, and the way forward. Don’t inform, inspire!We really do live by these words.

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  4. They call it a “brief” for a reason.
    Take the time, and really craft your briefs. Do not go off on tangents. Stick to the point. (Isn’t it a contradiction when “primary message” contains multiple points?) The tighter, clearer, and more original the information, the tighter, clearer, and more original the creative. Great communication is about clarity, simplicity, and originality. That is as true for a brief as it is for an ad. Or as Shakespeare wrote, “brevity is the soul of wit” (forgive us, but that quote was too good to waste).
  5. Think before you paste.
    Yes, we know that most of the briefs in this world are for yet another tactic, for the same brand, through the same media, to the same audience you have been working on for years. And there is strong temptation to simply cut and paste the information from the previous brief, but then you are only repeating old and outdated information. We admit that at Marketsmith we are more fanatical than most agencies about utilizing the very latest data to be as timely and relevant as possible. After all, analytics is in our DNA. The point is, you must know something new that you didn’t know last time. And that new learning—if well applied—will make your marketing work better. Guaranteed. The world changes quickly. Your briefs must reflect that. Otherwise your ads won’t either.

Which Category Do Your Creative Briefs Fall Into?

The bottom line is that there are really only two types of briefs: those that inspire immediate ideas and those that leave people with more questions. You will know which one you have written the moment you start briefing the creative teams on your next assignment. If they start doodling, that’s good. If they start asking “why,” you’re in for a rough meeting.

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