Show Off Your Work with a Creative Brief

The Creative Brief in the project planning process

A creative brief is an ebook, powerpoint, webinar, or document that succinctly explains the creative work that you or your agency will do for a client. Sometimes the client creates the brief; sometimes it’s your agency. However, developing a brief works best as a collaboration. Remember: creative work is a collaboration.  

A brief usually starts with an overview of the client’s business, then details how the agency plans to apply the creative process. Illustrate your ideas with sketches, colors, and idea fragments. 

In brief, that is a creative brief.

Unlike a project proposal, a creative brief is an opportunity to show off some pure artistic talent.

The theory behind a successful project planning process is finding the right tools to share ideas with your project team. Sharing your brief should inspire action — not overwhelm people with to-do lists. Sharing ideas, or collaboration, is the basis of successful projects.

Developing an effective presentation of your creative materials is one of the first steps of in the project planning process. It is the collective brainstorm of the client’s wishes and the creative agency’s abilities. Defining the project plan is all about balancing facts and relationships.

Although it may sometimes seem easier to work on projects without the client, the truth is that the finished project is the result of collaboration. You need the facts about the client’s history to inform the relationship between your agency and the desired product.

The creative brief gets everyone on the same page before the project starts by laying out the facts and outlining the relationship. In an effective brief there is room to show off the talent of your creative team. Still, it’s not a chance to make a spectacle of the new tricks you learned in inDesign. It takes a healthy dose of humbleness to show off only what is relevant to the project in the creative brief.

The art of curation

In every high school classroom across The United States, there are three types of high achieving students: Sally, Sam, and Suzy.

Sally sits in the front of the class either a) sleeping or b) reading Harry Potter while other kids take notes and listen to the teacher. She got a 32 on her ACT (which she will proudly tell you), but she has a handful of D’s on her report card. Sally doesn’t care about pleasing the teachers. She’s received enough praise for her natural intelligence in Pre-K to last her at least until sophomore year of college. She doesn’t have to try, everyone knows she’s smart.

Everyone also knows that Sam is smart, because he talks all the time in class. In Art 101 you can catch Sam applying a deconstructionist approach to the color wheel, and in P.E. you may hear him discussing the latest exercise trend he heard on NPR with the weight trainer. Other students don’t really like Sam.

And then there’s Suzy. Day after day, Suzy turns in A+ work, but her peers may not know that. She raises her hand once or twice per class, and doesn’t fidget in her seat when she’s not called on. But when she is called upon, watch out, her critical thinking skills blow away the rest of the class. She’s not overly confident and she doesn’t show off. Suzy — for all intents and purposes — is perfect.

Writing a brief is about channeling your inner Suzy.

Perhaps your creative agency has a reputation of producing high quality work. It may be easy to slip into Sally mode. Sally probably feels that she doesn’t have to impress her clients up-front because she trusts her innate ability to succeed. Sally probably wouldn’t bother writing a brief. However, the Sally model is not sustainable.

You have to show your clients that you will apply your creativity to their situation. They only want to hire you for A+ work — not because you won an award last year. You need to communicate that you understand their problem, and your solution. A lack of communication will build a reputation of impersonal customer service.

The Sam way will drive customers away. Showing off talent doesn’t translate into successful client-based projects. Sam can’t center his work around the client because he’s too focused on proving ability. Creative briefs based on Sam’s mantra turn into platforms for showing off.

Suzy lays out the facts about the client, their history, and their needs. Then she lays out what her agency is capable of in relation the client’s goals. She doesn’t say any more than she needs to and does so with intention. If you think of Suzy’s ethic when you sketch up an effective brief, you’ll stand out above competitors.

A creative brief is a tasteful hint of what is to come. Use the text of the brief to prove knowledge of the client and build trust in your process. Use the format to excite the customer with an example of your work. Perhaps a preliminary sketch of their new logo, or the first draft of a blueprint for their new campaign. Keep it small and unassuming, but make it personal.

Formatting your creative brief

Here is a more specific list of sections Suzy would include in her brief:

  1. The client’s goals. Like a project proposal, the first section of the project brief should be an explanation of the client’s company history, their current problem, and how they believe your services will help them. Unlike a proposal, your agency already has the job. The client doesn’t have to be the center of the document. This section can be shorter.
  2. The collaboration. From the time the proposal was written and contract was signed, many more conversations have passed between the client and your agency. It’s likely that the initial goals of the client were “re-framed” by the advice of your agency. Perhaps the client thought rebranding would help their company. After some research, both parties agreed that an ad campaign would be more beneficial. This is where you explain the process and talk about these new goals.
  3. Measures of success. The project isn’t successful just because it’s over. There are two sides of success:
    • Client-side: The client didn’t hire your agency’s services just for fun, there is a financial or sales related goal involved. How does the marketing campaign you are planning fulfill these goals? Explain here.
    • Agency-side: Good referrals are worth twice as much as the monetary value of the project. In this section of the brief, lay out expectations for the project planning team. Examples include: on-time delivery, solid communication with the client, productive use of time, et cetera.
  4. Who’s looking at the ad? It’s the number one rule for advertisements: dissect the audience before you start working. This section is a chance for your agency to impress with your research skills. If the client is a day-care, show off some research you did on single parents. If the client is a landscaper, show off some research you did on suburban homeowners. Remember, it’s not just about showing what you can create, it’s about applying your knowledge to the client’s situation.
  5. What’s the vibe? First drafts of color schemes, fonts, image sketches, slogans, tone, outlines of videos: that all goes here. It’s not the place for every idea that passes through the brainstorming sessions of you creative team. It is a place to assure the client that the creative juices are flowing.

Communicate with your client and your project team about what is important for them in the brief. Clients may ask for more sections, like specific names and contact information for team members. Similarly, your project team may want to re-iterate communication expectations that were (hopefully) laid out in the contract. “No personal calls” and “no last minute changes” may be on this list.

Because of the adaptable nature of creative briefs, setting up a template to use for all clients is a waste of time. Every client is a different creative blend of history, goals, and tones. Think of the creative brief not as a typist’s chore, but as platform from which ideas flow. The more intention you put into it, the easier the rest of the project planning process will be.

Your creative brief is the shotgun fired at the start of the race. If you followed these steps, you laid a solid groundwork to hand off the client and creative team for reference. You brought the facts together to form a relationship and ignite collaboration. And you did so like a Suzy: you showed that you cared but you didn’t show off too much.

Good work! For more inspiration on all that is brief and beautiful, check out Brevity (short nonfiction). Read some sunbeams (inspirational quotes collected by The Sun Magazine), or catch up on the minimalist movement.