The creative brief: when it’s good, it’s good

Posted by on May 20, 2009 in Brand Communications | No Comments

Did you hear the one about the ad agency that wrote a 27-page creative brief for the rebranding of a major beverage brand that was so pretentious, self-indulgent, and ludicrously aspirational it had everyone in the ad business rolling in the aisles?

The story has been hard to miss since someone leaked the “Breathtaking Design Strategy” document drafted by the Arnell Group, the branding agency charged with rethinking the Pepsi logo last year, onto the Internet in March. The creative brief waxed poetic about Vitruvian principles, the Golden Ratio, and magnetic dynamics, resulting in a dense tome that reads more like the notebook scrawls of a mad professor than a project roadmap for a rebrand.

Since getting their mitts on the brief, industry-watchers have been hooting and cawing non-stop about the silliness, especially in light of the several hundred million dollars Pepsi ultimately spent with Arnell to develop what many critics say is, at best, a pretty generic new logo, and at worst, a rip-off of the Obama campaign. Gawker for one can’t let it go: “Breathtaking bullshit,” they called the exercise.

The saddest fallout of the leak and the ensuing brouhaha, in my mind, is that it has made a mockery out of the creative brief as an essential part of communications projects. Steve Hall wrote on AdRants: “We’re not defending the document’s overblown inanity but pick up any creative brief or major rebranding document you’ve ever written and read it. Then multiply the idiocy you just read by about 100 and it makes perfect sense, given the size of the Pepsi account, the Arnell/Pepsi document is as hilariously verbose and mind-boggling as it is.”

Maybe for some agencies the creative brief is yet another vehicle to prove to the client how smart they are. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The creative brief is the guiding light of a communications project: a brief (there is a reason for the document’s name), flexible framework for the creative to be developed. It’s also a way for everyone involved to agree on objectives and direction, keeping clients and creatives alike on the right path and in check if anyone begins to lose sight of the overall vision of the project.

To me, a creative brief is successful when it:

  • Provides clear direction – without trying to solve the creative problem. I like starting with a brief because it’s a chance for everyone to agree on what we’re setting out to achieve. Which is important. Often you can talk and talk about a problem and the solution, but when the work is finished it’s clear that there was a lack of mutual understanding about what was really needed. The brief is a chance to clearly define parameters and direction; the actual creative concepts are the next step in the process.
  • Is specific. Too many times I’ve seen creative briefs that seem to generically outline a project approach. These are typically fill-in-the-blank kinds of forms that aim to answer the same questions for any kind of project. But every client, industry, project and audience is different. I like to write each creative brief from scratch, thinking about what exactly we need to answer as we define the project.
  • Is succinct and targeted. There is real beauty in the ability to boil down into just the right amount of perfectly chosen words a project’s objectives and key messages. Really, there’s only so much you can communicate even in the most complex campaign. If you can get to the heart of what you are trying to say in the brief, it will be easy to deliver creative concepts that hit the target.
  • Makes the client say, “That’s it!” After the initial intake meetings and discussions, the sending of PowerPoint decks and past collateral and forwarded emails, there is often so much information floating around it’s hard to know where to start — and most likely the client is feeling frazzled and confused. A creative brief takes all background information into consideration but provides real clarity of purpose, cutting through the clutter to play back to the client what the project is truly all about. I’m always excited to start a project when a client receives the creative brief and replies, “That’s exactly what I want to communicate!” Even more exciting is when the client interacts with the document, adding or revising key points — because the more engaged stakeholders in charting the course for the project, the more successful the project will be.

So if someone delivers you a creative brief as you begin your next communications project, resist the urge to roll your eyes or be skeptical. A well-done creative brief can make the difference in the successful and satisfying outcome of your brand communications.

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