Better Creative Briefs Through Empathy

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The brief is either your favourite part of the process or another to-do on your never-ending list. As someone who has both written and received briefs, I understand the potential and burden within the entire process. We might never find the solution to the perfect brief, but there are some lessons to learn before someone gets hurt.

What we’ll cover:

Receiving a brief feels like

Receiving a creative brief is a mix of anticipation and dread. The dread comes from the different ways you receive briefs and unclarity they hold. As you are waiting for the brief, the wheels are already spinning in your head around how to solve and then bring value to a client. You know there will be hint around the direction or solution, but also many gaps to fill.

When I was agency-side as a strategist, there were elements of the brief I found useful. This included the objective, requirements and insights. This created a brand, business and customer/user context. Curated insights pointed to the team’s level of understanding and also provided a narrative starting point for my research.

I would read a brief - even the simplest, shortest of briefs - dozens of times. This is where I would extract key information to start shaping a strategy or research approach. Provided documents were just as important to supplement the brief and go digging for insights. Strategy always starts with an anchor, and that anchor is usually a compelling consumer/user insight.

Writing a brief feels like

I love writing briefs. Writing a brief feels like a balancing act between too much information, too little information, inspiration and function. It is a great tool and excuse to align team members and stakeholders around the purpose of a project. However you need the time and motivation to do it justice.

My approach to brief writing is, ‘what would I want to receive as a strategist on the other end?’ The brief should not provide the answer to complex projects, but a direction to explore. An agency was hired for a reason, and their perspective is important to the project. Briefs feel like an accomplishment in themselves, so I do want it to be taken seriously.

The disappointment comes as a client when you feel the brief has not been read thoroughly and main question not answered. As a strategist, a brief was both a starting and continual reference point for a project. It should be checked as the project progresses to ensure it’s staying on track. As a client, if I need to cite the brief months into the project, it hasn’t really been digested.

What I include in a brief

Project context: brief narrative tying together industry, brand and audience insights
Objective and requirements: what do we want to achieve and key points to keep in mind
Spark of inspiration: a key theme, idea or question to explore
Brand overview: the brand and how it is relevant to this situation
Audience profile: who are we speaking to and what are their needs
Solution context: giving more information around a solution’s potential use
Competitor examples: how does the industry playing field look like
Further information: detailed information relevant to that project
Timeline: how long do you have to suffer through, I mean, complete the project

Where ambiguity exists

Within my line of work, there is a desired, key format for the solution. This can be a store, packaging solution, campaign or digital platform, as examples. However, this is usually a mechanism for a greater goal - such as storytelling, engagement or audience acquisition. To define and separate the project and greater objectives usually took sometime as a strategist, and was many times combined within a brief.

There are sections in the brief I wish brands provided. These included, what we don’t know or want to learn more about, and our real ambitions and project expectations. My job as a strategist was not to complete the project (that’s the easy part), but make the client look good. By providing the right tools and insights to a client, I can definitely make you look like a star.

If you are making something visual, the most challenging part is a client team’s visual expectation. Many projects faltered when strategy becomes design. This is because everyone’s definition of simple design concepts such as minimalism, clean or even ‘lab’ differs. Providing agreed upon competitor examples, inspiration or audience brand references is immensely helpful to reduce strategy to design disappointment.

The importance of the rebrief and scope

I am sure the perfect brief is out there. However, a good briefing is beyond the brief itself. It is the whole process - from the document to conversation. Briefs are still very subjective. An ideal brief for one person might not be the same for another. And as a client, you only provide what you feel is relevant.

There are tips and tricks for that perfect brief, but people are not robots and clients not programmers. Sorry folks, humans are involved in this process. Most of the time I try to provide a WIP brief. This helps to offer a preview on what’s coming, ask for any missing info and allow time for scope conversations. The latter is super important, as you will then know how they understood the project to run.

Within a project, there is a rebrief-the-brief phase. This can be called many things from immerse to understand. It generally means the brief will be read, supplemental insights used and a first approach presented. Within a rebrief as a client, I am looking for clarity of idea, something interesting and project enthusiasm. In a way, it’s like a first date after texting back and forth for a couple of weeks.

Remember how cultures have different bargaining traditions?

Well, that’s the same for a brief. It’s a creative negotiation. As a client, I expect to be challenged and questioned by the agency. As an agency, I expect to think the client is boring and can do more. We all need to look at the brief as a process or phase that we all can improve upon. My ultimate piece of advice - know how it feels on the other side of the brief and you’ll already improve the process.

Let’s summarise

  • We can improve the briefing process by understanding how people feel
  • As a strategist, I always felt anticipation and dread around the brief
  • As a client, I felt like briefs were a balancing act
  • Scope and rebriefing are important parts to the briefing process
  • Sorry, there is no perfect brief as humans are involved