WARC from Home is a new series to help subscribers to brush up on the essentials of marketing during the COVID-19 lockdown. Find all WARC from Home content here.

Every week we’ll guide you around the latest thinking on a key topic, pointing you in the direction of must-read articles, seminal research papers and essential webinars, to ensure you are top of the class when we all finally return to office life.

This week we’re taking a close look at creative briefs. As much as the business of advertising has changed, encompassing an ever-wider array of channels, the role of the creative brief remains eternal. It is the foundational document that informs everything about how that brand will be advertised – whether by a 15-second video or, in these days of virtual living, a branded Zoom background.

What is a creative brief?

At its most basic, a creative brief summarizes what it is the agency is supposed to do to market a brand. Its “recipe”– described in more detail below – includes ingredients such as the target consumer, the situation the brand currently finds itself in, and, most importantly, what the marketing output is supposed to achieve.

The creative brief rose in importance alongside account planning departments, which emerged in the 1960s. As the account planner is often considered closest to the customer, it became his or her job to effectively translate this knowledge into a document that would set creative strategy into motion.

Distilling a communications strategy into a brief is an art; it should be concise, clear, consistent and creative. Indeed, BBH co-founder John Hegarty has gone so far as to describe the creative brief as “the first ad in the campaign”.

Much can be learned from advertising greats past and present. As David Ogilvy famously said, “Give me the freedom of a tight brief.” If the brief is clear, he argued, then creative teams know “where they’re going, and they can start thinking about it on the way home”.

Veteran account planners Merry Baskin and Kate Waters have pointed out that the role of the brief is not only to make the creative process run more smoothly, but also “to inform and inspire”, and to empower creative teams to deliver “more distinctive, engaging, creative solutions” to brand problems.

Essential reading:

For a deeper dive:

But I’m not a planner. Why should I care?

Two reasons:

  1. As the foundational document of brand communications, it ultimately touches every part of the industry, and that means you.
  2. While planners often take the lead in writing, it is by no means true that planners are the only ones involved in writing a creative brief. It can involve creatives, account management, technologists, experience planners and specialists in user experience.

OK, I get it, but what’s the recipe?

The recipe for a brief is like marinara sauce: there are hundreds of variations, and no two taste exactly the same. That said, a 2017 Association of National Advertisers white paper outlined the basic ingredients needed in any brief, including:

  • A clear objective
  • Details of the target consumer
  • The brand’s key benefit
  • A reason that consumers should buy it
  • A description of the brand’s personality
  • The deliverables expected by the marketer
  • How success will be measured

Other optional elements – dependent on an agency's way of working – may include channel selection, cultural insights and customer experience. The ‘Get/To/By’ approach, as put forward by strategists such as Julian Cole, provides a method for distilling multiple considerations into a simple formula.

Essential reading:

What makes a brief great?

A bit of honesty here: there’s no guarantee a great brief will lead to great work. That said, great briefs tap into potential greatness in distinctive ways. Genius Steals founder Faris Yakob outlined some of the most common approaches in a 2016 WARC webinar.

One brief considered to be among the best is Goodby, Silverstein & Partners’ 1993 brief for the California Milk Processor Board, which led to the iconic ‘Got Milk?!’ campaign. It set the standard for clarity and creativity by looking at a marketing problem in a whole new way.

A brief created by Wieden & Kennedy for Honda, meanwhile, stated this goal: “To create the feeling you get when you open the drawer on a really expensive compact disk player.” The resulting campaign, ‘Cog’, is among the most-awarded in advertising history.

More recently, and as outlined by Baskin and Waters, the brief for Sport England's widely-feted ‘This Girl Can’ campaign succeeded by including vital elements, including the commercial context, the role of communications, and a single “key thought”.

Essential reading:

For a deeper dive:

Got a spare 26 minutes? For a look at what Wieden & Kennedy’s John Jay, architect Frank Gehry and illustrator Maira Kalman have to say about briefs, check out this short film from brand and design strategists Bassett & Partners.

We hope you enjoyed this lesson and found it useful. Please do share any feedback, and get in touch with the WARC team if you would like to find out more.