The critical ingredient missing in most creative briefs

It’s time to talk briefs. Yes, let’s get all of the underwear jokes out of the way first… it’s all part of the creative process. We’re a classy bunch.

All good? Let’s go.

Briefs are provided by your client to give you some very necessary background information and then very specific details about the project. Briefs, like underwear, come in all shapes and sizes and there are holes. Sadly, there is no definitive standard for the content. Here’s a blueprint for what we consider to be a great brief — this is a cut ’n paste from some of the best ones we’ve seen.

Standard Creative Brief Outline

  • Campaign Background and Context
  • Brand Pillars
  • Campaign Objectives
  • Target Customer
  • Customer Segment breakdown (if more than one group of customers)
  • Customer Insight
  • Key Message
  • Desired Response
  • Tactical Mandatories
  • Inclusions and/or Limitations
  • Languages
  • Regions
  • Measures of Success (also referred to as KPIs or Key Performance Indicators)
  • Approval Process
  • Workback Schedule and Key Milestones
  • Technical Specifications
  • Appendices

What to do first? RTGDMFB. Roughly translated, it means READ THE BRIEF. And, don’t do it in that half-awake, haven’t-had-coffee-yet kind of way. If you can’t make it through the brief without falling asleep, or taking a break to check instagram or get in a quick game of Fortnite, then have someone read it to you. Listen to it. Understand it. Have questions.

True brand essence is the tangible core benefit that customers get from using your product/service

Here’s what’s going to happen if you don’t… you’ll start working on something, latch onto an idea you like and flesh it out. When you start to run it up the chain of command, somebody is going to actually reference the brief and you will have missed something. Has that happened to me? Uh, ya. That’s why Chelsey is so vitally important to our success.

I have learned to go back and re-read the brief if I have questions along the way, because 9 times out of 10, the answer is in there and I just didn’t see it the first time.

In many cases, there will be separate documentation on the Brand, Target Customer Personas, Competitive Research, Specs for things like banner ads, digital signage, magazines, etc. If you’ve been working on the brand for a long time, then you may already know this stuff. If not, try and get as much info as you can.

So… what’s missing?

The thing I find that is missing from most briefs is what I call the “Creative Spark”. It’s a key insight about the target audience and is going to unleash a flurry of brilliant ideas as soon as you put it together in the secret recipe below. To find it, you need to dig through as many consumer insights as you can get for the given brand. You will probably try several of them out in this brainstorming model before finding the right one. But it will be SO worth it!


The Holistic Brainstorming Model


This is an amazing brainstorming model that I learned about while working with some very smart people in Chicago. It was the basis for a very successful campaign (probably many successful campaigns). I can’t tell you any more about it without getting in trouble, but know this: It changed my life.

There are 3 critical elements that you will need to get from your client in order to make this work. And, most if not all of them will probably be missing from the brief.

Brand Essence—I know what you’re saying. I can hear you yelling IT’S IN THE BRIEF! Ya ya. What’s in the brief is a line that says “brand essence” and what follows is probably some pithy, committee-agreed-upon statement that could most likely apply to ANY brand. The REAL essence is “the tangible core benefit that customers get from using your product/service”. What does it do for them? How does it make them feel? How does your product achieve that in a way that your competitors can’t?

Key Consumer Insight—there are usually a few insights in a brief. You need MORE. Look through them—this is your creative diamond mine. There are typically different insights for each customer segment. When you find the right one, believe me, you will experience a full body shiver. No shiver? Keep looking. This is going to serve as your creative spark.

Contact Filter—this definitely will not be in the brief. This is a primary Brand characteristic that you will use to measure the success (or failure) of every idea that is generated in your brainstorming sessions. And it’s different for every single Brand. The great thing about this filter is that brainstorming sessions become less hostile when a bad idea is thrown into the mix. No longer do you have to say “That is a terrible idea Jim, how did you even get hired here in the first place?!”. Now you can calmly say “Jim, I love that idea so much. Unfortunately, because the contact filter is X, it doesn’t work. But write it down and save it for another day”. Nobody’s ego gets hurt and all the bad ideas are safely tossed into a wastebasket that you can set on fire later.


Remember that scene in the movie Ratatouille, where Remy tries to show his brother the magic that happens when you combine one flavor with another? This is the creative version of that.

The exact moment of Remy’s creative spark revelation.


When you take the new, improved Brand essence and combine it with that key consumer insight (the creative spark), suddenly, you are going to see options for an overall “Activation Idea”.

Reverse engineering Apple’s Think Different campaign

To demonstrate how it works, let’s reverse-engineer Apple’s famous “Think Different” campaign. Keep in mind, at the time, Apple was 30 days away from bankruptcy.

Brand Essence: Apple creates the best tools on the market for people that create, invent and imagine so they can develop and innovate.

Key Consumer Insight: Apple’s product line at the time was fragmented, confusing and expensive. The Macintosh had a small hardcore group of users/fans/evangelists that included some very famous and respected people—some of whom actually had changed the world in some way. People like Steven Spielberg and Sting. We need the larger audience—those that are not on Apple’s side, to re-evaluate their thinking and realize that being different is a good thing.

Contact Filter: Simply brilliant.

Activation Idea: Our products are not for everybody—and that is not a mistake. They are meant for that small group of creative thinkers that have the drive, desire and ability to actually make a positive change in this world. If you want to be part of that group, use the tools they use.

Executional Idea: Think Different.

Using the elements above in the Holistic model could lead to the campaign concept where they use images of famous, brilliant people who have changed the world in one way or another. That can include people that are no longer with us, but if they were, they would most definitely be Mac Users. The creative pieces were a simple as can be – an iconic photo of the person, the apple logo and the line “Think Different”.

That’s my take on it—pieced together from many articles, books and personal experience with the brand. Think Different became one of the most iconic ad campaigns in the history of advertising. I believe that this campaign changed the advertising world at that time and has had a lasting impact.

Do you have a different take on any of these core elements? Share your ideas below in the comments.

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