How to write briefs that lead to breakthrough creative ideas

Every so often we see marketing that tickles our funny bone, gives us the “feels”, or genuinely enlightens us. And it also makes us wonder, “How’d they think of that?” What was the “thought journey” that led the creative team to that solution? It’s a marvel of creative problem solving and we want to understand how they did it so that we can learn something.

More often than not, that thought journey started with a really great creative brief - a strategy document that identified an intriguing intersection between the client’s brand and the people it was trying to sell to. It framed the creative problem, focused the creative team in a particular area, and inspired them to come up with a brilliantly compelling idea.

Many people in the marketing industry don’t realize or appreciate this, but writing a good creative brief is an art form unto itself. Over the past couple of decades of both writing briefs and executing on them, I’ve noticed a few best practices that can mean the difference between powerful creative and sucky creative (there just happens to be 10 of them – trust me, I wasn’t trying for that number.)

Luminous, not voluminous.

There’s a tendency to dump large amounts of data on creatives. But less is more, as the saying goes. By providing only information that’s pertinent to the project, it helps your team focus their attention on what really matters and doesn’t cloud their thinking with impertinent details.

Accuracy is critical.

The brief is the bible for the product. You might think that having one little thing wrong, omitted or changed later won’t matter. And maybe it won’t. But it’s possible that it will matter quite a bit indeed.

Provide context.

Your brand is in the middle of a conversation with the customer. Your creative team needs to know what we’ve said to the prospect or customer in the past, what we want them to do next, and how this piece fits into the entire communication stream.

Offer audience insights.

The real meat of the audience section of a brief is about how the product or service would fit into the audience’s life. Why would they want it? Why would they want to change what they’re doing and adopt your thing? Use your intuition if you have to and offer at least one core human truth. This is critical.

Pretend your mom was going to read it.

The best creative briefs use simple, raw language. They don’t get overly complex. They don’t talk about business strategy. They’re straightforward and basic (no offense to your mom).

Check your thinking for consistency.

Is your strategy aligned with your objective? Does the single-minded message line up with the proof points? Doesn’t everything map back to the key audience insight? The more consistent the brief, the more powerful the creative idea (usually).

Meet face-to-face.

Don’t toss briefs over the email fence. Many times it’s what you say that sparks an idea that leads to great work. Give your creative partners the opportunity to probe your brain and you will be rewarded with the best ideas.

Be truthful about deadlines.

The creative team and the marketing team need to have trust if this thing is going to work. The marketers need to reveal their true deadlines and the creatives need to deliver ON time every time. That’s the deal. This helps create a good working relationship and mutual respect.

Judge work against the brief.

Your brief is a creative contract. That is what you use to judge the creative output. Is the work on strategy? Is it doing everything you asked? Does your feedback map directly back to the brief?

Include all approvers in the briefing process.

If someone hasn’t seen the brief, then they don’t have the context they need to properly assess the creative. If the CEO is approving the creative, then she or he needs to know what the problem was that the creatives were asked to solve in the first place. Also, they may disagree with the problem and the way that it’s framed in the brief. This gives them the opportunity to weigh in BEFORE all the time is spent solving the problem.

What do you think? Would you add anything to this list of best practices?

Oftentimes when we start working with a brand, I’m surprised to find that the client doesn’t have a brief template. If that’s the case for you, I offer up Pinwheel’s creative brief template FOR FREE. It includes tips, hints, and reminders to writing a good creative brief. We also offer creative brief training for marketing teams to develop skills that they will carry with them through many positions on their way to the top of the marketing food chain. 

10 Keys to a Trustworthy Brand

Is your brand a house of horrors?

Is your brand a house of horrors?

Yesterday, I got my oil changed at a place called “10 Minute Oil Change.” It took 30 minutes. Had they lived up to the basic promise in their name, they’d have had a customer for life. But the fact that they didn’t means that I’ll probably never go back. After all, how can I trust them? Who knows, maybe it’ll be 45 minutes next time.

Being in the brand communications field, I see a lot of companies that desperately want to be perceived as trustworthy while simultaneously sabotaging that perception with weasel tactics, myriad inconveniences, overpromises, crap service, and a dozen other bad habits. They tell us to make “trustworthiness” one of their brand personality or voice traits, and then they, for example, auto-renew annual customer subscriptions without explicitly telling anyone. Blech!

Maybe they don’t understand how trust actually works.

How does trust actually work in the marketplace?

Life teaches us to protect ourselves until we know that we can safely expose our vulnerabilities. We are constantly calculating the probability of companies taking advantage of us based on the circumstances, what’s at stake, and what we know about them. When we get new information about a company, it goes into the cerebral data file and is later used to calculate whether that company is likely to capitalize on our vulnerabilities.

In the case of the “10 Minute Oil Change” people, my calculation was fairly simple. I’d seen them around and knew that they were a chain, but I’d never used them. A sign on the building indicated that they used Penzoil, which I know to be a well-established, high quality brand of motor oil that my subconscious associated with NASCAR for some reason. And while I’d never been there before, I had sufficient confidence that if they put that very specific promise IN THEIR NAME they must be deeply committed to delivering on it. After all, I calculated, it would be highly imprudent for a business to name themselves after a promise they don’t deliver on. Okay, so they got my $49.56. But they’ll never get another dime.

I once placed my trust in Facebook and Twitter because I simply couldn’t see how they’d be taking advantage of me and I didn’t see all that much at stake. Now I know more about how exposed my personal information might be and am less sure about whether they have my best interests at heart. Therefore, I trust them less. In contrast, Apple’s recent refusal to unlock a dead terrorist’s iPhone for the FBI, regardless of what I think of that move, actually made me trust them more.

Marketing gurus often talk about building relationships and developing strong emotional connections with consumers. But without first building and nurturing trust, you can’t even get to the starting line on that stuff.

1.    Are you making it easy for prospects to predict your behavior?

The degree to which your behavior is predictable is linked to the level of trust. That means speaking as clearly and truthfully as possible in every situation. Be straight talking about what you offer and how you offer it. Any perceived deviation from what you say and do will hurt you. Don’t try to get away with things on a technicality, hide important details, or create convoluted systems or policies. Don’t be calculating or sly. Be completely open. This is a no brainer.

2.    Are you staying true to what you deliver?

There’s that gap, that sometimes Grand-Canyon-sized gap, between what a company says it delivers and what it actually delivers. That gap kills trust. So too do the little inconvenient truths that companies fail to reveal at the outset. Yeah, they can get away with it. People might still do business with them. But every instance of that hurts their perceived trustworthiness score.

3.    Do you have the customer’s best interest at heart in every situation?

If you are not constantly double-checking yourself against this question, your inherent profit-obsessed, ROI-centric self-interest will seep in to the way your business is projected out there. It just will. Is this question part of your corporate culture? If not, some form of it probably should be.

4.    Does your brand exhibit personality characteristics associated with trustworthiness?

Let’s be clear, trustworthiness is not a personality trait. But your brand can behave in ways that make it seem more trustworthy. Here are some personality traits that are associated with trust: honest, friendly, agreeable, relaxed, comfortable.

5.    Are you giving them things for free?

Trust is often built around an exchange. So start the exchanging before the actual purchase by giving prospects something valuable for nothing. No strings attached.

6.    Are you making yourself appear vulnerable?

Acknowledging your own vulnerabilities is a way to engender trust because it shows that you trust your audience with certain knowledge that may appear inconvenient for you. For example:   

·      Hey were in beta right now, so we’re still learning what works and what doesn’t

·      We made an error…

·      We completely underestimated the demand for…

·      As we learn and grow, we will continue to add new features our customers crave

Being vulnerable also makes you more intriguing as a brand and can help you stand out from your competitors. So there’s that.

7.    Are you backing up your claims with verifiable facts?

In the hierarchy of data, a company’s assertions about itself are very low quality. If my cerebral data file for a company consists entirely of information they’ve provided, then my level of trust in that company will be low. However, if those assertions are supported by facts, it strengthens that data. Don’t try to fudge this. In fact, the easier it is for them to verify your factual statements the better. When we develop Brand Messaging for clients, we try to include a repository of factual claims (usually the kind with real numbers and verifiable sources).

8.    Are you engaging your audience with stories?

Recent research indicates that when people hear stories, their brains release a neuropeptide called oxytocin (source: Harvard Business Review, 2014). Oxytocin affects an individual's willingness to accept social risks arising through interpersonal interactions (source:, 2005). In other words, it helps foster a sense of wellbeing, empathy, and yeah, trust.

9.    Does your brand emote?

Are you funny? Do you post emotional videos that give people the “feelies”? Are you projecting a tangible humanity? These are among the behaviors that are known to help with the release of oxytocin – the neurochemical I mentioned earlier.

10. Are you highly responsive?

Being highly responsive will contribute to the prospect’s sense that you are worthy of their trust. If they have questions, respond quicker than they might expect.

Companies are always looking for shortcuts to eek a few more cents out of a situation. Often times this knob-turning monkey mentality leads to business practices that erode trust. On the other side, a true devotion to building trust establishes a stronger foundation that really helps a company grow.  

Trust is like paper. Once crumpled, it can never be put right again.

Just ask Volkswagen