Navigate the seven C’s to write an inspiring creative brief.

In my travels this year on behalf of the Association of National Advertisers’ School of Marketing, I’ve met hundreds of dedicated marketing and advertising professionals. They shared with me their challenges, frustrations and successes with the creative brief. If I’ve learned only one thing from these remarkable people—and it’s difficult to reduce to one—it’s this:

You must maintain a sense of humor.

The brief is the most important part of the creative process because it’s the first step, and that makes it hard to write. Very hard. As it should be. So you must learn to have fun, laugh and accept that brief writing is a process.

From California to Virginia, from Miami to San Francisco, from Phoenix to Cleveland, I heard the same basic questions repeatedly:

How do you know what to include and what to leave out?

How do you make the brief clearer?

How do you get everyone to buy in?

How do you write a really good single-minded proposition?

The answers to these questions require the seven “Cs” outlined below. They are my gift to you this holiday season (plus a New Year’s Resolution I urge you to consider. It’ll be easy…I promise!).


Think of the creative brief as an argument. An argument requires evidence to support it. To be a good argument, you must take a stand, a clear position. Preferably, a position that might cause push back.

How can we all find ways to be courageous?

If someone disagrees with you about your argument, you’re in the ball park. If they don’t disagree, you might be in safe territory.

Better to be outside your comfort zone with your brand.

Writing a creative brief requires courage. Ultimately you want everyone to agree with you that you’ve taken the brand assignment in the right direction. Being safe is the wrong pathway. Presenting solid evidence in the form of consumer insights and an authentic emotional reason to believe in the product are better choices. You have to defend your position.


Less is more, especially with a creative brief. You can’t say everything in your advertising communication. Don’t even try to.

Constraint is liberating. Put someone in a box and it fires up the imagination. This isn’t my opinion. This is reality. As a creative, I know how it works.

Constraint begins here, with the creative brief. It means you have to decide what is absolutely the most important claim about your brand. So make it. Then stop. You’re done.


If you don’t have it, find another line of work.

Advertising is about ferreting out what your customer wants and triggering that want with a message that demands…action, a response, a purchase.

I wrote a short essay for my college students explaining why I teach. Here’s a sentence from the opening paragraph:

“Curiosity is the engine of inquiry, a catalyst of self-awareness, the train-whistle-in-the-dead-of-night that calls you irresistibly to a new adventure.” cat-art-print-17-x-17-unframed--[2]-33278-p

The creative brief is the natural repository of your curiosity. Feed both!


We tend to forget that advertising changed dramatically in the 1960s when copywriters and art directors were paired to work together. Two brains. Two uniques perspectives. Two sounding boards.

This principle is now considered best practices in writing creative briefs. The collaboration must include a creative. That means asking for at the very least some comments on a draft creative brief before the briefing takes place.

Creatives have a stake in the process. Include them, always. When the actual briefing begins, there will be no surprises.


I’ve lost track of how many creative briefs I’ve read in my career. The really good ones had something in common:

The are well written. They were composed by someone who understood a sentence. Who could write a narrative, a story with drama and tension. They were composing a concise, cogent argument.

There is no substitute for craft in a creative brief.


There’s never time to do it right. There’s always time to do it over.

You can avoid this maddening reinforcing loop by giving yourself enough time to think. Demand thinking time! watch-time

A quantity you do not have, right? I hear this one, too.

One solution I recommend: Not every project requires its own creative brief. One-offs, special promotions, limited-time offers and projects of this nature can be handled with what I’d call a creative brief “addendum.”

In other words, a paragraph or two of new information to supplement an existing creative brief.

In other words, pick your battles.


I saved this for last.

Clarity is the starting and end point of every creative brief. You’ll know you’ve achieved it when the creatives start to riff on the project in front of you, and you may not even be done with the briefing.

They’ll have questions, of course. Every brief invokes questions. The best briefs always do that.

Clarity means no wasted words. Your argument is sound. Your rationales produce nods of agreement.

So there you have it. My gifts to you for 2017.

Are you still struggling with your briefs? Please consider my request for your New Year’s Resolution. It will make a world of difference:


I’m serious. Professionals always practice. Think LeBron James. Better yet, think Brett Hundley.

Who’s he? The new Green Bay Packers quarterback, the unfortunate guy who had to replace Aaron Rogers when he was injured earlier this season. Boy oh boy does he practice.

Why not you?

Here’s what you can do. Take as little as three minutes a day. No pencil, pen, paper or keyboard required.

On your commute home, identify a brand, any brand. Your car. The phone in your hand. In your head, answer these questions:

What are two brand benefits?

What is the single-minded proposition for this brand?

Who is the ideal consumer? Why?

Do this everyday with any brand. You’re honing a valuable skill. Do this for 30 days in a row, and you’ll have a new habit. Then, the next time you have to write an actual creative brief, you simply click into your muscle memory.

Practice makes creative brief writing easier.

Inspired Creative Brief: The Blog is off in December. I’ll be back in January 2018 with a Sneak Peek of my new book, How To Write A Killer Single-Minded Proposition. Don’t miss it!

Who is the real culprit behind bad creative briefs?

The people who screw up the creative brief are not likely to read this essay. That’s too bad. They need a serious talking to.

The thing is, I don’t know who they are by name, but I do know their identities by title or role within a client’s organization. Notice I don’t mention ad agencies. While everyone, everywhere, struggles with getting this document right, agencies know its value and take it seriously. At least the agencies I’ve worked for, and the people I know who work for them.

Client-side marketers, on the other hand, still display a dangerous ignorance about the creative brief. An ignorance bordering on insanity. No, I take that back. They are insane. Crazy insane.

The document designed to transform brands—and to make these insane people look good—is routinely ignored, undervalued, sabotaged, or all of the above.

Why? I wish I knew.

But I know who is to blame. They commit the same error for the same reason:


Which means my ranting will likely solve nothing.

Yet rant I will. I must. I have been called the “lone voice” on behalf of the creative brief. This is what a lone voice does.

The troglodytes come in three flavors, but share the same title: Senior Management.

1. They sabotage the creative brief process.

They sabotage because they can. They work like this:

Before the project has an official “kick off,” these saboteurs are either invited to review the creative brief, or asked to help compose it. They refuse. They ignore the request. They make excuses. They might beg forgiveness. But the result is the same. Their voice is not heard.

Then the creative brief emerges, and the next step occurs: the project kick-off.

The brief is discussed, or more likely debated for its lack of clarity and direction, but the driving force is always The Deadline. Usually yesterday. The work commences.

Then the work is presented, but not to the decision maker. Instead, to a less senior group. Some good idea rises to the top. Then it hits its first big hurdle. Senior Management (SM), who refused to participate in the opening stages, now steps in.

This is often when SM sees both the creative brief, as well as the creative work, for the first time. SM objects. The reason hardly matters. SM doesn’t like something. They revise the brief in some way, and that always means the creative work misses the mark. The process starts over.

Lost time. Lost enthusiasm. And what the SM should be most attuned to, but is not, lost $$$.

When a stake holder fails to get involved in the beginning, everyone pays…in the middle and especially in the end.shootinfoot

When there are multiple stake holders, it’s not unusual for no one to claim “final authority.” Worse, no one cares. Multiple turfs, silo-ed responsibilities, no collaboration. Everyone pays.

This is willful sabotage.

2. They don’t understand the creative brief.

All I have to write is: The Telephone Game. This is a simple visual.

You immediately picture a group of children…er…Senior Management. The one on the farthest left whispers something into the ear of the SM next to him. By the time the last in line hears the whispered message and announces what she has heard, the joke is on everyone. You know how this works.

But for reasons passing understanding, SM fails to grasp the concept. SM is convinced that a creative brief is not necessary. That everyone knows what the task is.

Even some veteran creatives buy into this nonsense. The rationale: We creatives often go without a brief and we manage to figure out what’s needed, and always deliver.

Bless you. My response: Why do you put up with it? Why do you become enablers?

No ad agency I know of works without a creative brief. Once in my past, I worked for a small B-to-B shop that did not use a creative brief. After months of pestering, SM relented, and instructed me to write the briefs.

Me, the copywriter.

Look what they have wrought.

3. They don’t believe in the creative brief.

I know, this is so close to #2 it may not deserve its own rant. But it’s a disease all its own. These troglodytes use the creative brief, but put so little stock in it that you might as well not have one at all. They are closer to #1 than #2 because this group of SM is likely to sabotage the process.

The primary difference between the saboteurs and the non-believers is: Influence.

Saboteurs dent morale, but the believers in the creative brief who work for them never lose faith.

Non-believers infect the entire organization.

I know this is flirting dangerously with religion, but the analogy fits. You have to put your faith in something that provides a rallying point. The creative brief is the logical and emotional center for the brand and of the creative process. These are its purposes. troglodyte

When you encounter troglodytes, you have to work especially hard to immunize yourself and your organization from their disease.

I have the feeling that you’re nodding in agreement with much, perhaps most, of what I’ve written.

“Alas,” you say, “what can I do?”

Here’s a thought: Print this out and leave it on the desk of your favorite troglodyte.