Writing a creative brief requires collaboration. So how do we define “collaboration”?

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Think about it: What do you mean when you say “The creative brief is a collaborative document”?

What do you mean by “collaborate”?

How do you define that word?

If you do the following, are you collaborating? — You write a draft of the creative brief and then circulate it to key stakeholders for their input and feedback.

Is that collaboration?

Another version: You write a draft of a creative brief and show it to your boss for her input and feedback.

Is that collaboration?

One more version: You and a colleague work together on a draft of a creative brief, and then you show it to your boss for input and feedback.

Okay, so is that collaboration?

No, no, and no. None of these versions is an example of collaboration.

I’m not sure what you’d call them. Perhaps a group exercise in proofreading … but mostly they’re a bizarre request for lots of trouble.

You’ll likely get back a document covered in scribbled margin notes and conflicting input, none of which will aide you in writing a second draft. The fewer people who see it, the weaker the document because it reflects too narrow a perspective.

Here is my definition of collaboration, and a workable process for making the collaboration not only effective but truly valuable, worthy of the extra time it will take to make it work. (And you need to build in the time to do it right.)

You probably know the old saying:

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

establish a core creative brief writing team.

Keep this team small, no more than three people. It should consist of one key player from the client, one key player from the creative partner (internal or external) and, if you want a third person, I strongly recommend a senior creative. The document is, ultimately, for creatives.

Why a mix of client and creative collaborators?

The idea is to eliminate the “call and response” system of creative briefing, where the client provides some guidance (sadly, not always in writing) that explains the communication request, and the creative partner responds with its interpretation of that request — the creative brief.

Best practice today, articulated in the ANA Briefing Task Forces’s white paper, “Better Creative Briefs,” streamlines this process to a single creative brief, produced in collaboration between client and creative partner.

And this gets to how collaboration works. What follows is one iteration. Be creative, and adjust the process to suit your culture.

create a hub and spoke system to answer the questions on a creative brief.

The first step in the collaborative process is to let others do the work before you write a single word.

Don’t even think about answering the questions on your creative brief template. Leave the template blank. For now.

Instead, your core team (the hub) identifies who in your world (the spokes) is best suited to answering one, possibly two, of the questions on your template.

Don’t ask every stakeholder to answer every question. Some very senior level people (C-suite, for example) will likely want to weigh in on some questions more than others. They will care more about answering, say, “What is the problem this communication must solve?” than “Who are we talking to?” The latter will likely be known, the former a point of contention.

Ask the strategist or account planner to answer a question about insights (although that may not be necessary as the planner might be on the core team).

The core creative brief writing team’s first task is to get the right question to the right expert.

And don’t forget to talk to real people. You know, your customers. You don’t need a focus group to get usable, insightful answers. Talk to three or four. Read the emails that come in from customers, too: the elated and the irate. Both are windows you may have never looked through.

In a recent training session on brief writing, I heard from a marketer who asked me about the value of customer email. Her product was a popular pasta sauce. She’d read an email that said, “When I eat (brand name), my tongue feels like it’s been on a world tour of flavors.” This is a gold mine!

When was the last time you read your brand’s social media posts or incoming email?

Be selective in identifying who answers which question. This may take some strategizing. Send out your request with a firm deadline.

Don’t assume that you’ll get the best answers from internal colleagues only. Consider soliciting insights from a journalist who covers the industry your product represents.

How about an academic who studies the psychology of brands? Or a historian who writes about the socials dynamics of brand loyalty? Or tradespeople who are in a position to recommend your product to their customers?

If you’ve never entertained talking to an outside expert, this, too, may take some thought and strategizing.

The point is, your internal world may be too closed off from the real world. Reach outside for new thinking, insights, ideas.

Guess what? This takes time.

But you will be richly rewarded with better creative in fewer rounds.

And better creative in fewer rounds saves time, money, and boosts morale. That last one may be difficult to quantify, but you can see it on the faces of your team.

review, synthesize, and crystalize the input into a single-page FIRST draft of your creative brief.

You’ve sent your requests to the spokes. Not it’s time for the hub to do its work.

This is the heavy lifting. This is where your core team must do the necessary reading, editing, revising, and reduction of the raw material that produces an inspiring blueprint called the creative brief.

How do you know you can achieve such a feat?

Easily: For one thing, you have a senior creative on the team who can write well (even art directors write better than most non-creatives).

This is why you chose a creative. It’s about picking the right people.

Some caveats

You must let the entire team know in advance that this is, or will be, the new normal for writing creative briefs at your place of work.

You must let everyone know that not all players will be asked for input on all questions. That a core group of senior people will be on the receiving end of the hub and spoke system, and that they and they alone will be responsible for writing the first draft.

Let me repeat that: They will write the first draft.

This first draft will then be circulated to all the key stakeholders, who will know in advance who answered which questions.

If the CMO or the CEO or the ECD answered one or two questions, any discussion or push back would have come from the core team, and revisions would be reflected on this first draft.

Real, manageable collaboration

What I like about this system is that key stakeholders are part of the process up front, not at some unanticipated junction down the timeline when only havoc results in a C-suite intervention.

This process, I believe, is a truer definition of collaboration than much of what I’ve heard and encountered in my travels for the ANA.

It is highly workable because the hub and spoke system is managed by the core team.

Key stakeholders are invited up front to contribute. And it taps into the strengths of each contributor, including, especially, creatives.