Does your project need a great creative brief?

The answer is a great creative brief.  No matter what the question. Whether the assignment is a new logo, a piece of collateral, a web site, or branded Facebook assets, clients and agency partners have to be operating under the same assumptions with the same appreciation for resources, timing, and results.

Upon presenting concepts for a new web site, client says:
“That’s really nice.  Looks good.  I’ve been thinking, you know, that maybe this site should also have a way to showcase some of our best projects.  Like mini case studies?  With pictures, maybe floor plans.  And pretty, happy people on couches in our living rooms with the high-end woodwork? Some sample materials would be awesome.  Can we add that in?  What about letting them build their own virtual model, right there online?

Struck dumb, you think:
“Is he serious?  That’s not in the scope of work.  I didn’t estimate that type of custom programming.  Shooting those photos with model talent isn’t in the budget.  That content doesn’t exist.  The fall Open House rush is in four weeks, there’s no way I can get this done.  I can’t backwards-engineer this design to do what he wants!  Where the he!% is this coming from?”

How many of us have been in that room, on that conference call, or received that email?  Time and time again, whether working as a solopreneur or member of client services from a boutique or even mid-sized agency, this scenario hits.  I speculate there are often a number of reasons why clients and service groups often speak separate languages (ok, there are sometimes even a few lies), and here are a few:

  1. You got caught up in the courtship, in the allure of a fresh client win.
  2. They got caught up in the allure, the siren song of working with “creative people.”
  3. You work in your reality. You know the man hours required to complete a spectrum of projects.
  4. They live in their reality.  They might know what they want.  They possibly might know what they need.  But this is a big deal for them and the project has a lot of other moving parts (which you may not see) so connecting the timing and sequencing dots may be a challenge for them.
  5. You can’t afford to waste time that’s not leading directly to project completion.  You may have already absorbed some hits just to hit stage one concepts (which you thought rocked).  To rework things might wreck internal timetables, compromise other (lucrative) projects, or affect other revenue-generating resources.  This drop of water creates ripples.
  6. They don’t know the cost of exploration.  Or uncertainty or indecisiveness.  They can’t visualize a final work product.

I’m an agency veteran and I’ve held roles in strategic/creative services for companies delivering technology products.  This issue is essentially intrinsic to anywhere I’ve been where talented creative people “make stuff” for clients who “need stuff.”  This problem can be frustrating for both parties and cause a lot of financial (and relationship) angst.  How have you successfully navigated the problems of project specification and scope?

Some of my methods (met with varying degrees of success over the years):

  • Be frank. Acknowledge the elephant in the room.  Tell the client you’re excited to have his business and want to help the project succeed.  He/she plays a critical role, too, in providing clear, actionable direction to establish specific deliverables, budgets, and timetables.  Together, your two parts comprise the whole.
  • Go deep.  Ask questions, even if the client is a little confused about their relevancy to the task at hand.  You need to know the backstory, their motivations, their obstacles, what’s on the immediate horizon and where they’re looking at the middle distance.  What’s worked in the past, what hasn’t.  Connect the dots and hear what they aren’t saying, as much as what they are.
  • Write the brief.  This is non-negotiable.  Outline the entire project.  Include what you heard them say, and what you intuited.  Fold in points of reference.  The brief calls upon your skills in information organization, creative writing, and instruction.  This document becomes your Statement of Work and establishes a baseline of expectations and deliverables as it informs your decision-making and defines your approach.  Don’t do work without it.
  • Get the signature.  The client may prefer to “just get started.”  Or they may not be able to review the brief for a few days due to their vacation.  That’s okay, no rush.  You’re happy to launch the project once he’s worked through the brief and faxed the final page – bearing his approval signature – back to your office.  A scan will do nicely, too.  You can provide more info about actual timing once you get the brief – that’s when you can examine the work queue (production schedule) and see what works.

Managing a project where creative resources develop the work product (and clients pay the estimate) can be a challenge.  There are questions about fair price, questions about copy, questions about time to launch.  With a well-written (and signed!) creative brief, there won’t be any questions about the assignment scope or objectives.  I’ve provided a creative brief template for your reference below.

What would you add or change about this sample creative brief?  What other resources or planning documents would you like for me to share?

Web Site Creative Brief

4 Comments for: Does your project need a great creative brief?

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Jim Mayhew

Well stated, Heather. Identifying and describing the scope is vital – I always kept the time frame in that part too, as to avoid any surprises.


Heather Rast
Twitter: heatherrast

Timing – the period the client says the completed project is due – can be paralyzing when viewed as part of a requirement. The client requires 4 pages, the color blue, etc. It’s difficult – but I think essential – to instead look at final delivery date as a product of client/provider collaboration. Timing is what’s possible when the two groups properly plan the project, provide timely input and feedback, and meet milestones along the path. This means being realistic and building in time for the inevitable snafu (problems with DNS transfer, code magically being eaten, etc.). Scheduling 100% of team mates for 100% of their available man hours under the auspice of hitting a due date simply won’t work. Never does.

Timing isn’t so much the provider’s problem (assuming they’re living up to their end of the bargain) as it is a collective goal. For instance, a provider can’t arbitrarily agree to an end date of X (although it can be a beacon, something to work toward) if the client takes an undue amount of time (or doesn’t see the import) reviewing and approving the creative brief. To me, this goes to the point I mentioned above – the client/provider form a team rather than a servant/master pair.


Getting The Most From Your Hired Help | Social Media Explorer

[...] view progress.”) and work style (“Please funnel final group comments to me via Basecamp.”). A project brief, completed by the project owner, will ensure the exchange of expectations and critical data by both [...]

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