How to design a creative brief

The creative brief was invented by ad agencies but it can be used for any kind of project work. The key rule: it’s not a specs doc, it’s an ideation tool

Some questions for you…

  • What’s one thing that your clients get emotional about? How do you know that?
  • What problem are you best at solving and for whom? Any particular industries or types of businesses you like working with?
  • What’s the old 30-second elevator speech? Will it work next year?
  • Do you have customer personas? For each customer persona, can you identify one real person and add a link to their LinkedIn profile? 
  • Do you have between 1,000 and 10,000 prospects (ie. need and can afford you)? How many exactly if you had to guess? What did you base your guess on?

Actually, I have a bunch more questions than that – in my perversion of the classic client questionnaire, the creative brief.

Here’s the kind of stuff you’ll usually find in a creative brief. 

  • What’s your favorite color? (bad question)
  • target audience? (semi-bad question)
  • What tone of voice does your company have? (semi-bad question)
  • What’s the budget/timeline/approvals-process? (off-topic)

And then maybe one or two “insight” questions around the brand strategy, larger strategic business goals.

Which is great. But my thinking is, “why not design every question in the creative brief to stimulate some kind of business insight?”

Creativity comes from constraints and the most relevant constraints are business ones, not the color preferences of arbitrary individuals.

The questions in my creative brief exposes some fundamental biases I’m working with. For example:

  • Marketing is many orders of magnitude more successful if you have specialized positioning.
  • Marketing is supplied by little ideas (which is why I ask about data sources – where people get their numbers from) more so than by big ideas.
  • People use target personas because it’s emotionally easier than using target real people.

And I could assign a similar bias to almost every one of the 20 or so questions that comprise a typical creative brief.

Follow the money backwards

The famous Steve Jobs quote on engineering in reverse by starting with UX applies here. Except we’re talking about money now.

When you start putting together a strategy for crafting brand messaging, or doing outreach, or content marketing, start from the point of sale and work backward.

Then take it one step further.

Start from the point of money entering your bank account and work back from there.

How did it get there? How long did the transfer take? How many days (if any) spent on contracting? How many conversations led up to that? How many emails were read? Personal emails – marketing emails? What case study was downloaded? What website page was landed on? What keywords were entered into a Google search?

It’s all connected to the moment that credit shows up in your business bank balance.

Whatever work you’re doing, think about that next time you design or complete a creative brief. Or heck, let’s abstract this, any time you come across a set of key questions, questions that are evidently meant to be diagnostic. Ask yourself: do are these questions relevant to the actual acquisition of money?

Not the only question to ask, but it’s unusual. And in ideation, unusual is your friend.

On that note, let the creative brief be cross-disciplinary. It can cover design, copywriting, research, revenue… anything. Ultimately, it’s nothing but an ideation tool.

Want a head start? Take my creative brief template as my free gift to you

Download it, copy it, use it on yourself, use it on your clients, barter it for email subscriptions, whatever you like.

Have a wonderful weekend,