Category Archives: briefs and strategy

How to write the perfect creative brief

Writing a bad creative brief is really easy. Writing a good one is really hard.

Why does it matter? Because the better the brief, the better the work you’ll get back.

If the brief is vague and woolly the work will be even vaguer and woolier.

Here’s a few tips on how to write a good one that will have copywriters and designers slapping you on the back and taking you for a beer. (Yes, great briefs are quite rare I’m afraid.)

Precisely define your target audience

It’s important to carefully and accurately describe the person we’re talking to.

Digital agencies tend to talk about “personas”, ad agencies tend to talk about the target audience still. But it’s the same thing. The more I can picture the person I’m writing for, the better I can empathise with his or her needs/problems.

Paint me a picture of who I should see in my mind’s eye when I begin work. Can I visualise someone I know?

What jargon do they use (if any), what understanding or knowledge do they have about the product or service we’re selling? What is their current mindset about the product or sector, and so on.

(Many clients like to subdivide the audience into small segments based on age, sex etc but I’ve found that behaviour is generally a much more effective way to divide an audience. Have they bought it before, do they respond to edm, etc?)

Describe and explain the product or service

The brief should clearly tell us what the product or service does. How it works. What’s different or unique about it. Why does the target need it? How does it help them? What problem does it solve for them? Or what emotional need does it fulfil?

Spell it out so anyone can understand it using simple everyday words. If you don’t fully understand it yourself, your creative team won’t have a clue. This is really, really important.

Often the nugget of a great creative idea is hidden in the detail about a product or service. If you’re an agency person, try and know more about the client’s product and market than she does. What’s its market share? What’s the awareness level in the marketplace?

Describing the product or service is the bit on the brief where, as a copywriter, I don’t mind if you write lots of stuff. Or link to a brochure or website that gives lots of detail.

On the other hand, the bit where you must NEVER write lots of stuff is what this post is really about…

Write a killer Main Proposition 

It’s the shortest bit of the brief but should take you the longest time to write. Because it’s far and away the most important bit. It dictates everything about the creative work you want produced, by tightly defining the core thing we want to say.

Writing a good proposition is what really separates the amateur from the pro when it comes to writing a brief for creative people.

It has lots of different names: the promise, the main message, the singleminded proposition. Or it may simply be a slot on the brief that says “What is the one thing that will make the target audience do what we want?” or variations on that theme.

The point is, it’s the single piece of communication that, if all else fails, we want to hit the target reader/viewer/listener with.

And it’s really, really hard to get it right.

So if you only have time to write one thing on a brief, this is the one to focus on. And this is how to do it…

Short and sharp: it should contain ONE message. A single, short sentence.

Benefit-led: It should convey a single promise or benefit to the audience:  how will the reader’s problem be solved? What offer are we making to her? In other words…

What’s the single, main reason they should buy this product?

It could be as simple as a price deal: “Get 25% off this Thursday”

It could be telling them that’s something will make their life easier: “Cook your dinner five times faster” “Reduce your lead time to customers by 30%” “Feel instantly refreshed” “Grow stronger rapeseed plants”.

These all are BENEFITS. You must be super-clear about the difference between a benefit and a feature.

A feature simply describes what the product or service IS. It’s a global supply chain, it’s a sausage made of best pork, it’s an online investment service.

But a BENEFIT tells you why you need to buy it. How it will help you or your business.

It’s the difference between ‘these boots are made of high quality leather’ and “these boots will last you a lifetime”. Clients often focus on the feature and find it hard to think it terms of benefit.

The best way to write a strong benefit-led proposition is to use my YOU CAN technique. Try writing You Can in front of your proposition. This makes sure your proposition is talking direct to the punter, and helps you make sure it’s framed as a benefit to them.

You can reduce your delivery lead time

You can feed your hungry kids quicker

You can grow more crops per acre

You can have a more fulfilling career 

Some writers and designers/art directors will even ask you to condense the thought down to a single word if you can (or will do it themselves using the brief) so they have a laser-like focus on the core message. Try it.

Emotional or rational?

Some people will say “You need  an emotional sell, not a logical one, these days.” Be careful, though, this often stems from misunderstanding how propositions and the resultant headlines are created and work.

Sure, you should write your promise or proposition in a way that empathises with the audience if you can, but a purely emotion-focused proposition like “XYZ Product will make you happy” won’t get you good work.

There’s a trend amongst account people and planners at the moment to use something like this as the proposition for every brief, because ultimately that’s what all products or services are designed to do, yes?.

No. A bland and boring proposition will get you bland and boring work.

It’s the creative team’s job to take your focused, benefit-led proposition and dramatise it in a way that stands out and that resonates with the audience in an emotional way. We present your rational proposition in an emotionally charged way so it works harder.

If you want to write your proposition as a quasi-headline, great. A good copywriter will run with it if it’s a good one. Good ideas can come from anyone in the team.

Try it as a newspaper headline?

If you’re struggling to write your proposition, try writing the benefit statement as it might appear in a newspaper or website news headline. This is a really good way of establishing whether it’s credible or just hot air and/or waffle.

Company claims new pesticide kills 5% more insects in your roof

Company claims new pesticide will make householders happy

Which one is more powerful, or more likely to get the punter to read on, do you think?

The proposition dictates the headline and the imagery

The headline that your writer or team comes back with should, in conjunction with the main image, instantly reflect your proposition. Anyone seeing the work should know at one what we’re offering the punter. If they don’t, the work has failed to capture the proposition and, arguably, should be revisited.

In my days working on huge FMCG clients like Lever Brothers or Procter & Gamble, the clients would sometimes evaluated the work entirely on a tick box basis. Does it clearly communicate the benefit in the proposition? Tick. Does it show who it’s for? Tick. And so on.

They would take the (sensible) view that the agency was the expert in writing ads and, therefore,  as long as their marketing messages were clearly communicated they’d trust us to do work that was exciting, impactful and memorable.

Which is a timely reminder that creative work isn’t generally there to make the client feel all warm and gooey. It’s to get his customers reaching for their wallet. Sometimes it’s very easy to forget this.

But what if there’s isn’t a strong and specific reason for them to buy?

If you’re selling milk or beer or clothes or even a car, there may not be anything specific or unique you can say to your audience to make them consider your product. In this case you may have to fall back on a proposition that is more about the target audience’s aspirations and lifestyle.

The creative work will most likely rely simply on imagery, humour or music that reflect what the brand wants to say about itself.

In a B2B environment, however, if you can’t see a specific reason/benefit you can use for your proposition, you’re stuffed. Chances are you just need to ask the client more questions. Or failing that, ask his customers why they bought.

(Can you imagine a hard-nosed B2B salesman telling a corporate procurement director that he should spend £2m on his machines because it will make him happy?)

Sure, you can treat a B2B brief like an FMCG brief for beer or perfume but the creative work you get back will be tosh and disappear into the ether, ignored and unread.

Why should they believe us?

The next section on the brief, immediately following the proposition, should be something called “support” or “proof points” or “why should the audience believe our promise?” or similar. This is where you can list all the product features and facts that make the proposition credible.

This section should really only contain the stuff that directly underpins the proposition. If there’s other stuff you’d like to say to the punter, put this in a separate section on the brief.

Finally, don’t forget the last two must-haves, both of which massively impact the creative people’s thinking. (I generally read these first so I can frame the rest of the brief in the knowledge of where it’s ultimately got to lead.)

The deliverables: do you want a web page, a brochure, an email, a brochure, a press ad, a banner or skyscraper, a logo, a doordrop? Or perhaps a campaign idea that will work across all of the above? Be clear and specific.

The call to action: what is it you want the punter to do? (It may be nothing but remember the product if it’s a pure brand awareness brief.) Do you want her to call you, visit a website, buy something Right Now? Be clear about what you want them to do and how you want them to do it.