Scaling up? Write a creative brief

We talk a lot about how the model of ad agencies is broken. Martech is commoditising operations once owned by agencies. The retainer model is practically obsolete, with agencies trying to keep up with profit sharing and IP-based models, to name just a few. The big consultancies are biting shamelessly at their once-unique propositions.

The debate around the reasons for the new emerging order includes lots of approaches, from how ad services were slow to adopt technologies to why they lost the capacity to attract the best talent. I think the all-encompassing explanation goes back to managing risks.

Agencies have been great at taking creative risks – “go bolder, go louder, get some awards while you’re at it” has been the mantra of agencies for decades. However, very often they have failed at taking real business risks. Most of their innovation efforts happen at the end of the funnel, delivering at best “gadget-y” ideas. In addition, most of the creative partnerships out there are still driven by “time and materials” models.

There is one thing agencies still do better than anybody else. Something they’ve invented, used and abused for decades: the creative brief and the briefing process that comes with it.

Something we are still to learn how to best use in other areas of business. And especially in innovation.

Why and when do you need a creative brief?

The creative brief* is a snapshot of your strategy: what are you trying to achieve, who are you trying to engage with, what messages and channels are you considering and why? It’s format forces you to distil your thinking and it’s a document used across teams, so the best ones are written in plain, unambiguous language that people can adopt without altering its intention.

Small teams and early start-ups rarely formalise their strategy, audiences and messages. Especially when applying agile principles to product development, teams go through rapid cycles of “build-measure-learn” with a lot of ad-hoc decisions around the brand proposition scenarios and their consequent messaging.

So, with scale comes the need to formalise the approach to brand messaging and storytelling. This is where a good creative brief is required, as it can clarify the key brand strategy points and the messaging.

There are a lot of frameworks and approaches to help define the strategy and write a good brief. I personally prefer the script writing workshop: the brand / business key stakeholders work together to write a movie script for the brand. It’s fun, it allows alignment without the usual turf-y tensions and, more importantly, it avoids the creative-killing generics like “independent, fun yet professional tone of voice”.

* There are lots of types of briefs as different parts of the business developed their own templates. I’m referring to the creative brief as an umbrella name for the “strategy to execution” guide.  

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