The ANA's Solution To Bad Creative Briefs (Of Which There Are Many)

A large number of creative briefs stink, and clients shoulder much of the blame.  

That’s the conclusion of a new ANA whitepaper, “Better Creative Briefs,” completed by the ANA Briefing Task Force that was established to provide guidance for developing briefs and optimizing the briefing process.  

The task force was comprised of nine ANA members and two ANA staffers, all steeped in the creative brief process.  They interviewed 11 subject matter experts – advertisers, agencies, and consultants – in which each of them provided a thoughtful, well-informed perspective to share. 

The whitepaper reinforced the findings of a 2015 ANA study among clients and agencies that found an alarming gap between how each side rated the quality of briefs provided by clients to their agencies. In that study, 58 percent of clients believed they provided clear assignment briefings to the agency, while only 27 percent of the agencies agreed. 



The brief is a road map and catalyst for creative. A good brief provides useful direction and inspiration that leads to imaginative work. A bad brief can start a time-consuming and expensive process heading off in the wrong direction, leading to many rounds of revisions, confusion, and unnecessary tension in the client/agency relationship. And the final result of a poorly written brief can be subpar creative in the marketplace, which translates into wasted money. 

The ANA whitepaper revealed that most marketers don’t set out to write bad briefs, but bad briefs happen for a number of reasons. 

  • Marketers are often reluctant to focus on “one thing” in a brief because they want to be thorough. They want consumers to know everything great about their brand, but end up communicating very little. With poor direction to the creative team, confusion ensues.
  • Writing a brief is often delegated to a junior team member who has limited experience and practice. It is typically not something they’ve been trained to do, and they don’t know what a good brief looks like or why it’s so important to create one.
  • Marketers may not clearly understand the strong link between a well-written brief and the quality of work that an agency is capable of delivering in response to the brief. 

Here's what we learned about great briefs:

  • Great briefs inspire! They get the agency excited to deliver brilliant work. Every subject matter expert who contributed to this project stressed this point and used the word “inspire” or “inspiration.”
  • Great briefs are the result of a collaborative effort—they aren’t written in isolation. They include input from multiple players in the marketing organization.  These include marketing researchers and agency planners who can help identify and clearly describe the consumer target while providing insight and core opportunity.
  • Great briefs are written by senior-level people who believe in the power of a great brief, have invested the time it takes to write the best one they can, and have leveraged every resource available to them (input from stakeholders, senior leaders, researchers, and planners) in the process. The stakes are too high to delegate the assignment to junior-level staff.
  • Great briefs are brief. The client-side team needs to synthesize data and decks and stacks of material so that the brief can be concise, focused, and unambiguous.
  • Great briefs are clear, but not prescriptive. They provide the “what” and the “why,” but leave the “how” to the agency creatives. They provide guardrails, not handcuffs.
  • Great briefs are profoundly human and brutally simple (that’s why they’re hard to write).
  • Great briefs avoid marketing jargon; they’re written in plain and simple language that any consumer would understand. 

It’s also essential to keep in mind that a great written brief is just the start. The art of “briefing,” or delivering the brief, is just as critical. The more important the business outcome of the brief, the more important the briefing experience. This should be done in-person in a relevant and inspirational setting with the right people. The briefing should create belief within the agency and connect the creative team emotionally to the assignment. 

There is also new thinking about how the creative brief is developed. Traditionally, the client first creates the assignment brief (sometimes called a business or marketing brief) and the agency then produces the creative brief. The new thinking is that there should be one brief — not a client brief and then an agency brief — but one collaborative brief, led by the client. Here, the client writes the brief with input from the agency planner or researcher. The agency may refine the brief, and there is back and forth to ensure alignment on changes, but the client leads the process. 

The focus on better creative briefs is an outgrowth of the ANA Masters Circle, a community of chief marketing officers who have developed a 12-point action plan to galvanize the CMO community and drive growth. One of those points focuses on brand and creative excellence. As we heard from one of our members, “We need better business results, which is why we need better briefs.” 

Creativity has never been more important than it is today. Consumers are bombarded with thousands of messages a day from hundreds of media sources, and making split-second decisions about which ones to pay attention to. If work isn’t highly creative and engaging, it will be ignored, no matter how much is spent on media. If the work is good, consumers will share it on social media, dramatically amplifying media spend.

Marketers need to understand that in order for their agencies to deliver impactful and engaging work that will deliver a solid ROI, they must provide them with proper direction and guidance.  If you want great creative work, you must deliver a great creative brief.

1 comment about "The ANA's Solution To Bad Creative Briefs (Of Which There Are Many)".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, November 30, 2017 at 12:05 p.m.

    In other words, agency clients---CMOs, mainly-----should do a better job of defining their brand's objectives,  problems and strengths for the agencies. Who could be against that? And agencies should do a better job of listening as well as understanding their clients' issues and goals. Sounds right to me. They were saying exactly the same things fifty years ago, as I recall. I guess that progress can be like a slow boat ride to China----sometimes.

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