Aug 15, 2023

Creating the perfect brief. Straitjacket or springboard?

Emily Bayes
All posts


What comes first: the brief or the creative work? You may think the answer is obvious. But shouldn’t the brief be as much a piece of creative work as the creative output itself? If so, what makes a good, creative, brief? What part does the brief play in client / agency relationships? And what are the ultimate benefits of a really good brief?

When enlisting a digital marketing agency, having a very clear brief is essential if you want the creative output to be the same as your vision. According to Leigh Herbert, Director of Client Services at Republic of Media, ‘not having a good brief is like attempting to bake a complex cake without a list of ingredients.’ It will force you to make assumptions which more often than not will be wrong – making it unlikely the cake (the creative work) will turn out well.

However, just as a creative cook will feel confident to add a dash of flavouring or a sprinkling of additional ingredients to enhance the mixture, so the agency will feel free to build on the brief, to achieve something above and beyond what anyone might have imagined. That’s their job, after all. But they’re not the only ones who should feel free to think outside the box.

When you write a brief, you are setting up your project – whatever it may be – for its best chance of success. You’re providing the fertile soil in which your brand can be nurtured for growth. So a good brief is not only where you should distil the challenge and define the requirements. It’s also where the seeds of creativity can be sown.


Leigh understands how bad briefs happen. ‘There’s a definite irony in that people sometimes think they are “too busy” to write a decent brief.’ In fact it’s the hurriedly thrown together and poor brief which most often results in a lack of clarity and direction, and which wastes more time than it would have taken to write a good brief in the first place.

To return to the cake analogy, a good brief should indeed include a list of ‘ingredients’. But it should also be so much more. For Andrew Webber, CEO of insight and behaviour change specialists Human Theory, a good brief also ‘demonstrates that the client knows exactly what they want… it’s an opportunity to clarify objectives and outcomes everyone wants, so that we don’t all head off merrily in opposite directions.’ Defining these requires a brief which is truly comprehensive.

Paul Skerm, Creative Director of Super union brand agency, expects a brief to provide a ‘full understanding of business nuances, audiences, objectives, deliverables, budgets and so on. It’s our benchmark: the all-important document the client signs-off before giving us the green light.’ Though it’s not only the agency which benefits. The quality of the brief directly influences the quality of the work, which ultimately influences the success of the brand.

Before they can put a brief down in writing, the writer has to know what they actually want. Unlike with a verbal brief, or even a written brief that’s badly put together, they can’t be vague, unfocused, or change their mind after the fact. So the process of writing a good brief doesn’t start with putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. It starts with collecting relevant information, to ensure the agency can be as well-informed as the client. It continues with an assessment of the market, the challenge, and the target audience for the finished work. And it concludes with a gathering of thoughts: of how best to frame the task to address the project environment, overcome the challenges, engage the target audience and achieve the objectives.

Those objectives may be as straightforward as an increase insales, or slightly more nebulous – such as increased brand awareness. Which ever is the case, they need to be clearly defined and ideally be measurable by Key Performance Indicators. Only when all the information has been gathered and the desired outcomes established, will the writer have sufficient clarity in their own mind to write a brief that’s not only full of useful facts, but is also truly inspirational. That’s not an overestimation of the value of a good brief. Indeed, Leigh describes a good brief as ‘like striking gold. You feel knowledgeable, empowered and ready for any challenge.’ But sometimes things don’t go entirely to plan. The creative work or the results it achieves are far from what was hoped for. Yet even then, a good brief is worth its weight in gold. In fact when things go bad it can be just as valuable as when things go well.

Of course clients and agencies are working together towards common goals as partners, not enemies. But if and when things turn seriously sour, without a written brief a post-mortem can quickly degenerate into a finger-pointing blame game. When a failed project comes to be reviewed, the written brief is a valuable reference for the expectations that were established, the objectives that were described, and the desired outcomes that were defined. Without the evidence, everyone involved is in a vulnerable position. Irreparable damage can be done to the client-agency relationship. Trust which has been carefully built up over months or years can be undermined. And the effectiveness of all future efforts to work together can be compromised. If, indeed, the relationship continues at all.

On a more positive note, if all parties agree that something has gone wrong, and that correcting it or avoiding the same mistakes next time is more important than apportioning blame, then the written brief will point to where the weaknesses crept in, so they can be addressed and resolved before the next time. A written brief can be a force for good. Or, in a worst-case scenario, a valuable defence against recriminations.


Leigh has been known to refuse to start work on a project if the brief is particularly poor. He acknowledges that his stand ‘can cause tension in some instances’ but ultimately they will be far less than those that arise from accepting a bad brief. Starting work based on a poor brief, then discovering much later that you have been heading down the wrong path all along, wastes time, effort, money and patience. As well as potentially exhausting creativity.

Andrew agrees that ‘a bad brief can cause frustration on both sides, and results in it taking a lot longer to get where everyone is trying to get to. The work, and often the relationships, sadly often suffer as a result.’ One of the best ways to avoid a bad brief, and to strengthen relationships in the process, is to make brief creation a collaborative process.

At one time, brief-writing best practice was for the client to produce a brief that was effectively written in stone. The agency account manager’s role was more or less limited to ‘translating’ that client brief into the agency’s own briefing format, before presenting it as a fait accompli to the creatives, media buyers or whoever else was involved in producing the work. By the time the brief reached the people at the coalface, there was little chance – or expectation – of them pushing back, raising queries or having any input whatsoever. Today’s best briefs, by contrast, are more usually developed using an ‘agile’ methodology.

This highly collaborative process breaks down the walls of client and agency silos, allowing all parties to be involved in creating the best possible brief. And far from being a document that’s set in stone from day one, today’s brief is an organic entity right up until the moment all agree it’s the best it can be. This doesn’t mean the brief can go on changing indefinitely. In fact Paul feels the opposite is the case, and ‘it’s the poor briefs that are invariably open to change midway through the project.’ Realistically, when everyone involved in the project has been consulted, enabled to collaborate and empowered to contribute at every stage of the briefing process, and all contributions have been collectively agreed on, then there’s probably no-one left to change anything!

A good brief can also do more than inform and inspire the outcome of the project. According to Leigh, it ‘plays a sometimes overlooked, undervalued but crucial part in helping to build relationships, by helping to set expectations.’ By working together to produce the best brief they can, client and agency are drawing a line in the sand and establishing ground rules. The agency is saying that this is how they expect to work with the client. The client is saying this is the standard to which they expect their account to be run. And both parties are setting the tone for the agency /client relationship going forward.


As a Creative Director, Paul sees creativity in preparing the brief as being almost as important as it is in producing the work. While receiving poor briefs is something which can happen all too often, he believes it’s part of his team’s job as a creative agency ‘to do something about it. To collaboratively shape that brief into something inspiring.’

Traditional briefing documents were just that: documents. Usually a Word document, they could be as long as several pages or, in an attempt to produce more focused thinking, as short as one side of a sheet of A4. However, as the media landscape has broadened and creative possibilities have expanded exponentially, a basic Word document can hardly do justice to the opportunities available. The leap from a few well-considered sentences to a multi-media extravaganza can be made. But how much easier if you can get therein just a small step. That’s why today’s model briefs are likely to be multimedia themselves.

Once the value of collaboration has been acknowledged, there’s no longer any need for a unbreachable boundary between the clients who brief and the creatives who create. If the client particularly admires a piece of creative work, why not include it in the brief? If there’s a graphic style they like, put it in the brief. If the client has seen a film they think is inspirational, make sure the creatives see it too.

And if the brief writing process is as organic and collaborative as it should be, why shouldn’t the agency respond by adding its own ingredients into the mix, in whatever format they make the most sense? In other words, when creating the brief, neither client nor agency should feel restricted by the limitations of the briefing ‘document.’ Rather, they should find a way of sharing all elements of the brief, in multiple formats, to facilitate ongoing collaboration and greater creativity. Which brings us back to the old argument that clients brief, and creatives create.

The agile brief

In today’s agile briefing environment, no-one would dream of telling a client (however politely) to leave the creativity to the agency. If the briefing tools allow it, clients should feel free to be as creative in their brief as they can be. But that doesn’t mean they should expect to see their ideas dressed-up in fancier clothing and fed back to them as the finished item. If you’ve hired an agency, that doesn’t represent value for money, and a brief should be an inspirational touchstone rather than an instruction manual.

So if, as a client, you are pleased with your agency’s work, but your own initial creative proposals are hard to identify within it, don’t be disappointed. Be delighted. It’s proof that your brief wasn’t just a good one, but a truly great one.

At Thing or Two, we have worked with many clients, some who already had the perfect brief and others who needed help to refine theirs. One thing is always standard, we deliver above the expected results. Feel ready to share your brief and start working with a digital marketing agency that knows a Thing or Two?  Yes? Then let’s talk.

Like our thing?

Then why not get in touch to find out how we can help your business.

Get in touch