A creative brief is like a road map. A good brief leads to imaginative and persuasive ads. And gets you there quickly.

A bad brief starts you off in the wrong direction. So you have to stop, figure out where the heck you're going, and start again. Or worse, you follow that brief to a town called Bad Adsville.

Most briefs are simply a list of questions. The people writing the brief answer the questions based information about the ad or the campaign to be constructed.

What you want is the flexibility to select questions appropriate to any type of ad or campaign. Direct response or brand building. Integrated campaigns that blend the two. Or questions for highly detailed new business pitches or new product launches. Even quick turn-around newspaper ads.

Therefore, it's wise to avoid writ-in-stone printed briefs precisely because they limit your flexibility. Better to place the brief -- the list of questions -- on your computer or the office network. Then, for each new project, select appropriate questions.

At AdCracker.com we recommend you have access to three briefs: A Quick Brief for simple, fast turn-around projects. A Basic Brief for the bulk of ads or campaigns you produce. And an Advanced Brief for new product launches or new business pitches.

And if you're thinking, "We don't have time to write a brief." Remember that working from verbal input, without a written brief, is how non-professionals waste time and money.

Here's a typical Basic Brief.

Background / Overview:
What's the big picture? What's going on in the market? Anything happening with the client side we should know about? Can you summarize the entire brief into one sentence, "Who are we talking to, and what do we want to say?"

What is the objective, the purpose of the ad?
A concise statement of the effect the ad should have on consumers. Typically expressed as an action. And frequently focused either on what you want them to think, to feel, or to do.

What do we want to say?
What's the single most important thing we can say to achieve the objective? This should be a simple sentence (or sentences) expressing a specific idea (or ideas). Avoid generalities because they result in ambiguous communications.

What are the supporting rational and emotional 'reasons to believe?'
List the rational and emotional reasons to for the target market to believe what we want them to believe, and do what we want them to do. Include all the major copy points, in order of relative importance to the consumer. In other words, 'What else can we say to achieve the objective?'

Target audience: who are we talking to?
The more precise and detailed the better. Go beyond age and sex to include demographics and psychographics.

Any other important details?
Here's where you put all other details, such as information about the offer if it's a direct response ad. Perhaps a description of the brand personality. And any mandatory elements such as the client's logo, address, phone number and so forth.

What do we need and when do we need it?
Write information about media, size and color. As well as deadlines for 1) initial creative review of rough sketch ideas, 2) review revised creative, 3) final internal creative presentation, 4) client presentation, 5) material delivered to publication.

Client / Account Service Checklist:

Do we have all supporting information: previous ads, brochures, competitor ads -- perhaps books or Web sites for reference? This so we can present the creative team a complete package of information.

If this is a long format communication -- a Web site, brochure, or video -- do we have an outline for the creative team that includes all the important copy points, as well as an indication of visuals, and graphs?

Is it clear from the client what must be in the communication, and what might be in the communication? What are the client mandatories and preferences.

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image of Steve McNamara

Steve McNamara is a freelance ad guy and the publisher of AdCracker.com. He has been a creative director and copywriter at JWT, BBDO, and, on the client side, at Capital One. Reach him at adcracker@gmail.com.