The 9 Biggest Mistakes Marketers Make in the Creative Brief: How to Avoid Them
For many marketers, an array of tools like marketing project management software and creative workflow systems are go-to resources. However, according to Joe Talcott, a former global marketing director for McDonald’s, the simple project brief holds unmatched value. Talcott, the man behind the iconic “I’m lovin’ it” campaign, stresses the brief’s pivotal role in garnering effective results from creative projects. Surprisingly, this invaluable tool is often sidelined, falling victim to time constraints or a lack of focus on its importance.
Our blog dives deep into the nine cardinal sins marketers commit when creating their briefs—mistakes that can compromise marketing approvals and overall project success. Whether you're concerned about marketing compliance or effective agency management, a well-crafted brief is your first step to success.
Read on to discover the nine biggest mistakes you could be making in your briefing process and how to avoid them.
What is a brief?
Simply put, the brief is the document in which the marketer requests work from their agency, designer or creative department.
It must include basic details such as the product or service being promoted, any essential media channels or formats and specifications, any mandatory elements, such as a logo or advertising tagline, and the due date for a response.
But a great brief — even a good brief — will include some other fundamental elements.
“The brief is supposed to be a combination of strategy and creativity,” Talcott says. “It should answer questions such as ‘Why do we need this?’, ‘Who are we targeting?’ and ‘What’s the purpose of it?’.”
“It shouldn’t try to do too much, which is another way of saying it should be single-minded.
“And it should include an insight about the way your customers behave, act or think that would have some connection with your product or service.
“How the creative team responds to this insight can turn into totally different pieces of communications.”
But too many marketers are getting the briefing process wrong, Talcott says. Here are some of the biggest mistakes he sees in the way marketers approach the brief.
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Mistake #1: Not writing a brief
“Regrettably there’s too much of that,” Talcott says.
“A lot of marketers are overworked. But a quick phone call, hallway conversation or two lines in an email is not a brief.”
Mistake #2: Not spending enough time on the brief
“Many marketing teams don’t have enough people to do all this thinking. They expect the agency to write their own brief or they just fill out a form with specifications and dates.
“They end up spending a lot of time on the detail and not enough on the most important part (see Mistake #3).”
Mistake #3: Not reducing your brief to a single-minded proposition (SMP)
Whether you call it the key proposition, or the single-minded proposition, or something else, the marketer must be able to reduce the brief to one simple message they want to communicate.
“What’s the one thing you want people to take away from this piece of communications when it’s finished?” Talcott says.
“The best of these come from an insight about the way your customers behave, act or think that would have some connection with your product or service.
But don’t try and cheat by writing a long SMP with several moving parts.
“If the word ‘and’ or ‘also’ is in there, you haven’t succeeded,” Talcott says.
“To know why this is important, all you have to do is sit down and watch free-to-air television: you’re bombarded with 15-second ads screaming at you.
“The more focused you can make it, the better the chance you have of it resonating with the people you’re trying to reach.”
Mistake #4: Not writing the brief for both of its intended audiences
“The brief must take into account two audiences,” Talcott says. “First, there are the people you’re trying to get to buy your product or service.
“The other audience that is sometimes neglected are the people that are actually reading the brief. Typically, these are creative people and often times they will literally skim through the brief because it’s not written for them and they’re trying to find the key thing they need to communicate.
“If you keep that creative audience in mind, your brief will be simpler but more profound.”
Mistake #5: Not respecting the agency
Don’t be too prescriptive in your brief, Talcott says. Describe the problem, but let the creative team think about the solution.
“If the marketer goes in with a preconceived idea and says, ‘I want the creative team to execute my idea, you may as well not have the creative team’,” Talcott says.
“If the relationship between the marketing team and the agency is strained, delivering great briefs will help the relationship.
“Some creative directors pin their briefs up on a bulletin board, and creative teams will select the ones they most want to work on, leaving the others to be assigned later.
“The better the brief is, the better the talent you get working on your brief: it’s motivating because creative teams usually just want to do great work. If it’s 25 pages long, they’re not going to be interested.”
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Mistake #6: Not knowing the difference between an observation and an insight
Too many marketers don’t understand the difference between an observation and an insight, Talcott says. And the insight will be critical to the success of your brief.
An observation is a fact about your product or your target audience: the ‘what’. An insight is about understanding the forces that motivate them: it’s the ‘why’.
“An insight is almost always out of sight; it has to be uncovered,” says Talcott. “It goes to the things that motivate people or demotivate them.
“Marketers are very good at making observations,” Talcott says. “‘45% of the target audience don’t buy our product.’ That’s an observation.
“But it’s the insight which will motivate a creative person to write great advertising.”
One example he gives comes from his time at McDonald’s, where the company was preparing to brief in an international campaign for Happy Meals. Past advertising had focused on the toy that came with the meal. The reason it was being created was that Happy Meal sales had been dropping.
“The insight we came up with was that mums who were now dropping their kids off at daycare and picking them up, were feeling guilty that they were not spending as much time with their kids as they should.”
The resulting campaign focused on how buying a Happy Meal gave time back to mums that they could spend with their kids.
“It was quite different for the time,” says Talcott. “It ended up being quite successful – ‘Stop for lunch and spend time with your kids’.”
Mistake #7: Drowning in your own data
There is so much data at the fingertips of the marketing department these days that the temptation to wrap it all up in the brief is too much for some to resist.
“Often the marketers that do write briefs are making them larger and larger, and longer and longer, filled with all kinds of data and information but lacking some of the key things that are really important to getting the best work from the agency,” Talcott says.
“The data’s not the answer. It tells me nothing about why someone doesn’t buy my product.
“That’s the invisible thing you’re trying to discover: why isn’t someone buying my product? Think and talk about it. Ask a lot of why questions.”
Mistake #8: Not acknowledging when the brief is wrong
Sometimes, the marketing team will brief an agency, and the response that keeps coming back just isn’t what the marketer is looking for.
“It’s easy to blame the agency,” Talcott says. “And sometimes we did.
“But I remember one time at McDonald’s, we briefed our agency, DDB, on our new menu. They came back with advertising suggestions that just were not resonating.
“Our team sat down and said, ‘I think we got the brief wrong.’ We re-wrote the brief. They came back with “Things that make you go ‘mmm’.”
“It was the beginning of what ended up being ‘I’m lovin’ it’.”
Mistake #9: Mismanaging creative approvals
The mismanagement of creative marketing approvals can take many forms and they can all kill great ideas.
Sometimes it’s as simple as not responding quickly or honestly to the creative proposal you get back when the agency responds to the brief.
More often it takes the form of second-guessing, whereby the marketer who briefed out the work rejects it on the basis of what they think their boss will think of it.
“When that happens, an agency will usually go around them to the boss anyway,” says Talcott.
The solution, he says, is to have a regular creative review meeting where all approvals are handled, and a decision is made then and there.
“We instituted a creative review board at McDonald’s and later, at News. All creative had to be presented at that meeting.
“I’d have at the table the marketer that was briefing it. I’d invite anybody with an interest in a campaign to come and sit in on it. We’d look at the brief, we’d look at the agency’s response. Then I’d go around the table. In the end I’d take the decision to move ahead or change.
“While the agency was initially nervous about giving up that ability to lobby people, they exchanged it gladly for getting a decision.
“The young marketers not only had a voice, but they also got to learn through the process.”
Get the brief right, and the quality of the work marketers receive back from their agencies — and its effectiveness in the market — will improve, according to Talcott.
“The best situations I’ve seen are when the marketer writes their creative brief, and the marketer and the creative team sit down and discuss it,” Talcott says. “It doesn’t happen very often.”
Regardless of whether the marketer gets anything else right, a brief based on insight will not only result in more motivating work, it will also give the creative team more latitude to explore different ideas.