The art of writing a good creative brief

by Jenni Hayward
30 Aug 2017
7 min read
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The art of writing a good creative brief

Whether you are looking to design a website, an advertising campaign, a logo or want to repaint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel - the key to making your project a success is starting with an effective creative brief.

The first step in the process is really understanding what you want out of the project and why it exists. Understand it so well that you can explain in simple terms.

To do this, think about the objectives of the project and what it is your client ultimately needs. In advertising this starts with defining the SMP (Single Minded Proposition) which is a one-liner that sums up the most important thing you can say about a brand or product.

First, you must understand your client’s broader business context, their customers and the problem you are trying to solve for them. Once you have these fundamental elements clear in your mind, it’s time to start writing. Here are some tips to help you get started:

1. Be positive and enthusiastic

Remember you are looking to inspire and spark the imagination of the creative team. Don’t start by discussing any problems that you or the client might be facing. They aren't your agony aunts! Instead, start off by talking about the bigger picture and start rallying some excitement around the project.

2. Clearly outline the objectives

Next you want to explain why the project exists, what you want it to achieve and what success looks like. Provide some context to the project and what purpose it is going to serve. This is where you need to really focus on conveying the SMP to the creative team. 

3. Avoid information overload

Although you need to talk to the big picture, avoid the temptation to overload the creative team with information. Try to boil down the most relevant information into digestible chunks so they come away remembering the most important points you wanted to get across. People can't retain everything you say so make sure your most important points aren't getting lost in a cloud of information.

4. Brief in person

Once you have created your creative brief, don’t just attach your masterpiece to an email and hit send. To really incite excitement and passion in the creative team, you need to talk with them face-to-face. Be there ready for questions as you take them through the brief and be ready - there will be questions!


I asked our creative team here at Adrenalin if, over their years of experience in various places, they have any pet peeves when being briefed - here’s what irks them:

“When you aren’t given the bigger picture or wider context of a project”

“Being given unclear instructions or vague details”

“When the person briefing doesn’t know enough about the project themselves to answer questions”

“Being given unrealistic or pressured deadlines at the same time as being briefed”


To get you thinking about your creative brief, here’s an analogy by Damian O’Malley who explains how to write one using the example of Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The brief for the Sistine Chapel – how to stop Michelangelo hitting the roof…

Once you have a proposition you should try to express it in a way which will propel your creative team towards a solution. A story will help illustrate what we mean.

You are no doubt familiar with the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. They are one of the greatest works of art of all time painted by the Renaissance genius Michelangelo. We can imagine the briefs he might have been given for this work by his client, Pope Julius II, or the Pope’s account man, Cardinal Alidosi.

(a) ‘Please paint the ceiling’

There is no doubt that this is what Michelangelo was being asked to do but this brief gives him no hints as too what the solution to the request might be. It leaves all the decisions and thinking to the artist before be can put paint to plaster.

b) ‘Please paint the ceiling using red green and yellow paint’

This brief is worse. Not only does it not tell him what to paint it gives him a number of restrictions without justification; restrictions which will inevitably prove irksome and which will distract him from his main task.

c) ‘We have got terrible problems with damp and cracks in the ceiling and we would be ever so grateful if you could just cover it up for us’

This is much worse. It still does not tell him what to do and it gives him irrelevant and depressing information which implies that no one is interested in what he paints because it will not be long before the ceiling falls in anyway. How much effort is he likely to put into it?

(d) ‘Please paint biblical scenes on the ceiling incorporating some or all of the following: God, Adam, Angels, Cupids devils and saints’

Better: now they are beginning to give Michelangelo a steer. They have not given him the full picture yet (if you will pardon the pun) but at least he know the important elements. This is the sort of brief that most of us would have given. It contains everything the creative needs to know but it does not go that step beyond towards and idea towards a solution.

Here is the brief which Michelangelo was actually given more or less…

‘Please paint our ceiling for the greater glory of God and as an inspiration and lesson to his people. Frescoes which depict the creation of the world, the Fall, mankind's’s degradation by sin, the divine wrath of the deluge and the preservation of Noah and his family.’

Now he knows what to do – and is inspired by the importance of the project – he can devote his attention to executing the detail of the brief in the best way he knows.

Words are little bombs: the right ones can explode inside us demanding an original and exciting solution instead of a mediocre pedestrian one.

Always work very, very hard to find the right proposition and then even harder to find the words which express it in the least ambiguous and most exciting way.

Extract from Damian O’Malley’s ( Creative Briefing chapter in How to Plan Advertising – the Blue Book published by the APG in 1987 and currently out of print.

Although your creative teams are likely to be using mice, not paint brushes and are likely to be creating on screens rather than ceilings, I hope you’ll find this analogy useful next time you sit down to write a creative brief.

Adrenalin has designed and developed award-winning digital projects for some of Australia’s best known-brands. See some of our work here. If you have an upcoming project you would like to discuss, get in touch.

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