Tight deadlines. Ad hoc requests. Never-ending feedback loops. In any given day, creatives clear many hurdles. But lack of information is the biggest obstacle of them all.No one feels the heat more than creative teams at growing companies. The more requests you field, the harder it is to chase down these missing pieces. Our creative forefathers solved this dilemma (or so they thought) back in the 1960s when the creative brief was born. Creative briefs are meant to be the first step in the creative process. When used effectively, their value extends far beyond informing and initiating work. Creative briefs also help automate assignments according to team expertise, index project complexity to build more accurate timelines, and more. Unfortunately, the Rolling Stones were right: You can’t always get what you want. The formal requesting process is often ignored or dismissed. Other departments bypass creative briefs in favor of chucking half-baked ideas over the fence via email or chat. When a brief is finally filled out, the request is vague and several key details are missing. The designer is left filling in the blanks or engaging in a back-and-forth with the requestor. And that’s when things go awry. Before we get into how to mitigate these risks, let’s take a moment to appreciate what can go wrong with a poorly detailed creative brief. While we have no way of knowing what actually caused these design disasters, we’re ready to venture a few guesses.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Looks like this was a nice, simple campaign ad. Too bad the requester failed to mention that window… Um, are those handcuffs or hearts? We can only imagine the instructions the designer of this police trainer logo received. No one said UX design is easy. In fact, without a solid creative brief, it can get rather messy... Game of Thrones is amazing. George R. R. Martin’s website is not. It’s likely the designer(s) of the individual site elements did not know they would be used together. On the same page. For the world to see. A solid creative brief helps bypass mistakes like these, but getting all the information you need isn’t always easy. It requires a strategic, two-pronged approach.
Only the Creative Brief Can Prevent Design Disasters
1. Nail Down the Necessary Details
While it’s tempting to immediately point the finger at requesters, creative teams must first take a step back and examine their intake forms and processes. Wrike Design Team Lead David Mekerishvili recalls a time his team was asked to create illustrations for a new blog post. The requester filled out a creative brief and defined the target audience as “website visitors.” “When my team sent over the final designs, we were told they were not flashy and funny enough for the target audience,” says David. The blog was for smaller, independent creative agencies, but David and his team had assumed it was for in-house, enterprise marketers—two very different audiences. “I realized our request form was responsible for causing the confusion,” reveals David. “To prevent this from happening again, I refined our creative brief to ask more specific questions about the target audience. I also changed these fields from optional to mandatory.” Does your creative brief ask the right questions? Do you have the appropriate team members and processes in place to hit the ground running with creative requests? To make sure, consider The Four W’s: Who, What, When, and Why. Who: Each contributor on the creative team should have a defined role and set of responsibilities. Who owns illustrations versus motion graphics? Who’s the lead designer for sales decks, or print materials? Clearly establishing who does what is key to efficiently distributing, scheduling, and completing projects. It’s also important to identify project dependencies and key stakeholders. This eliminates a lot of the duplicate work and back-and-forth that comes with multiple contributors. There are many frameworks that help define roles and responsibilities, such as RACI, DACI, or CAIRO. Baking one of these models into your creative brief is a great way to ensure the right people are involved in the right way from the get-go. What: Rather than using a one-size-fits-all creative brief, make templates for different project types, such as ad campaigns, eBooks, videos, etc. This helps guarantee you’re asking the most relevant and specific questions possible.
“To make sure we’re getting all the information we need without asking unnecessary questions, my team uses Dynamic Request Forms in Wrike,” shares David. “The questions change based on the information the requester provides as they fill out the brief. For example, if the requester is a marketer and the project is a web page, they will get different questions than if the requester is a sales rep asking for a presentation.” When: Track projects in a calendar or timeline view to visualize which initiatives are in flight and coming down the pike. This helps more effectively prioritize, assign, and schedule tasks.
A calendar or timeline view is also beneficial when reviewing finished projects. As your team completes work, you’ll learn how long it takes to turnaround specific types of projects, and which team members work faster than others. You can then use this information when budgeting time, allocating resources, and committing to deadlines in the future.
Why: Copy and design is so much more than form—it’s also function. If you don’t know the purpose of your work, you will likely miss the target.
Be sure your creative briefs leave room for requesters to provide desired outcomes and success measures. Knowing “the why” behind each of your requests empowers your team to prove the success of its work.
2. Get Everyone on Board
After you evaluate your creative process and solidify the skeleton of your brief, it’s time to work with requesters to fill in the meat. Unfortunately, ambiguous directions, like “make it pop,” don’t give creatives much to sink their teeth into.
A 2013 survey of nearly 300 agency leaders reported 52% of respondents found creative briefs lacking in focus. 27% found them to be incomplete and inconsistent. Luis Ruvalcaba, creative director at market research firm IDC, has felt the pain of poorly written creative briefs. “At one of my previous companies, there was a person who would copy and paste the answers from past creative briefs into new ones,” he tells. “We eventually figured out what was happening when all of his requests started to sound familiar!”
The saying “garbage in, garbage out” comes to mind. “Requesters who don’t take the time to thoroughly and accurately fill out creative briefs will never be satisfied with the results,” Luis continues. “If they fail to adequately convey their ideas, your creative will never live up to what they envision. Before you know it, you’re stuck in revision hell.”
Here are a few tips to improve the quality and completeness of the requests your team receives.
Convey mutual value. Everyone wants to know, “What’s in it for me?” Sell other departments on the benefit the brief gives them—ensuring that requested projects are done right and on time.
Wrike’s David Mekerishvili proved the value of creative briefs to his colleagues with data. “We tracked how long it took to complete projects initiated by high-level, basic briefs compared to those with longer, more detailed briefs,” says David. “The detailed creative brief cut the number of iterations required in half. Now people understand why it’s better to provide all the information we need upfront.” Choose a single source of truth. Stop taking requests via email or chat. Chose a single, designated workspace to house all creative requests and associated information. Adopt an “if it’s not in our workspace then it doesn’t exist” policy.
This has several benefits. First, it forces requesters to fill out creative briefs before kicking off projects, effectively minimizing ad hoc requests. Because they can no longer ping you with additional information, it also requires them to think through their ideas upfront. Finally, a single source of truth improves project organization and leaves a clear feedback and approval trail.
Make it deadly simple to fill out. Open-ended questions and free-form fields leave room for vague or unclear responses. They’re also more work for requesters. Use mandatory fields and dropdowns instead. This will allow you to get the precise answers you need while streamlining the request process.
Another trick: Don’t give requesters the choice to opt out of answering a crucial question. Make the information you can’t live without mandatory, but use these fields sparingly.
Don’t go overboard. No one is going to fill out a fifty-question creative brief. “Having definitive brand guidelines in place helps minimize the number of questions needed in a brief,” says IDC’s Luis Ruvalcaba. “When you have an agreed upon color palette, iconography style, etc., this type of information becomes unnecessary.”
For David, Dynamic Request Forms are the silver bullet for obtaining the right information without asking too many questions. “There are about one-hundred pages of questions in our full creative brief,” he says. “However, requesters see a fraction of these because Wrike surfaces only the most relevant questions based on their role and request type.”
You can’t always get what you want. But if you follow the two-pronged approach outlined in this post, you’ll get what you need to create stunning work that satisfies requesters. Your action items:
- Clearly define the roles and responsibilities of team members
- Create project and role-specific creative brief templates
- Visualize projects on timelines and calendars
- Keep track of project goals and success metrics
- Convey the personal benefits of the creative brief to colleagues
- Choose a single source of truth for all project-related information
- Make request forms as fast and painless as possible
Don’t let the window in the middle of your next ad catch you by surprise. Invest time and attention into your creative brief and avoid these design disasters.
For more actionable advice on how to effectively plan, complete, and manage your creative projects, download our free PDF below, Execution is Everything: How to Build High-Performance Creative Teams.