7 Sins of the Creative Brief
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Marketing Sep 29, 2021

7 Sins of the Creative Brief

Why having a bad creative brief—or no brief at all—can sink an advertising campaign.

executive with devil horns presenting creative brief

Michael Meier

Advertising is hard. Launching a successful campaign in market requires a near-perfect confluence of brand strategy, media planning, and creative execution. Advertising can be thought of as a series of intricate gears that must turn with precision to have the clock strike at the right time; one gear out of place can make the entire clock lose time.

For this reason, it is no wonder that advertising often fails to achieve the impact marketers hope to see. Here, we discuss one insidious cause of poor advertising: “Seven Sins of the Creative Brief.” Brands that lead with a bad creative brief—or no brief at all—can often cause campaigns to unwind before they’ve even begun.

Most people with a modicum of exposure to advertising, brand management, or agencies are familiar with the creative brief: the core strategic document that is meant to guide the creative team on the preparation of the advertising execution. The problem is there’s a lot more to it than just knowing what a creative brief is or wanting a good brief. Where do people go wrong?

Sin #1: No Brief.

Perhaps the cardinal sin is the failure to develop a creative brief. We hear lots of reasons for this—not enough time; the creative team “already knows” this tactic and doesn’t “need” a brief. This reasoning has three key issues. Internally, the brief-development process forces marketers to understand what it is they need to accomplish and the strategic path to that end. Where will the growth come from? Externally, the creative team is flying blind without any guidance and their odds of landing on something impactful to your customer is up to chance. And finally, paradoxically, the lack of a brief frequently leads to longer development times, as teams debate what’s “right.” With no clear strategic stake in the ground, ideas are reworked on the basis of subjective feedback.

Sin #2: Poor Objectives.

In our various work with others’ briefs, we see objectives such as “make a digital campaign” or “increase sales.” These are poor and impoverished objectives because they do not convey what this specific advertising is meant to do. Increased sales can be a desirable outcome, but do the work to understand what metrics need to be moved and by how much to accomplish that business goal.

Sin #3: Targeting Everyone.

We bet this one resonates with a lot of readers. You ask your boss who the target is, and the response is, “Everyone.” The reality is the idea that we should target everyone is neither realistic nor sensible for most brands in most categories. Consumers are different—they have distinct functional and psychological needs—and this means you have to talk to them differently to be persuasive. Moreover, targeting everyone means you have a nearly inexhaustible media budget, which is out of reach for most brands. Let’s focus our energy and resources on the folks most likely to generate returns.

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Sin #4: The Lack of Insight.

The best advertising connects with the target customers because it shows understanding of their needs and pain points. However, obtaining insight is an involved process—it takes time to truly know your consumer. As a result, we see people try to cut corners. The problem is when they are wrong—and they often are—the creative team lacks a powerful way to connect with customers.

Sin #5: Overpacking Positioning.

Why should people buy your product? “Because it is durable, safe, fun, exciting, relaxing, eco-friendly, built by great people, etc.” All too often, brands take a shotgun approach to talking about everything they do well—and, as a result, their messages have no real teeth. When you say five things, you say nothing. Great positioning is having a focus on the key benefit that speaks to the insight about your customer.

Sin #6: Shiny-Object Syndrome.

“We need a TikTok strategy.” No, you need a strategy. TikTok may be a useful tactic to employ in the execution of that strategy. As new opportunities emerge, we see brands chasing the “shiny object” as opposed to starting with the strategy. New media channels can present exciting opportunities, to be sure, but don’t get caught chasing tactics. Chase your customer.

Sin #7: Bad Measurement.

The final sin is an interesting one. In an age where digital channels allow more measurement—exposure, click-through, and even purchase rates—brands routinely fail at measurement. How does this happen? The sin is not in a failure to measure, but in measuring without a plan. All too often, we see brands discussing their measurement strategy after the campaign. As a result, they are often not even set up to ask the right questions, and thus the results they get from measurement have little utility.

Again, advertising is hard. Moreover, it is an evolving process, and great strategists get better over time. Recognizing, embracing, and getting better at strategic planning via the creative brief is one means to having more impactful campaigns.


This article originally appeared in Forbes.

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Sandy & Morton Goldman Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies in Marketing; Professor of Marketing; Co-chair of Faculty Research

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