The 7 Essential Elements Of A Strong Creative Brief

The creative brief essential steps

Okay, so here’s our creative brief, for this blog post:

  • We often hear from customers who ask for help with their creative strategy
  • We’re writing a new article of approximately 2,000 words to explain how creative briefs help improve direct mail campaigns
  • The article will describe the essential elements of a great creative brief to help Postalytics customers gain an edge in their upcoming campaigns
  • The audience for this article includes a diverse audience of marketing professionals who want to learn more about how to improve direct mail copy and design
  • The piece will adopt a tone and style that’s engaging and compelling for a blog post that can be easily scanned for key points or read in detail for more context
  • The article will be more in depth than the other online articles on direct mail creative briefs, and offer a link to a creative brief template for download
  • The article will be published by our deadline, and distributed via web, email, social and direct mail channels

There — we just wrote a “mini” creative brief for this post.

No, it’s not nearly as detailed or as fancy as you’d get from a big marketing agency for a huge campaign, but a good brief doesn’t have to be designed to impress.

It does have to be designed to do the job. That’s it.

The creative brief template described here includes the main elements that a creative brief needs to address – the objective, the audience, the message, and other criteria that will make this post a successful one.

What is a creative brief?

The game plan

The creative brief, (or creative briefing) is the game plan for any type of marketing campaign, including direct mail. It serves as the the agreed upon set of definitions, goals, budgets, timelines, offers and messages for the campaign.

In today’s multi-channel marketing world, the creative brief serves as the go-to document to make sure that each touch-point is on message, speaking to the right audience with the right tone and approach.

By its very name, you might think that brevity is the hallmark of the creative brief. Sure, it should be brief, but the name actually reflects its purpose – to serve as a briefing for the creative and project management team.

It essentially becomes a map of a project – showing where we are (the challenge), where we want to go (marketing goal), overall direction of how we’re going to get there (strategy), the various routes we can or can’t follow (tactics), and limitations on our journey (schedule, budget, etc.).

This map helps everyone see both the big picture and the details that will define a project’s success. After all, writers, designers, and creative directors are not mind readers. They can’t know what you want until you brief them. And you might not know until you write it all down.

“Luck is when preparation meets opportunity” – Seneca

The creative briefing keeps everyone on the same page

The best marketing organizations adopt processes that help them stay disciplined and focused on following best practices at all times.

Much like planning for continual testing, savvy marketers, agencies and companies use a creative brief process to make sure they are “dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s”.

If you regularly work with writers, designers, and creative directors, you’ll often hear reference to “the brief.” It’s the document that creatives go back to time and again when they’re developing concepts, writing copy, and creating design for a direct mail, or any other type of marketing project.

Creative professionals measure their work against the brief because it makes answering the question “is this work any good?” a lot more objective.

“Liking” the work is far too subjective as a criteria to evaluate creative work.

With a creative brief, it’s easier to maintain consistency when there are several “cooks in the kitchen” contributing to the campaign, or a single cook that can fall in love with their own work.

Do I really need a creative brief for quick, small campaigns?

When a larger team is involved in your campaign, the creative brief keeps everyone focused and on track. Regardless of how big the campaign is.

Sure, it’s easy for you to say, “just create a direct mail package that works.” But by insisting on a creative brief, you’re insisting that the team take some time to think through the project so that your goals and objectives ring through loud and clear in both copy and design.

If you’re doing the work yourself, it might seem like overkill to use a creative brief.

But I’d argue the exact opposite. The discipline of creating the brief will help you, not waste your time.

When you’re the designer, copywriter, strategist and more, you’re most likely also doing a million other things than the campaign you’re working on. When you’re multi-tasking all day and being interrupted by the emergency of the hour, it is really hard stay focused on exactly what the goals of the project are.

By putting a little effort into strategy & planning, it will be much easier for you to pick up where you left off all of those interruptions.

What’s more, it’s all-to-easy to fall in love with their own work. With a creative brief, you can remain more objective and remember the goals that you laid out at the beginning.

Follow this creative brief template. Or don’t.

It doesn't need to be cookie cutter

You don’t need to follow a strict formula for a creative brief. Different outlines can work for different situations so you can scale up or down based on a specific campaign.

Download Free Creative Brief Template (MS Word)

For example, a “Save the Date” single direct mail postcard campaign that is reminding an audience of an event requires less planning and coordination than a multi-channel, multiple touch win-back campaign that is trying to re-engage lapsed customers.

But for larger teams, the chance of miscommunication grows. So it often makes sense to have a more consistent creative brief template.

7 elements to include in your creative briefing

7 building blocks of a good creative brief

Most creative briefs, for direct mail or any other type of effort, should include these basic components so that you can follow a disciplined, best practices approach to marketing.

1. Background and objectives:

Why are we working on this project?

This section of the creative brief provides an overview of the purpose of the project and goals to be accomplished and defines results that would be considered successful.

For example, if the direct mail package you’re working may be a follow up to another package. It may be a different version of an existing package to appeal to a different audience. It may be another execution for a number of other reasons.

If the project does represent a different version of some other work, that should be outlined in the brief. If it’s a whole new project, that should be noted, too.

2. Audience:

Who are we communicating with?

Knowing who will be receiving our direct mail package assures we’re approaching creative execution from the unique and specific perspective of our target market. Capturing this in the creative brief is essential.

Much of this will be based on demographic characteristics such as age, gender, income, family status, and other criteria.

But demographics alone don’t create a complete picture of the audience. There are various psychographic attributes that may be based on lifestyle, attitudes, culture, and interests that will be relevant to your message and offer.

Essentially, we want to understand what makes our audience “tick.” What really motivates them?  What are their buying habits? How do they view our product, company, and industry? Are they more interested in service and convenience? Or perhaps price is more important. This information can help us target messages with far more precision.

In some cases, it helps to review data on current customers to create a profile of who likely future customers may be. Sometimes these attributes aren’t easy to quantify, but envision how a specific type of person would react to the copy and design makes it easier to create more persuasive work.

3. The relevant brand elements for the campaign:

Who are we?

Once we know who we’re sending our direct mail campaign to, we can address the question of who we are in the creative brief.  

While direct mail may stand on its own, the best creative executions are those that fit a brand’s personality, its positioning in the market, and industry sector. For example, you’d probably consider financial services organizations as a bit more conservative and traditional than a fun tourist destination.

Does a company prefer to be known as light-hearted and humorous or more serious? Should the tone reflect conventional tradition or be bolder and more innovative? If you have an existing set of brand guidelines, be sure to append it to your creative brief.

Creative work developed with an understanding of how we want to be perceived makes the direct mail package seem more genuine and assures consistency with previous communications. If the tone and voice seem “off-brand,” that’s likely to confuse your audience and reduce response.

4. Offer:

What do we want people to do?

Your direct mail creative should include a specific offer designed for your audience. It is very important to capture it, or your plan to test multiple offers, in your creative brief.

Whether we want someone to buy now, take advantage of a special discount or premium, request additional information, download an app, the offer needs to be clearly defined.  

Because the offer is what motivates response, describing it in the brief makes it easier for your creative team to “sell the offer” – a standard direct mail best practice. Yes, your product and offer may seem similar, but be sure that the focus is on the action you want someone to take, not just benefits and features.

5. Message:

What do we say to communicate benefits?

Now that we know our audience, defined our tone and voice, and decided on an offer, we need to clarify the main benefits of responding to the offer. This section of the creative briefing should include three to five benefits of the offer, plus additional information on the product or company if that seems appropriate.

You’ll also need to define a singular call to action. Why does someone need to respond? More importantly, why do they need to respond now, not later.

It’s also helpful to provide some context on what the response experience will be like. Are we directing prospects to a landing page, asking them to complete a questionnaire, requesting a phone call, or take action in some other way? Setting reasonable expectations makes it easier to compel more people to respond.

6. Competitive positioning:

What have prospects and customers already seen?

Developing great creative requires not only an understanding our own products and services, but also seeing what competitors are offering and how they position their organizations. Links to competitor websites and other media prospects may see makes it easier to create a package that can be similar, yet different – or completely different – depending on your marketing plan and goals.

7. Business mandatories:

What are the limitations for this project?

The creative brief should include a budget, guidance on words and phrases that should be avoided based on compliance issues, a schedule, and a point of contact for additional questions about the project.

We certainly don’t want to create pieces that we can’t execute because of budget limitations and make sure we meet the schedule. After all, a holiday mailing needs to go out before the holidays, not after, so be sure the schedule clarifies specific due dates for various aspects of the project.

Use a creative brief to keep a best practices discipline

The creative brief instills discipline, like athletes that work out

Just like athletes, marketing works best when processes are developed that help everyone involved stick to best practices that enable peak performance.

The discipline of making sure each project begins with a creative brief is a time-tested best practice for creating great work.

You want your briefing to define your vision of how your direct mail or other marketing effort will look and feel, while leaving enough room so that your creative team (or you) have freedom to brainstorm and explore new ideas.

We’ve often seen that the process of building the briefing can become a creative effort onto itself. The creative team will explore ideas that you may not expect, while working within a framework of what is possible.

But as long as they fit the creative brief, those unexpected ideas can easily deliver work that’s both excellent and responsive.