As a consultant working with in-house agencies, I meet many internal creative teams as well as their customers and I hear repeatedly from those customers about the stellar work done by creative services. Often the work they are referring to is tier 2, new pieces for an existing campaign, or tier 3 templated work, changes and updates to existing pieces, not tier 1 ground up creative.

These same internal customers also value their creative team's knowledge of the company, its products and services. They expect the brand knowledge of the creative team to be superior and to help guide the work from a brand perspective. They appreciate working with a team that is accessible and accommodating. Leveraging these value-adds to drive the great work and services they are providing, many in-house creative groups have built a good reputation for themselves. So much so that internal customers proactively look for ways to engage their in-house team for a higher level of work.

Teams fortunate enough to find themselves in this position then take on coveted tier 1 work and ideate and present conceptual ideas. It is at this point where I often see disappointment from internal customers arise. Unless addressed, this dissatisfaction continues throughout the project leaving the tier 1 clients who took a chance on their in-house team disappointed in the final results. It's likely they won't be back soon to engage the team in another conceptual project. There was a false assumption of both the in-house team and its clients that because the creative service group is in-house and knows the company and the brand that the team can, as a result, intuit the best solution for the customer that will meet the project objectives and resonate in the marketplace.

In reviewing these failures, I've discovered that the critical driver of the successful execution of tier 1 projects, often not given the attention it requires, is the creative brief. A well-written creative brief is necessary for the team to develop strategically sound creative ideas that meet client objectives. It also gives the creative team a way to demonstrate the merit of creative ideas based on facts in the agreed upon brief. The team's proposed concept becomes more than a creative idea, it becomes a creative business solution.

I could spend time here talking about how to craft a great creative brief but there's already an excellent reference and so I suggest you pick up Douglas Davis' book, "Creative Strategy and the Business of Design." In Chapter 10, "Where's the Map? 11 Questions a Creative Brief Should Answer," Davis does a great job describing what is needed in a creative brief and why, and even has some suggestions on how to gather the information.

Of course, it's not enough to develop a creative brief, the team needs to use it well. It's imperative that your creative group listens and asks probing questions. Digs deep. Really understands the project needs. Moves from order-takers to strategic thinkers. And as the team develops creative ideas, benchmarks them against the brief to be sure they are on strategy. Below are some practices to help the team fully leverage a creative brief.

Read it

- All of it. Don't assume you know what is required just because you know the company, products and services and brand. As an in-house resource, you probably have this advantage but the real need now is to dig deeper than your own knowledge. Get specifics.

Review it with the team

Meet with the marketing or account team to review the brief in detail. Get clarification where needed. Take notes. Document any ah-ha moments you might have.

Ask questions

Probe for clarification but also for more detail. Keep asking until you get what you need. The less detailed a brief is the more questions you should be asking. It is critical to know the project background as well as the competitive environment. A well-defined target audience, not simply a one-liner like "broker" or "decision maker," is key to getting the creative right. You need to understand the one main benefit and points to support the benefit. And of course, the response desired. A well-crafted creative brief will give you a good deal to discuss for understanding. A poorly-crafted brief will require more questioning to get at the core information you need and may in the end require more background research and work on the brief.

A special note: Engage the creative director in creative brief development. Have creative briefs reviewed by the creative director so additional work can be done before they are signed off on by clients and before the creative team is brought in.

Refer to the creative brief while brainstorming

As you develop concepts for your project use the information provided in the brief to come up with ideas. Pay close attention to the main communication point as well as the target audience. As you determine which ideas are worthy of further exploration test those ideas against the brief.

  • Is the idea/position distinct - different from the competition?
  • Is it relevant to the target audience?
  • Does it get the key message across?
  • Does the idea have "legs" that will give you a unified approach that is on-brand?

Don't confuse something that resonates with you with a project objective or business solution for your client.

Benchmark against the creative brief during creative reviews

Ensure the work goes through a creative review where it is evaluated against the creative brief. This is a stage where the creative director can help guide you to the right work to present by challenging ideas and providing any suggested enhancements.

Use the creative brief as a context when presenting work

When presenting work to your customer, begin by reminding them of the key components of the creative brief. This is usually done by the marketing or account person.

The creative team, writer and designer present the creative options referring to the content of the brief that informed the creative work to help make your point. A key benefit of working with and using a brief effectively is that subjectivity is taken out of the work and ideas are judged as business solutions.

When it comes to implementing your concept, make sure you discuss how you will handle the execution. What will be done in-house and by whom and what gaps are there (media planning/placement) that will need to be covered by your external agency or contract resources. You don't want to ace the concept only to fail in the expected execution. Also at this stage make sure to partner closely with marketing and account management and adjust the work as required.

Using a creative brief and being operationally prepared for any executional challenges will ensure you and your team effectively deliver on the creative and keep your clients delighted with your group as they award you more strategic opportunities.