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A creative brief – for those lucky enough to have never worked in marketing – is a document that advertising agencies give to their creative teams to prompt them to create exciting, on-message ideas. As you can imagine, it’s something that’s pretty important to get right. Get it wrong and not only is it hard to come up with impactful ideas for ads, but the ideas that you do come up with might communicate something completely divergent from what you want to get across.

Get it right however, and magic can happen.

Now you know pretty quickly when you have a good creative brief on your hands. Firstly it’s very simple. it only points in one direction, which means that it’s hard for the creatives to go off track. Secondly it’s surprising. The thing that it wants to communicate is at least vaguely interesting. It makes you think, “hmm, I never thought of it that way”. But above all the most important attribute for a creative brief is that it’s easy. It should be a piece of stimulus that anyone – not just a supposed “creative” – can come up with ideas for instantly. If you, Joe or Joan Bloggs, don’t look at a creative brief and immediately have a couple of rough ideas that get you excited, it’s not a good one, simple as that.

The funny thing about creative briefs however, is that they only really exist in advertising. The reason this is funny is because “ideas” don’t just exist in advertising, they exist everywhere. Every business is, in itself, an idea, and within it are a huge collection of other ideas that knit together to make the whole. And these ideas can be judged in exactly the same way as an advertising idea is – are they good, are they interesting, and do they communicate what we want them to communicate? If the answer to all these things is yes, then hey presto, your business is a piece of advertising. Every time it’s talked about (which will be often), its message will carry through.

And yet most businesses aren’t their own advertising. Most businesses are actually pretty bland, pretty generic, and pretty incoherent if you look at them in isolation. That’s why they do advertising. To put an interesting and meaningful skin over something that’s boring and meaningless. Notice what advertising has but businesses don’t? A creative brief.

Every business should have a creative brief at its heart. And indeed almost all of them do. They call them tag lines, purposes, missions, strategies, propositions, and many more things besides. But because they don’t construct them and judge them as creative briefs, they’re useless. They aren’t conducive to creating new ideas. They don’t act as guides for innovation. They don’t help you make decisions. They’re just words.

Amazing businesses, however – the ones that are like walking ad concepts, with all the intrigue and clarity that entails – they do have creative briefs. Take Patagonia. At its core, Patagonia’s proposition is nothing particularly unique – an “eco-friendly” outdoor clothing brand. There are plenty of them. And if they’d written that proposition in a typical way – let’s say “eco-friendly clothing” – it would have made for a pretty poor creative brief. Does that give you any exciting ideas? Does that sound different? Probably not.

But they don’t say that. Instead their founder Yves Chouinard had an insight (something that lies at the heart of every creative brief). He realised that no matter what they did, or how hard they tried, they would always harm the environment so long as they manufactured something. The only way not to damage the environment in reality would be to not exist at all. So this meant he framed their proposition differently: “cause no unnecessary harm”. Essentially this is pretty similar to “eco-friendly clothing”, and yet it isn’t, because this is a creative brief. It invites the business to look at itself, identify every piece of potential harm its doing, and come up with an idea to eradicate it. Indeed if they don’t do that, then the sentence is meaningless. Suddenly ideas become easy. This is what led them to radical acts such as offering unlimited free repairs on their clothes for life. To being the first company to abandon superfluous packaging for underwear. To use all organic cotton. To stand against Black Friday sales. And to do all sorts of other interesting things which have acted as pieces of “advertising” for them throughout the years.

Look at any business that is truly capturing the world’s imagination today, and you’ll find a creative brief. Red Bull’s “giving wings to people and ideas”. Airbnb’s “belong anywhere”. Sometimes it won’t be written in a pithy line, but it’s there anyway in the background, like Tesla, Lush, Apple, Google. By the same token look at any business that seems to be losing its way, and you won’t find a creative brief. How do you work with “I’m lovin’ it”? Or “Theyyy’re grrrrrreat!”? Or “power to you”? These are not creative briefs – they’re pieces of creative. They’re an end, not a beginning.

If your business is a walking talking creative brief, you’ll never need to hire an agency again. Of if you do, you’ll have made their job way easier.  Your people will be inspired. Your customers will “get” you. And, with barely any effort, your business will become a dazzling piece of “creative”.

That’s what creative briefs are for.