Working With Creative Vendors

The Purpose of the Brief

The creative brief is a one-page strategic document used by creative professionals and agencies to develop deliverable creative content, such as ad copy, websites, videos, graphic design, etc.

This document is used to distill the essential knowledge required by creative producers to fulfill their client's goals, and typically include information about brand identity, goals, target audiences, objectives, mandatory elements, time line, budget and background.

In other words, this document is about providing an extremely clear expression of your project vision.

Unfortunately, developing a clear and well-defined vision is extremely difficult for most people. But before you even consider bringing your project to a creative professional, you must be prepared to give them…

The Right Information

What do creatives need to know when taking a commissioned project?

Most of all, a creative vendor needs to know the essentials of your brand, your goals, your audience and the emotional tone you want to establish. A typical creative brief includes the following information:

  • Background/”The Problem”

  • Core Message/Single Minded Proposition

  • Target Audience

  • Key Features/Benefits

  • Objectives

  • Audience Takeaway

  • Tone

  • Required Elements

  • Deliverables

  • Budget

  • Due Date

The most important thing is to make sure that you have strong clarity of vision about your product, your goals and your brand - and then provide clear information and context to the creative vendor in a way that allows them the greatest opportunity to solve your creative problems.

To quote Will Burns (founder of Ideasicle) from his Forbes article, “The Creative Brief and the Client’s Role In It”:

“The “single most important thought” (or some such similar phrasing found in most briefs), does not need to be headline quality. It merely needs to be smart, it needs to be the culmination of the rest of the brief, and it needs to be singular. The creative teams will then tell us how to say it, or be it, or whatever. But the brief is a means to an end, not an end.

Too many clients dictate too much to their agencies. It’s like going to a Wolfgang Puck restaurant and telling them you want a plain hamburger and fries. If you’re unsure about challenging your agency with your problems, you may be with the wrong agency.

In the end, your role is to inform the agency as best you can, and then allow the agency to do its thing.”

Try to provide as many specifics as you can about the problem you're trying to solve, the audience you're trying to reach, your brand identity and limitations. But most importantly, be extremely clear about the core of what you need to convey.

“It takes a big idea to attract the attention of consumers and get them to buy your product. Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night. I doubt if more than one campaign in a hundred contains a big idea.” 

— David Ogilvy

However... You also need to avoid giving your vendors…

The Wrong Information

Once you have as much information written down as you can, pare it down to the most essential elements. Too much information, and the wrong information can be every bit as bad as not enough.

I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
— Blaise Pascal

Here are some examples of what might be considered unhelpful information for creative vendors (mostly taken from the tragically hilarious Clients from Hell blog):

Contradictory or confusing adjectives:
While it’s incredibly important to use specific adjectives to describe your values and goals in a creative brief, they should not be at odds with each other. This is a shockingly common problem, and it can make it difficult or even impossible for a creative vendor to understand what it is that you actually want.

Information which is irrelevant to the project:
This should probably go without saying, but any information you give to a creative vendor will be assumed to be important and relevant information about the direction you want for the project. If you start talking about your dog or the great painting you saw the other day, but that has nothing to do with the design or video you want to create, you’re just going to introduce more confusion.

Impossible objectives:
As a client, it’s obviously not your job to know everything, but do try to familiarize yourself with a few basics, and always be open to education. You’re ideally hiring a professional and they can help you understand what will and won’t actually work.

Listen to them and be realistic about what you want people to do.

A flyer cannot appeal to literally every demographic at the same time and you aren’t going to get someone on Fiver to create a Superbowl ad. Production software does not make your vendor a magician. Blogs like Clients from Hell are filled with examples of clients with thoroughly unrealistic expectations of what's even possible (and sometimes, legal) to do.

  • “We need to reach all women and all people 18-24 with this design”

  • "The video looks really good, but just one little thing: I said ‘I’ve been a chef in New York for several years’ with a strong Philly accent. It sounds weird. Could you change that? Maybe Photoshop it out?"

  • CLIENT: I need a message centre on our new website so I can log in and leave messages for my customers to read. Can you build this?
    ME: Why don’t you just send them an email?
    CLIENT: Because sometimes they don’t always have internet access. Can you build it or not?

  • “CLIENT: Can you do some concepts just like that image I sent? But completely different.
    ME: Depends what kind of “different” you want.
    CLIENT: The same concept idea, but completely different.
    ME: I’m still not sure what parts need to be different.
    CLIENT: All of them.
    ME: Then what’s the same?
    CLIENT: Nothing!
    ME: Then what’s the point of the image you sent?
    CLIENT: It’s something to build on.
    ME: So you want that as a foundation… but a foundation that I in no way use?
    CLIENT: Exactly!”

Unless you have a significant amount of direct professional experience working in their industry yourself, you’re going to destroy the chances that you end up with a high quality creative project by trying to overwrite their area of expertise. Remember: You hired them to do things that you don’t know how to do. They need to understand your vision and work under a clear sense of direction that only you can provide, but then you need to step back and let them create.

Micro-management — especially when the manager doesn't have the skill or experience in creating the same kinds of products — will most likely backfire.

Final Thoughts

If you hadn’t noticed a pattern, the root of all of these problems is the lack of clarity of vision. If you work on that, everything else will probably fall into place. More importantly, this will save you a tremendous amount of money and stress in the long run.

Consider that the production process on even a fairly small video project could involve dozens of individuals, tens of thousands (or even hundreds of thousands or millions) of dollars, and take weeks to execute.

It's important to get the creative development, outcome objectives and scripting right first, because it's almost always going to be too late to make major changes once you're on set. Especially on projects that cannot afford major re-writes mid-production.

So be CLEAR up front about what you want to create and what you hope to accomplish and don't assume anything is possible to fix after-the-fact.

This will save time, money and sanity.

Lastly, if you’re going to hire artists to do creative work for your organization, it’s worth thinking seriously about…

Why Creative People Do Creative Work

There are typically big differences in personality and interests between people who do creative work for a living, and those who do not. They tend to be interested in testing their own abilities to solve creative problems, and to push the limits of their skills as craftspeople and artists. They are also not typically interested in 9-5 desk-jobs.

All this affects the way you need to interact with them.

"You can't enter into something that consumes so much of you without being super-passionate about it." 
— Ruben Fleischer (Director - Gangster Squad, Zombieland)

Creative work is an emotionally involved process.

People who do great creative work put their heart and soul into what they're doing. It's a lot more personal than most “businesses”, and when you're dealing with people's artwork, you're dealing with something that someone probably put a lot of themselves into.

“Good copy can't be written with tongue in cheek, written just for a living. You've got to believe in the product.” 
— David Ogilvy

Be respectful of that.

Non-constructive critiques are frequently not only useless to a creative vendor — and in some cases, actively destructive if they push your vendor farther away from producing a product that you want — poorly thought-out critiques are also a good way to create resentment and put a wedge between producer and client.

Simply saying, “That's not what we're looking for,” doesn't convey any useful information about vision or direction that can be meaningfully interpreted into edits and changes to creative products.

This is not likely to result in better quality work.

So here are some important rules of thumb:

  1. Recognize Expertise — Hire good people and trust them to do the work. Invite them to solve your problems instead of telling them what to do.

  2. Don't Assume — Simply because the final output looks easy to create doesn't mean that it was. Don't underestimate the time and skills needed to produce good creative work, don't assume anything can be done last-minute, or that everything is possible. Ask questions.

  3. Pick Two: “Fast, Good, Cheap” Good work takes time and a lot of skill. Be prepared for these trade-offs.

  4. Give Specific Feedback — Feedback is only as good as it can be applied to making the product better. Your creative vendor can't read your mind.

  5. Know Yourself — Know as much as you can about who you are and what you want to accomplish in advance. Understand your audience, your brand and your goals.

I hope these tips will help you in your next project.

Sean MaloneComment