8 Steps to Crafting Killer Creative Strategies

Here’s your comprehensive guide to preparing strategic creative plans that will yield the best work from your ad agency or internal marketing team on every project.

There is nothing more frightening to creative people than a project with infinite possibilities. If you don’t give them clear input, their creativity can spin out of control in a million different directions — none of which you may like. This is where your creative brief comes in.

A creative brief is a short overview of a creative assignment used by ad agencies, designers and other marketing vendors (although they can also be used internally with in-house teams). Whatever the case, its purpose is to inspire great ideas out of the creative team, and its intent is to keep projects running smoothly and prevent misunderstandings by having everyone work from a shared strategy.

Every creative project involves four distinct steps: information (collecting), incubation (digesting input), inspiration (the aha moment), and illustration (the expression of a concept). Creative briefs provide a framework for the overall process, and structure for the first two steps specifically.

To get the best work out of your creative people, you’ll need a well-written brief. Here’s your comprehensive guideline to crafting creative briefs that get results.

Step 1: Clarify Your Primary Objective

The key question you want to answer: “What is the primary problem we are trying to solve?”

Keep it simple. If you can’t phrase your objective in one or two sentences, your project will suffer. Ditto if you create a laundry list of objectives:

“Our objective is to increase loans while building awareness of our brand and its products and demonstrating our on-going commitment to the community.”

This statement is loaded with feel-good corporate clichés, but it’s mostly the kind of fluffy stuff creative people will disregard. The real objective is to “increase loans.” That’s what really matters.

Tip: Don’t saddle your projects with too many objectives. Pick the single, biggest issue and make that your goal.

Introducing multiple objectives into your projects muddies the waters. Which objective should the creative team focus on? Which one is most important? Always remember: the purpose of the creative brief is to provide clarity and direction.

But having a short, simple objective isn’t enough. You need to be specific. You don’t want to just “increase loans.” What you really want to do is:

“Increase home loans by 5% over the previous quarter.”

Better… but why not translate the “5%” value into something more concrete:

“125 first mortgages funded from new customers in Q2.”

Now that is an objective — a clear, realistic, measureable, obtainable and specific target. It strips out all subjectivity from the project by keeping everyone focused on a common goal.

Tip: A well-written objective will define metrics and measurements used to evaluate the project’s success.

Step 2: Define The Target Audience

If you don’t clarify who the target is for your marketing projects, you are giving creative people a license to design for their favorite audience: themselves.

For starters, are you targeting existing customers or new, prospective non-customers? There is a huge difference in how messages are presented between the two groups.

It’s also helpful to define the geographic scope — households within a 10-mile radius of Branch X, or residents of Springville and Harbortown. You can follow-up with age, gender, ethnicity, marital status and income, if applicable.

While demographic data can yield some insights creative people can find useful, it’s much more helpful if you describe a typical member of the target audience. Create an archetypal persona:

“Olivia is the ideal customer for EasyLife Checking. She’s a 36-year old stay-at-home soccer mom. Her husband runs a construction company, so they earn a comfortable $85,000 income. But he’s too busy to handle the household finances, so it all falls on Olivia.

Olivia is smart; she went to college and got a liberal arts degree, but she isn’t good with math nor comfortable with numbers. She struggles to build a budget and stick with it, and sometimes their account goes into the red unnecessarily. Between running the house and shuttling her kids around, Olivia is too stressed to spend hours pouring over spreadsheets and numbers. She needs a checking account with a set of simple tools that can help her quickly and easily wrangle her financial responsibilities.”

And here’s a good example of how Citi defined its target audience for one of their promotion:

This campaign will be aimed exclusively at existing Citibank customers in three test markets: Sacramento, CA, Houston, TX, and Washington DC.

The primary target will be segments of our customer database: male and female, 20 to 35 years old, with at least one Citibank credit card. The target will be approximately 70% married, with combined HH incomes of $85k on average.

This audience is comfortable with new technology, and quick to test new smart phone apps that leverage their time. They like to be among the first to have the latest and greatest electronics, apps and especially phones. They make multiple online purchases monthly. We will call our representative personas “Joe and Jenna.”

Step 3: Your Call to Action (or Key Takeaway)

This is probably the most important part of the entire creative brief. What one single thing do you want the audience to do? Or what’s the one thing you want them to remember?

If you aren’t asking the audience to specifically do something, then you might want to take another look at your campaign. Simply asking the audience to remember something (e.g., “Please think of ABC Bank for your mortgage needs”) puts your project under the category “brand/awareness” marketing with a super slippery ROI. You can’t really measure peoples thoughts and perceptions, but you can definitely track their behaviors and actions.

Bottom line? You probably aren’t helping directly improve your organization’s bottom line if you aren’t asking the audience to do something.

So in this section of your creative brief, you need to spell out exactly what the next step the target audience should take. After interacting with your marketing message, what do you want them to do? Open a savings account in a branch? Apply for a loan online? Call and talk to a service rep?

Step 4: Break Down Your Offer

By this point in your document, you’ve stated what you want to do, defined your target audience and what you want them to do. Now here’s where you explain why they should do what you want them to do. What’s in it for them? Why will they care? What do they get?

It helps to break down your offer into features and benefits. “Features” are straightforward descriptions of an offer’s key components, while “benefits” explain how the consumer’s life will be improved. A computer manufacturer might offer a “10 terabyte drive” (feature), but what consumers want is “all the storage you’ll ever need” (benefit).

Here are some examples of features and their benefits specific to the financial industry.

  • 25 branches in the metro area = you don’t have to waste time driving around trying to find a branch
  • 24/7 phone support = you can talk to real people whenever you need help
  • integrated PFM budgeting tools = you can finally take control of your finances and feel like you’re managing money responsibly
  • no payments for 90 days = it’s like getting something for free for 3 months
  • bump rate = you don’t have to feel like you did something foolish and you’re missing out on money that could have been yours

Tip: The best ads celebrate benefits, not features. Focus on how your products save people time and money, and how you make people’s lives easier.

Don’t use meaningless descriptions, cautions Aquent, a creative talent agency. Leave out rote adjectives (a.k.a. innovative, state-of-the-art, etc, etc.) to describe the offer. Tell the creative team in plain language what really sets you apart and what it means to the target audience. Arming them with both sides of the offer’s equation helps yield a compelling concept.

Step 5: List Media Channels & Deliverables

List all the marketing media that will be used as part of your campaign. Don’t just list the media the agency will be responsible for — list everything, but be sure to specify what materials the agency will produce and what you’ll take care of yourself (or through another vendor).

“Many clients retain more than one agency in order to bring a concentration of expertise to various areas,” notes Karen McGaughey, VP Client Services with Weber Marketing Group. “It is good for the agency to know and understand early who else we be involved so that there can be early collaboration with all contributing partners.”

Take special care to provide all the technical specifications you can on the front end of the project. The creative brief should list sizes, file formats, etc. Creative people hate getting an assignment where the size specified is “TBD.” They will sit down and design a beautiful 8×10 ad only to find out later that you really needed a 9×6… and sometimes their concept simply won’t translate to a new, different format they didn’t anticipate. That means costly delays.

Tip: Always remember to list the values for your sizes in this (very specific) order: width x height (x length, if applicable). If you really want to cover your bases, spell it all out in plain English: “8 inches wide by 10 inches tall.”

It can help to build your list of agency deliverables into a timeline, specifying dates for when you’d like to see concepts and when final delivery is expected for each item.

Tip: If you always know what deliverables you need and you just want someone to execute them, you might consider hiring a design studio rather than an ad agency. Ad agencies prefer helping clients solve problems, so avoid handing them “to-do” lists disguised as creative briefs.

Step 6: Provide Your Budget

It’s tempting to be cagey with budgets when working with ad agencies, but don’t. Agencies hate it when clients say, “Just ‘wow’ me with something, and then we’ll set the budget.” That never works.

“I would say the single most important piece of information is the marketing budget for the campaign,” says Steve Topper with ACTON Financial Marketing. “But rarely does a campaign get more money because senior management liked the creative,” Topper adds.

Topper says it’s important to share budget amounts on the front end because every aspect of a campaign is driven by the amount of money available.

“I’ve witnessed too many agency creative presentations that are way beyond the budgeted amount where the budgeted amount wasn’t really discussed in detail on the front end. It’s a waste of time and money.”

Jane Simon, President and Executive Creative Director of Simon+Associates, agrees completely:

“In some instances a client is hesitant to give us a budget range, but then we come up with a concept they love only to have dial it back due to cost constraints. But if the agency knows the budget from the start, they will work towards providing the best solution within budget.”

“Clients should understand that if your agency comes up with a concept that takes $50,000 to produce, going with that concept but them having them cut away items until it’s within a $10,000 budget drastically affects strategy, channels and execution. It makes sense to tell your agency from the start that you have $10,000 to work with so that they come up with a feasible solution that can actually be executed properly.”

Step 7: Mandatories

The financial industry is a bit unique in that advertising and marketing materials are federally regulated. So make sure you spell out exactly which compliance bugs are required (FDIC, NCUA, EHL, etc.), and provide the necessary disclosures up front in your creative brief. Few things make designers in the financial industry more cranky than having their gorgeous layout ambushed by an onslaught of legalese. If they designed a 9×6 postcard that accommodates a disclosure or reasonable length (say 100 words), and then later you hand them a full page of terms and conditions they’ve got to cram somewhere on the layout, they will have a hissy fit.

If every layout your financial institution produces must bear your company slogan or web address, be sure to clarify that in your creative brief. Same thing applies to phone numbers and branch locations.

Tip: Don’t leave holes in your creative brief. Do the legwork, complete the brief, and give your agency all the information you have that they need. If, for instance, you want the addresses for certain branch locations in your layouts, write those down. You don’t want an agency wasting their time and charging you $250 an hour to find information you have right at your fingertips.

Step 8: Attach Relevant Reference Material

Scenario 1: Your ad agency shows you a good concept. Unfortunately, you used that same idea a year ago in a different promotion. You have to start over.

Scenario 2: Your ad agency shows you concepts that are very similar to what your competitors have recently used. You have to start over.

You can easily avoid both scenarios by including a select set of relevant reference materials, specifically anything that you or your competitors used that’s in a similar vein.

If you have a mountain of data and research to back up your brief, go ahead and insert the salient facts into your document. Then let the creative team know that you have more detailed research available if they are interested, but don’t heap reams of paperwork in their face unless they ask for it.

Tip: If your bank or credit union has a specific visual style you’d like your ad agency to follow, provide them with examples — brochures, ads and other marketing examples.

If you’re supplying more information rather than less, just make darn sure that all your materials are really relevant. If you are running a loan promo, it makes sense, for instance, to include examples of your other loan promos. But if you are asking a vendor to design t-shirts for a charity event, they do not need a 200-page detailing your brand guidelines in excruciating detail.

Keep it Brief? Or Cover Everything?

There are those in the advertising field who contend that creative briefs should be just that: brief. You don’t want to overwhelm the creative team with too much information, they say. True, you don’t want to dump a bunch of extraneous, superfluous material in a creative person’s lap. But you also don’t want to treat creative people like a bunch of intellectually defective artists who can only relate to one thing at a time and only in terms of colors and shapes.

It’s dangerous to assume all creative people want to be treated the same. Creative people come in many different flavors, just like everyone else. Some want limited information — just the highlights and basic facts. But there are many creative people — indeed entire ad agencies — who take great pride immersing themselves in clients’ projects. For these creative types, you can’t send them “too much.” They’ll try your product. They’ll visit your competitors. They’ll read your trade magazines. There’s nothing they won’t do. For those folks… go ahead and load their wagon.

You’ll need to gauge how comfortable your agency is with varying levels of input and information. You could hand the same creative brief to two different agencies and one might tell you that you’ve boxed them in with an overload of TMI, while the other might complain that they are working in an information vacuum.

Tip: Don’t copy/paste information from one creative brief to the next. Each one should be unique. If not, the creative team will glaze right over your document — “Seen this before…skip it.”

“If you can open up your last creative brief, hit ‘Save As’ and make a few edits, you’re probably not creating a valuable guiding document,” cautions Jeff Stephens, President of Creative Brand Communications.

Olivier Raoust, CEO of Raoust+Parnters says his ad agency gave up on creative briefs years ago after growing weary of their redundancy. “Although we strived to keep them simple and filled with leading questions,” he explains, “the answers were all too often generic. In other words, they didn’t shed any light.”

The quality of a creative brief will have a direct impact on the quality of the concepts presented. If you don’t put any thought or time into your creative brief, then how can you expect the ad agency to put any serious time or thought into your project? Garbage in, garbage out.

The Most Simple Brief Ever

Now here’s a wild idea that requires a leap of faith. If you really trust your ad agency and want to see some very creative ideas, then all you need to give them is an objective and budget:

“We want $1.5 million in new auto loans and we’re willing to spend $60,000 to get it.”

Don’t be afraid to try this from time to time. You might be very pleasantly surprised by the outcome.

When you sit down and think a campaign all the way through you can suck a lot of the creative energy out of your ad agency. When you tell your agency, “We’re going to use this message in these media,” you may think you’re giving crystal clear direction, but some agencies will feel creatively stifled and boxed-in. “If the client knows what they want, let’s just do what we’re told.”

As Brian Wringer, a copywriter with CUiDiz, puts it: “A good creative brief outlines the rules of the game without placing too many restrictions on how the game gets played out.”

No matter what you do, you will never write the perfect, comprehensive creative brief. The creative team will always have questions, so provide the opportunity for a meeting or follow-up call.

Keep in mind that some agencies prefer to write their own creative briefs, following a meeting they have with you about your project. They may have their own unique approach, perhaps with additional questions, but the same basic outline provided above should be covered.

No matter who writes the brief, all parties should get together to reviews and discuss. At every stage of your project, you should be willing to revisit the brief to make adjustments and edits.

In the end, creative briefs provide strategic guidance and focus. As Stephens at CBS puts it: “I’ve witnessed several situations where financial institutions were going to run a campaign with no real strategic purpose or objective. A creative brief short-circuits this pitfall and requires you to really think about what you’re doing.”

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