Episode 361: How to write a creative brief with Tim Brunelle

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How to write a creative brief. This episode will help your team learn how to write a creative brief the correct way every time.

If you’re in a creative role at your agency, you’re probably familiar with receiving creative briefs that just don’t measure up. Instead of getting inspired to do great work, you’re left wondering where to start or what the point of the project is.

If you’ve ever created or pitched a creative brief, on the other hand, you’ve probably worked from a template or simply checked off the boxes of the bare minimum — it happens to the best of us!

This week, I’m interviewing Tim Brunelle, a creative director with decades of experience in marketing and advertising. Over the years, he has seen hundreds of creative briefs that span the whole spectrum between gold and garbage.

When our creative brief falls flat, it won’t inspire our creative minds to do great work. In this episode, Tim challenges us to think bigger and better rather than checking off the boxes and reading from a sheet of paper in our briefing meetings. When we think creatively about our creative briefs, we get a wealth of inspiration in return.

A big thank you to our podcast’s presenting sponsor, White Label IQ. They’re an amazing resource for agencies who want to outsource their design, dev, or PPC work at wholesale prices. Check out their special offer (10 free hours!) for podcast listeners here.

How-to-write-a-creative-brief

What you will learn about how to write a creative brief in this episode:

  • How the writing of creative briefs often fall flat for creative teams
  • Why creative brief-makers should care about the project just as much as the creative team they’re hiring
  • The two core functions of involved in how to write a creative brief
  • What the pipeline of the creative briefing process should look like
  • How to mentor and inspire creativity across teams to collaborate on the briefing process
  • Why location is important when discussing your vision
  • Determining when a creative brief is necessary to inspire a team to do ground-breaking work

“The expectation is for a creative person to find this amazing thing; the clock is ticking. We've given you a creative brief to help you go and do that. Oh, by the way, you have 10 hours to get it done.’” Tim Brunelle Share on X“The creative brief could be the unlock that changes your agency in a good way, forever.” Tim Brunelle Share on X“Creative briefs serve two functions. You need to inform and you need to inflame. I should receive a brief and feel like I'm going to hit a home run with bases loaded.” Tim Brunelle Share on X“One of my premises is that there is no universal singular best way to brief.” Tim Brunelle Share on X“If you're not putting the best, smartest people on the briefing side of it, why should I, as a creative person, give you my best?” Tim Brunelle Share on X

Ways to contact Tim:

Helpful Resources for How to Write a Creative Brief:

Transcript: How to write a creative brief

Hey everybody, Drew McLellan here from Agency Management Institute. Welcome back to the podcast, thanks for joining us. We have a great conversation today. We’re going to look at something we do inside our agency every single day, but from a different lens, which I think is going to be really, really interesting.

So I will tell you more about that in a second. But before that, I want to just remind you. Several of you have been asking me when the December and January workshops are going to be live on the website so you can register. So I just want to let you know that I am recording this on, let’s see, the last day of August, and they are live. So Money Matters is December 5th and 6th in Orlando and then, Build and Nurture Your Agency’s Sales Funnel is January 19th and 20th in Orlando and Mercer Island Group is back with a brand new workshop called Get it Write, W-R-I-T-E and they’re going to talk about proposals and whether it’s an RFP or you’re just answering somebody saying, “Hey, send me a proposal on what you might do for us,” whatever it is, they’re going to break down the elements of a written document that we send to prospects, and everything from cover letters, to case studies, to how you present your ideas, and they are going to walk us through good and bad examples.

One opportunity for some of you is that we’re going to be looking for some volunteers to actually give us some of the elements that you currently are using with your written proposals, and we’re going to make those part of the workshop and help you make them even better. So that’s sort of a plus up for some of you. But anyway, that workshop, I think I told you, is January 24th and 25th in Orlando. So all of those are live on the website and you can grab a spot now, before they sell out.

How to Write a Creative Brief: Tim Brunelle Introduction

All right. So let me tell you about today’s topic — how to write a creative brief. So I wrote something, I think it was on Facebook, but it might have been in LinkedIn. But anyway, I wrote something about Creative Briefs and how most of them are just really not what they need to be and an old friend of mine named Tim Brunelle sent me a note and said, I want to talk about this topic. So Tim has been a creative director. He worked for many years on the Volkswagen drivers, wanted campaign. He’s also worked on 3M, Anheuser-Busch. He’s been at BBDO, Carmichael Lynch. He’s just had an amazing career and his last gig actually was at Land O’Lakes on the brand side. But anyway, Tim is a writer by trade.

He and I have known each other for gosh decades now and he is a brilliant creative mind, but his point in his email to me, which triggered this episode was no one ever talks about a Creative Brief from the creatives point of view. So this is a document that we get handed that is supposed to inspire us to do amazing work, and oftentimes the way it’s handed to us or the way the document is done, doesn’t actually inspire great work. And so I want to talk about how we as agency people can think differently about Creative Briefs from the creative’s perspective, which I thought was a great idea. So I invited him on the show and we’re going to dig into that and I think you will enjoy his insights and his ability to sort of crystallize down from a creatives perspective, what a Creative Brief could and should look like. So let’s dive into that too. Tim, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Tim Brunelle: Thanks Drew. Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

So give everybody a little sense of your background, because what we’re going to be talking about today is really your perspective on the Creative Brief and so having them understand a little bit of your history and your story, I think will be helpful.

Tim Brunelle:

Sure and to frame it, we’re going to talk about Creative Briefs, primarily from the perspective of those who receive the brief.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Tim Brunelle:

Most conversations around Creative Briefs are about the author’s perspective, the strategist perspective and so as a creative person, I’d love to talk about the reaction and to look at the Creative Brief as a tool that as a creative person, I need to go use now to go, create something. So, yeah, I’m a writer by trade, got into the advertising industry a little bit before Al Gore invented the internet and so I was very fortunate to get trained in the craft of print advertising and the craft of broadcast and radio, and then the internet arrives and all of a sudden you’re able to interact with folks and there are wonderful new tools like blogging, and that’s where you and I met, right?

Drew McLellan:

Yep. That’s right. Many moons ago, I think there were 10 of us marketing bloggers back then.

Tim Brunelle:

Right and that was, so this idea of wait you can interact with a brand was this new thing and I think about that great old story about what was it. Dell sucks that blogger that to the point where Michael Dell is seeking out a blogger. I want to persuade you. So, that changed how we perceived marketing and I got very fortunate. I wound up working on the Volkswagen drivers, wanted campaign for about eight years, and that allowed us to both do great work across all different kinds of media, but also kind of build and learn as the plane was being built in the air. So the internet was this new thing, and we had a large team and we had a great client and we had funding and so we got to figure out what is an interactive copywriter? What is an information architect? What are the processes for making digital things?

So got involved in that space, worked at a bunch of different agencies. I worked for agencies as a part of all the major holding companies and then had a chance to start my own agency back in about 2008. The phone rings, you have an opportunity. It’s like, well, I could pitch that and pitch the thing and all of a sudden it’s like, who do we cut the check to? And my two other co-founders and I were like, “We have 24 hours to name this thing, find a URL, get a bank account, et cetera, incorporate all of those things.”

Drew McLellan:

Another accidental agency owner.

Tim Brunelle:

Exactly and so Hello Viking became an agency and all of a sudden we had a lot of work and we’re like, you’re in that space of now I’m running something and what do you mean your laptop doesn’t work? What do you mean the toilet’s backed up?

What do you mean the furnace doesn’t work in the building that we’re in? All of those things, nevermind selling and dealing with client relationships and all those things. In the midst of that, a Hello Viking birthed two different startups. One was a software company called Curation Station, and it was sort of a precursor to percolate or sprinkler in the idea of being able to take a fire hose of information and organize it and repurpose it, and then the second company was called Banner Pelusa. This was back when, right at the end of we were making tons and tons of flash banners, and we put together a production company to handle that for other agencies. But then as it happens with many agencies, Hello Viking came to a halt and I went back to freelancing and went back to agency world and my last stint was at BBDO in Minneapolis and then the phone rang and it was a CMO.

This guy named Tim Scott at Land O’Lakes. And he asked me if I wanted to come work for him. And honestly, I hadn’t really ever considered going Brandside. But Tim Scott had worked at McGarryBowen. He’d helped grow McGarryBowen from 15 people to the behemoth that it became and he is just an amazing human being. I consider myself very fortunate that he was a mentor and a friend and a coach, and he gave me great opportunity. So Land O’Lakes was a great opportunity to on the one hand, help that organization think about centralized in-house agency services. How are we going to do that? How might we structure that? And on the other hand, I got thrown into the kinds of assignments that I’m really excited about now, which is, the CTO and the head of supply chain are cooking something up. Why don’t you go represent marketing in that conversation? And so you get to go and talk about budgets and numbers and strategies.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, business issues.

Tim Brunelle:

Business issues, but represent them through the lens of, well, if what could marketing do to help improve that situation or fix something that seems broken-

Drew McLellan:

Or take advantage of an opportunity or whatever, right?

Tim Brunelle:

Exactly. I’m really attracted now to call it business transformation or change management, but it’s all of the things that marketing causes can cause in the world, but applied to, how do we think about ESG? How do we think about sustainability? How do we think about cultural change inside of organizations? They’re all really marketing problems and it’s kind of fun to be brought into those environments, given my background in advertising.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Well, especially, I mean, you’ve been doing it for a while, so you get to sit at a pretty senior table to have those conversations, so you could actually affect change.

Tim Brunelle:

Yeah and those are the fun stories. That’s the excitement for me.

Learn more how to rethink creative hiring practices by attending the Build a Better Agency Summit — go here for details.

How to Write a Creative Brief: From a Creative’s Perspective

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So what led to this conversation about how to write a creative brief was I posted something about Creative Briefs and we got into an email conversation and your point was, as you know, my agency life background was as a writer as well. And your point was, we never are the ones that get to create or actually influence how Creative Briefs are done and yet they are this vital tool that everyone thinks. When I give a writer or an art director, a Creative Brief, that is the magic potion that will allow them to create genius work. So you said, “Hey, we should talk about Creative Brief from the creatives perspective. And I thought, oh my gosh, that’s a great idea. So you’ve probably seen 100s and 100s and 100s of Creative Briefs in your career. Let’s talk a little bit about how you as a writer receive that document and what you need to do with it and what you normally experience versus what you wish they were.

Tim Brunelle:

Sure. Yeah. So first and foremost, aside from a paycheck, I think that the Creative Briefs, the most important document in the agency, and if we aren’t treating it as the most important document to the agency, then we’re missing a huge opportunity. So there’s that, right? And that impacts how you go about briefing and who does it and who’s involved, but let’s start at the room where it happens. You’re a writer, you’re an art director, you’re a designer. You go into a conference room and it’s been on your calendar and you sit down and there’s people you know, there’s a strategist and you know this is a briefing and they hand you a document and then they basically read all the words that are on the document-

Drew McLellan:

If you have a meeting at all.

Tim Brunelle:

Yeah. Sometimes the creative brief just gets emailed to you and that can be okay because one of my premises is that there is no universal singular best way to brief. It depends on the people. It depends on time. It depends on context. And sometimes an email or a phone call could be the best possible brief given players and time and all that other stuff. But typically you receive a brief and that’s kind of like the end of the movie from the perspective of most literature around how to write a creative brief. It’s like we’ve handed it over and then magic occurred. So here’s what happens. You receive the brief, whether it’s you working alone as a creative person and you know this as well, you take the thing and you go back to your desk and you go, well, now what?

Drew McLellan:

I have to make something out of this.

Tim Brunelle:

You are literally in a metaphoric fog and the expectation is creative person, please go and find gold or platinum or something amazing. Go find this amazing thing. The clock is ticking. We’ve given you a piece of paper to help you go and do that.

Drew McLellan:

Oh, by the way, you have 10 hours to get it done.

Tim Brunelle:

Yeah and other tasks to solve and life to live.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Tim Brunelle:

But it would be really great if you come out of the fog with an idea that will change all of our lives. We will now have words and images and a concept that will create a 10x for our clients’ revenues, change the fate of this agency. I mean, that’s the expectation, right? Generally speaking, I’m not talking about a purely tactical brief, but in general, that’s the expectation. Go do something amazing. That’s the allure of advertising. So you’re in this fog and you’re starting to make connections and you have and this brief and so if the brief is, matter of fact, fill in the blank, not creative. I mean, it’s called a Creative Brief and I love that there’s a great Pat Fallon quote that said, “If the Creative Brief itself isn’t creative, then its authors have no right to expect brilliance.”

That’s essentially the argument like the people making the brief, they have to put as much effort in as is expected to result and so as the recipient, 99% of the creative briefs I’ve received are kind of a waste of the paper. They’re a waste of the toner because in the one part they’re telling you something you already know. If I’m working on a brand, I already know who we’re trying to affect. I know our audience and I have a pretty good sense of their behavior. Seth Gunn says, “All marketing is about affecting change,” and I would argue that marketing is actually a subset of behavioral economics. We’re just the working functioning part of behavioral economics. So we know who we’re talking to. We kind of have a general sense of the behavior that we want to affect and we know that what we have marketing is the way to do it.

So it could be words and images on a sign somewhere, on a screen, on a billboard or we create an event or we create motion. Those are our tools when thinking through how to write a creative brief. So when you receive a brief, that is uninspired or is essentially very mechanical and fill in the blanks, it’s just very disheartening and it kind of affirms that this is just a poorly run business. It is true that without a brief, everybody’s just guessing. So one of the purposes of the brief on the front end of it is, can the strategist and the account team, can they please get some consensus around the potential of this opportunity? Aside from the creative people. Can you guys get agreement about what it is we’re trying to do? What we think success looks like, not how to do it, but what do we think success looks like? And can we create something that when we hand it over to the creative people who are jaded and busy and overworked, that they go, “Hold on a second. What a gift? Thank you. You have handed me something that now I’m inspired.”

Drew McLellan:

I’m excited to try this. Yeah.

Learn more how to rethink creative hiring practices by attending the Build a Better Agency Summit — go here for details.

How to Write a Creative Brief: Some Guidelines

Tim Brunelle:

I feel like when it comes to how to write a creative brief, there’s sort of two functions. They do two things that are critical. One is to just inform and that may be checking off the boxes. Okay, we know who we’re talking to. We understand that this is a billboard assignment or a talk assignment.

Drew McLellan:

Well, here are the rules right. Here are the brands’ rules. Here’s the timing rules. Here’s the budget constraints, all of that. Yeah.

Tim Brunelle:

Great. And you’d be surprised how often that they fail to do that inside the brief. What is the budget, really? What is the timing? Why are we doing this? Well, the client needs an ad. Like, no, no, no. Why did we need the ad? So the information side of it is worth is examining and getting. But the second side of it is to inflame. I say that you need to in inform and you need to inflame and I should receive a brief from you and feel like I’m going to hit a home run with bases loaded. Wow. I’m going to put everything else aside because this is so awesome and that’s really hard to do, but you have to want to do that, right?

So that’s where in an agency environment, the reason that the Creative Brief is so important is so critical is because it’s the thing that unlocks, it’s the thing that can all of a sudden change the fate of your agency, if you do it right and that’s where I feel like it’s worth spending the time, at the very least get buttoned up on the information side of it and definitely block time if you’re the author of a brief block, time to ask yourself, how can I make this brief truly inspiring? So that when I handed it over to other folks, again, I’m not doing their job for them. I’m not solving the puzzle themselves because you know what, if you can solve the puzzle, please go and do it. We are all plenty busy, but if you so, make it inspiring.

So, that leads to another thing. So there’s a document typically, right? And I said e