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creative grief : How to set your creative team up for success

Design, Digital, Research

If you have a romantic partner, you’ve likely experienced this scenario:

Partner 1: Where do you want to go for dinner?

Partner 2: I don’t know. Anywhere is fine.

Partner 1: No. You pick! I can’t think of anywhere to go.

Partner 2: How about that Italian place down the street?

Partner 1: No. I don’t want that.

My partner and I experience some version of this conversation at least once a week. And, based on my extensive research of situation comedies, I know we aren’t alone. Over the years, I’ve found that the conversation goes much better if one of us can narrow down the options from “Anywhere is fine” to three potential options. When given just three options, my partner can generally choose one without his brain exploding. Otherwise, we get nowhere.

The same thing happens with creative work. You might think that if you leave all possibilities on the table, your creative team will revel in the freedom and come up with all kinds of mind-blowing ideas—but have you ever tried that?

It doesn’t work.

Give your team a blank slate, and you’ll most likely get underwhelming results. They’ll be unsure of where to start. They’ll probably become frustrated. They may even come to you and ask for more direction. Without limitations and constraints, the likelihood that they’ll knock the project out of the park is pretty slim.

That’s why a solid creative brief is crucial to the creative process. Here are a few things a good creative brief should do:

  1. Define the problem – What is the issue we are trying to solve here? Is it that nobody has heard of this brand? Do they have a negative reputation that needs to be improved? Even if the brand is doing well and just wants to maintain their position in the market, that can also be framed as a problem that needs a solution. Thinking in terms of problems and solutions helps ensure you are setting the correct goals, and it also helps get the creative wheels turning.
  2. Establish the target audience – Who are you trying to reach with this creative? Be specific. You don’t necessarily have to create buyer personas, but if there are different audiences that need to be reached simultaneously, it might be helpful to provide rough sketches of the ideal audience for each segment. How old are they? Are they male or female? What other brands do they use and like?
  3. Set clear goals – What are you trying to get the audience to do? Is the ultimate goal that they know the name of the brand? Do you want them to visit a website or redeem a coupon? Make sure you spell out what the ad or campaign is ultimately trying to accomplish.
  4. Set deadlines – It’s not enough to just include the launch or print date for an ad or campaign. You should develop a production schedule that outlines each step and when each piece needs to get to the next person in the production chain. For example, at B&Y, concepting typically starts with the copywriters, so they need a due date that gives the art director enough time to work his or her magic. Obviously, you’ll want to work backwards from the final print or launch date, but it’s helpful to present it to the team in terms of “next steps.”


Of course, direction can be taken too far. Nobody likes to be micromanaged, and creativity requires a certain amount of autonomy. But by starting with a solid creative brief, you can give your team the information and resources they need to take ownership of the project. By setting the project up as a meaningful problem that needs to be solved, you’ll not only get better results, but you’ll also set your team up for “small wins” that will help lift workplace spirits, increase productivity, and strengthen commitment.