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A brief guide to writing briefs

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Why read this? : Briefs are how you begin all your marketing activities. Getting them right influences how well your activities go. We share key principles that’ll help you get better at writing briefs. Why you need them. What’s in them. Who writes them. When to write them. And how long it should take. Read this to learn our top 5 tips to writing briefs that inspire teams, and lead to better results. 

We talk about writing briefs in many of our guides, notably those on market research, advertising and media planning. It’s an essential step in many of those processes. 

In those guides we cover content – what to include, and process – how the brief starts each process, and what comes next. But beyond these, there’s also more general principles that apply to writing briefs.

In brief (!), those are what we cover this week. Let’s start with why you need a brief in the first place. 

Man writing blue shirt

Why write a brief?

The main purpose of a brief is to document what a project needs to do. Briefs are written. We can’t stress that enough. 

A verbal brief isn’t really a brief. Asking or telling someone to do something doesn’t document what’s required. You need the brief to be written, because you always need to refer back to it at some point. You can’t do that if it’s verbal. Writing it down makes it a tangible and concrete thing.

Writing it down means you’ve got something to refer back to when you have to deal with new suggestions, idea or actions later in the process. If it doesn’t fit the brief and deliver the goal, you don’t do it. That’s why it needs to be written. Memories are unreliable and subjective. Written documents are reliable and objective. 

The goal - what needs to happen?

When the brief has a clearly written goal, everyone understands what the team needs to do. You need that clarity to start a project.

The goal acts like a compass, pointing everyone in the right direction.

If anyone’s unclear where you’re going, refer them to the brief.

However, the brief needs to give more information than just the project goal. 

Hand holding old fashioned looking compass

If that were the case, your brief could just say “grow sales” and leave it there. But that’s a bit too brief. There’s too many ways to answer a brief like that. Anything from price discounting to managing innovations, from new commerce channels to new communications campaigns could answer the goal of growing sales. 

You need to give more information to narrow down the options. You need to give the team some idea what you think the project needs to do. How you think the goal should be met. 

When writing briefs, you make clear how broad or narrow an answer you’re looking for. Go broad, and the team has more freedom to be creative. Go narrow, and you’re more prescriptive, with less creative freedom. 

The project context, how you like to work, and how you like to organise and motivate teams, influence whether you write broad or narrow briefs. 

But even in the broadest briefs, you still outline the project expectations and limitations. 

Expectations and limitations

When writing the brief, you’ll have expectations – ideas about how you think the project goal should be met. You need to include these in the brief. They help everyone understand how you see the challenge.  

Cover broad areas like the timeline, and how much you want to spend. All briefs need to give detail on time and budget

But also include more specific expectations. Include specific activities, or specific ways in which you want those activities to be done. 

Man's hand holding a camera lens in front of a lake with mountains and blue skies in the background

So, for example :-

  •  The creative should build on last year’s campaign. 
  • Please focus the digital media plan on social media engagement.
  • Prioritise conversion of new customers in the e-Commerce plan. 

These expectations still give the team creative freedom to answer how to do things. But it helps eliminate a lot of potentially irrelevant answers, which saves time and effort.

You should also include limitations in the brief. Steer teams away from answers you know can’t be done or wouldn’t be acceptable. For example, ideas you tried in the past that didn’t work, or ideas your regulatory team wouldn’t approve. 

The brief contents

There’s no such thing as the perfect briefing template (despite what many marketing agencies tell you). Search online and you’ll find hundreds of templates for writing briefs. 

The brief needs to fit the project context. As no two projects are ever the same, the brief has to be flexible. You adapt the brief to fit the project. 

That doesn’t mean you use a different template every time. Consistency is helpful. But the briefing template shouldn’t be a straitjacket. 

Think of it more as a checklist for good practice. But, if a particular section isn’t relevant, leave it out. If it needs something extra, add it in. Make the brief work for that project. 

Teams can ask questions and suggest improvements to the brief before it’s agreed on anyway. So don’t get too stuck on one specific template. 

As an example, here’s what we use when writing briefs for communication projects.

Communication brief - example of content

Taken from our guide on how to advertise, this brief template has 5 sections that work across most communication projects.

These are brand, objectives, communication, rationale and project details. 

With minor additions this brief template can also stretch to :-

  • packaging (where you’d include technical specifications), and
  • public relations (where you’d include details about the event or issue you’re trying to promote).
Marketing Communication brief - blank template

Brand

In the brand section, you write succinct versions of the vision, essence, personality and values from your brand identity. This makes it clear whatever the project delivers, it needs to tie back to those key intangible brand assets.

This section helps you check that project outcomes are consistent with what the brand stands for. You can approve or reject answers based on whether they’re “on brand”.

Objectives

In this section you cover the goal, and more specific objectives that sit under the goal. 

Objectives work at different levels, so you may have business goals (e.g. enter new markets, or beat competitors ), marketing goals (e.g. win x% market share, or increase customer loyalty by x%) and an overall growth target (e.g. hit $x sales and profits) for the project. 

Communications

After the brand context and objectives, you then concisely define the communication job to be done. This can include :-

  • Communication challenge – for example, a negative customer perception you want to turn around, or improving customer perception versus a competitor.
  • Communication imperative – this defines the single most important part of the communication. It’s usually linked to the behaviour change the communication needs to deliver.
  • Communication objective – this quantifies the key behaviour change you need, and how you’ll measure it.
  • Consumer truth / key insight – This is a concise psychology-based understanding of why the customer thinks or acts in a certain way. It usually comes from market research.

Rationale

Here you outline the brand’s answer to the communication challenge (usually related to a benefit the brand delivers). You share the proof of why the customer should believe that benefit, and the target response – how you expect the customer to change in attitude or behaviour based on the answer and proof. 

Project

This is the “admin” section of writing the brief. It defines key details like timing and budget, as well as setting KPIs for the project (which will be different from the project objectives), and documenting who the project lead or leads are.

Who writes the plan and gets involved?

The project lead is normally responsible for the writing of the brief. However, writing briefs is usually a collaborative team process, rather than a solo effort.

The project lead usually knows the most about the project, and why it’s needed. They’re best placed to gather the details that go into the brief.

However, this closeness to the project often means they want to include everything they know in the brief. But that can lead to overloaded briefs, with a bias known as the curse of knowledge.

Close up on person writing (typing) on a MacBook

The brief author needs others to review the brief and give feedback. This could be a formal approval committee, or informal feedback from trusted colleagues.

Feedback to refine the brief is important. No-one gets the brief right first time. Asking for feedback makes for a better brief. Think about it like the editing process when you write. Your first draft is the start. But only with the habit of rewriting and editing does it get better. 

The project team should be in the review and feedback process. Let them ask questions and suggest improvements. The more involved they are in writing the brief, the more engaged they’ll be in the answer. 

When do you write briefs?

Clearly you write the brief at the start of a project.

But let’s think about what happens before the brief. What triggers the need to write one?

Briefs normally come out of your marketing plan, and more specifically the activity plans they include.

We, for example, like the GAME (Goal, Activity, Measure, Evaluation) plan format that summarise your brand activation plans.

Briefs add more detail to the the GAME plan to start the project. 

Game plan examples - marketing plan

Of course, not every opportunity and challenge fits your marketing planning cycle.

Briefs don’t always relate to your marketing plan. A competitor unexpectedly launches a new product, for example. Retailers change their promotional plans. Customers start to lose interest in your advertising. 

Writing briefs helps you make sense of, and organise all these planned and unplanned activities. Nothing big happens without some sort of brief. Anything that needs a large amount of resource – budget, time or people – needs a brief. 

When do you not write briefs?

It’s tempting to write a brief for everything, but not everything needs a brief. Common sense should apply. You only write briefs for work that’s going to take up a good amount of time.

Our rule of thumb is you don’t need a brief if :-

  • there’s no budget involved.
  • the job to be done will take less than the time to write the brief. 
  • it only needs three people (or less) to do it. 

So, fixing a typo on the website for example. A quick social media post that’s part of an already approved content strategy. Adding new copy to a product page in your e-Commerce store. 

No brief needed. 

But a million dollar innovation project that’s going to take six months and a team of twenty people? Yeh, obviously, you need a brief. 

How long to spend writing the brief?

How long a brief takes to write depends on the urgency and importance of the project.

If it’s a planned brief from your marketing plan, you can plan in enough time to think about it in advance, write it and edit it. 

Even though the number of words in a brief is small – it’s brief after all, it’ll take at least a few hours to collate the information, and write your first draft. 

You then need to allow time to share that draft and ask for feedback

Close-up of a clock face showing dial sitting between ten and twelve

Allow a few days for people to read it, and get back to you with comments. 

With re-writes and edits, this sort of planned brief might take one to two weeks from start to finish. More, if you need to ask lots of people for feedback.

However, for unplanned briefs where you need to act quickly, it’d still take the same time for that first draft, but you’d likely crunch the time on feedback, rewriting and editing.

You’d send out the first draft, but work on it with the team to finalise it together.

Agencies and re-briefs

In general, involving the project team in writing and agreeing the brief is a good thing. It makes them feel more motivated, and in control of what they need to do on the project.

Where that gets difficult though is when marketing agencies ask if they can write a rebrief. That means they rewrite your carefully thought out and written brief to make it work for them. 

But that means your brief isn’t working, and it’s a bit of underhanded insult to your writing skills.

Question mark spray painted onto a tree trunk among a wood of trees

Agencies look at their version of the brief as a way to organise the work of their resources, notably creative and strategic planner types. 

When this happens, the goals of your original brief can get forgotten. The agency process takes over, and your intent gets diluted.

Our push back to this is to hold fast on your brief. It sets the business challenge and needs to stay as the master brief. However, the agency can convert the business brief to a creative brief if they need to. This becomes their response to the brief without your brief getting forgotten. 

The brief’s what you want, not what they want. 

Five tips on writing briefs

To close off this article, we’ll share our five top tips for writing briefs.

Tip 1 - Briefs need to be brief

Often when writing briefs, you feel a need to get all your thoughts about a project down on paper. 

That’s fine for organising your thoughts, but it’s not what the brief is for. The brief’s for organising everyone else, so only organised, relevant thoughts should go into the brief.

That brings clarity so everyone understands what the project needs to do, and how they’re expected to deliver it. 

To get that clarity, you need to be concise.

A woman with a finger over her mouth making the shhhh signal

Go back and cut out those early loose thoughts. Eliminate irrelevant details. Take out anything unrelated to achieving the goal. Make it more readable.

Interesting doesn’t always make something relevant. Include only what’s necessary to help the team deliver the project. 

Tip 2 - Practice makes perfect

Briefs feel like they should be easy to write because they’re short. But writing short is often harder than writing long. As the famous quote goes, “if I had more time, I’d have written you a shorter letter”.

Practice comes with each draft and edit you do. Practice getting the word count down on each re-write. Find ways to cut unnecessary facts, information and words. 

Each time you write, re-write and edit a brief, apply what you know about writing great briefs. Accept that every brief you write will be slightly better than the previous one. 

See it as a skill to practice that improves your business, leadership, marketing and creative skills. Think about how you give others in your team the chance to practice and improve their own skills at writing briefs.

Tip 3 - Organise the background information

Often, you’ll have background information you want to include with the brief. You include it because you want the team to make informed decisions. 

The challenge with background information is the team have to work their way through it to understand it. They also need to work out what’s important in all that information. 

It’s quick and easy to include a bunch of attachments when you send over the brief. Market research reports. Sales reports. Customer meeting notes. Brand books. 

This creates a library of relevant information, but you need to organise it in a way that helps the team use it.

When we do this with briefs, we usually write a short summary for each attachment or background document. What it is, when it was done, why we included it, and what the team need to look out for. 

For example :-

This quantitative market research report run in March, 20xx contains details of the key e-Commerce benefits that (target customers) saw as the most important. 

(paraphrased from the project we refer to in our article on barriers to e-Commerce).

Tip 4 - Learn from other briefs

Look back at your briefs from previous projects. Think about how well they worked. Were they clear to the team? Did they help deliver the project successfully?

If your colleagues write briefs, get involved and ask to give feedback. Reading someone else’s brief, and looking for areas that are unclear or badly written helps you improve your own brief writing skills. 

Look for where the goals and priorities are unclear. Look for unrealistic demands. And look for briefs which try to be too clever, and don’t inspire the team. 

Start an archive of briefs from previous projects that your team can access and learn from. Highlight or summarise the best points from the really great briefs. Check in with project teams to see if your brief format works, or if it could be improved. 

Tip 5 - The best briefs are brilliantly simple

Our final tip is to think about the language you use in the brief. There’s a limited amount of space to convey the maximum amount of meaning in your words. Each word needs to be there for a reason. 

So, question every word you use. Can you simplify? Are there jargon and buzzwords you can cut out? 

You want an answer, not a strategic solution. You want a message, not a communication framework

The clearer the brief, the better the results you’ll get. And that’s clearly what you want from writing briefs.

Woman wearing a grey sweatshirt and looking at her phone in a dark room

Conclusion - A brief guide to writing briefs

Improve your skill at writing briefs, and you set up your projects to succeed. 

They’re more enjoyable to work on, and they deliver better business results. 

The brief sets the goal for the project and the expectations and limitations that come with it.

Great briefs strike the balance between giving teams the freedom to use their skills and creativity, while giving them enough clarity and direction on how to deliver the goal.

Woman standing in a poorly lit street at night. She is blowing into her hands which holds a light and some sort of illuminated confetti

There are many different brief templates, but most share common characteristics like branding, the business objectives and practical details like budgets and timing.

Ask for and give feedback on briefs. Briefs are supposed to provoke conversations about how to solve business challenges. The goal after all is not better briefs, but better business outcomes.

Check out examples of briefs in our articles on the market research process, advertising development and in marketing innovation. Or contact us if you need help improving your skills at writing briefs.

Photo credits

Man in blue shirt writing : Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

Person holding compass : Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Person typing on a Macbook : Photo by Thomas Lefebvre on Unsplash

Clock : Photo by Agê Barros on Unsplash

Question Mark on Tree : Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

Quiet – Shhh! : Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

Woman looking at phone in dark room : Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash 

Woman blowing sprinkles : Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash

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