The renowned British brand planner, Damian O’Malley, developed one of the best training guides on how to write a creative brief to inspire great advertising. It acts as a salutary lesson for content teams who often develop content in the absence of either a formal strategy or well-written brief.  

Here’s the original creative brief training guide, with implications for content teams woven in, exploring brief options that Michelangelo was given to paint the Sistine chapel by his client Pope Julius II.  Each brief option is critiqued, and a relevant comparison made that content teams may find helpful.

Brief #1: ‘Please paint the ceiling’

There is no doubt that this is what Michelangelo was being asked to do but this brief gives him no hints as to what the solution to the request might be. It leaves all the decisions and thinking to the artist before he can put paint to plaster.” 

This is what most content teams deal with when asked to develop content for owned channels. Eg: A website leader is building a new digital ecosystem and is focused on technology implementation and user experience. Toward the end of the build, they raise the ask that the content team create content to fill up the website. The exact ask being, “Please fill the new website with content”.  

Yes, it’s good to be clear on the deliverable but describing the deliverable alone is not a brief in any form. Let’s move on to see if we can find a better brief.

Brief #2: ‘Please paint the ceiling using red, green and yellow paint’

“This brief is worse. Not only does it not tell him what to paint, it gives him a number of restrictions without justification; restrictions which will inevitably prove irksome and which will distract him from his main task.”  

Content teams are often asked to create content that is 100% consistent with the brand’s identity guidelines. As a result, content starts to look like brand advertising or product marketing. The opportunity to develop a distinct editorial voice is missed. Good briefs should be liberating, not focused only on the deliverable and the mandatories.

Brief #3: ‘We have got terrible problems with damp and cracks in the ceiling and we would be ever so grateful if you could just cover it up for us’

It still does not tell him what to do and it gives him irrelevant and depressing information, which implies that no one is interested in what he paints because it will not be long before the ceiling falls in any way. How much effort is he likely to put into it?”  

At least for the content team, an audience need has now been identified. But it sounds categorical and doesn’t inspire the content team to create content "worth making". Content worth making comes from finding a need that your audience truly cares about, and one that your brand can uniquely answer. This is especially important in commoditized markets where there are many players with similar products or services, like insurance and banking.

Brief #4: ‘Please paint biblical scenes on the ceiling incorporating some or all of the following: God, Adam, Angels, Cupids, Devils and Saints’

Better: now they are beginning to give Michelangelo a steer. They have not given him the full picture yet (if you will pardon the pun) but at least he knows the important elements. This is the sort of brief that most of us would have given. It contains everything the creative needs to know but it does not go that step beyond, towards an idea towards a solution.”  

For the content team, this would be the brief that the SEO team provides - some keywords and a topical analysis as a way to guide the content ingredients. Topic analysis provides an understanding of intent i.e. why are we doing this. However, this brief still needs some prioritization, between Cupids and Devils.

The Final Brief

‘Please paint our ceiling for the greater glory of God and as an inspiration and lesson to his people. Frescoes which depict the creation of the world, the Fall, mankind's degradation by sin, the divine wrath of the deluge and the preservation of Noah and his family.’  

Now he knows what to do – and is inspired by the importance of the project – he can devote his attention to executing the details of the brief in the best way he knows.  Words are little bombs: the right ones can explode inside us demanding an original and exciting solution instead of a mediocre pedestrian one.

For the content team, this brief really works as it moves beyond the development of content into a larger experience or an organizing idea. This, in turn, inspires content way beyond a specific moment. It’s this understanding of the broader context that builds brands and helps them achieve business outcomes.

A well-written creative brief is an essential ally for content teams who consistently create distinct and high-performing content. It focuses on an audience need and provides inspiring guidance on how content should be used to meet that need, and the ultimate business objective.

Briefs aren’t always needed. Eg: An update to an existing article doesn’t need a brief. A brief is needed when the team is about to go into a significant content development exercise, perhaps to move to a new part of the customer journey or as part of an integrated campaign to launch a new product. Briefs should hence be in place for each audience segment, for each stage in the customer journey or for each campaign - based on your current goal. 

How to Write a Creative Brief for Content Development?

The best briefs identify the tension - the unmet audience need and the intent, together with what’s happening in the marketplace. This will motivate the content creator to provide a solution for the said tension through their content. Without this, your content risks being generic or categorical or both.   

Be careful to define deliverables that provide a baseline of specific requirements yet allow the creative team to stretch their proverbial legs with themes, topics or types that can work even better to materialize the brief. What was once the easiest section of a brief to write, “deliverables,” is now the hardest. 

Lastly, each part of the brief should feed into the next. There needs to be a clear narrative that works from the start to the end. This is the freedom that comes from a tight brief.

If you’re keen to explore writing a creative brief based on these recommendations, hit this link to receive Knotch’s Content Brief Template.