How (and Why) Agencies Should Develop a Visual Creative Brief With Clients

Agencies and Clients Need to Work Together on Creating a Visual Language

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Thud. The latest creative brief lands on your desk. It's seven pages long, has a half-inch thick PowerPoint deck attached, with a few emails copied and pasted in to boot. As you sift through the bullet points and marketing data, your brain scrambles into overdrive to envision what a possible design solution could be. Key words flash in front of your eyes: "It must be premium." "It must be approachable." "It must be edgy."

Fast forward a week and a half to the first client presentation. After all of the head-scratching and late nights, there's an anticipation of applause after the big "tada!" moment. Instead, silence; perhaps a cough. "Sorry, that's not quite what we had in mind. I think we're going to need to see some new options and ask you to go back to the well."

Sound familiar? This is not only every agency's nightmare -- it's actually every client's as well.

Both teams have given blood, sweat and tears to create a new campaign, product, brand, etc. Yet this scenario plays out time and time again with precious hours wasted on ever-shortening deadlines. And it's been this way since before Don Draper. Isn't there a better way?

The key problem is that agencies are forced to start this process by translating the verbal into the visual. Why not get clients and designers to speak the same language -- a "visual" one, as well as engage in a more tightly-knit collaborative process? Enter what we call the "visual creative brief."

We started doing this several years ago, soon after our agency launched, when a trusted client -- launching a film production company -- agreed to be our test pilot. Like most great tools, it's deceptively simple to do.

You start by getting all of the key decision-makers in a room to build the brief together, and it absolutely must be visual. Our creative team generally collects and edits about 100 images in advance that we think will generate a thought-provoking discussion, and we ask the client to bring visual inspiration as well. Typography, graphic forms, illustrations, photography, even a structural inspiration -- we talk through each of these categories together. Roll our sleeves up. Spread all the images out on the table. Move them back and forth. Sometimes it takes a few tries for everyone to get warmed up, but soon everyone is in the flow.

We ask the client to talk openly about the "whys" and the "why nots" when selecting or rejecting an image. This is where the magic happens and deeper understanding is formed. Not only do our designers get access to greater depths of insight, but clients are now communicating in visuals and creating greater alignment among their own team as well.

The whole process is an opportunity for creative and client teams to co-create in a fast, inexpensive and iterative way, and leads to a surprisingly clear result. The visual creative brief becomes our focal point of inspiration and springboard for the design exploratory, and consistently leads to a smarter, faster, better route to success, because it starts with alignment. An additional side benefit is that it often helps clients feel comfortable stretching beyond where they're typically willing to go, because we've pulled back the curtain and brought them behind the scenes as an active part of the design process.

Once our clients do this exercise, they become converts. Some have said, "It's as if we're designing it ourselves." Well, while not exactly true, we are equipping them with tools to talk about design in language that designers understand -- pictures.

Collectively, we wind up with common visual definitions of what some of the most notoriously elusive words can mean for a brief (every project has its own particularly vague terms). We have a better understanding of what "premium" means, what "approachable" means, even what "edgy" means -- and we know it together and we're getting to great work faster. And that feels good. Hope you'll give it a try with your clients as well.

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