The Brief In Depth
The foundation of any job is the brief. The brief defines the creative and technical scope of the job. It is the guiding light that helps keep you on track, providing the founding principles to which you will test your creative project through its journey to completion.
Without this document, you will not be able to justify to yourself or to your client that your creative concept is a good response to the job. There are no independently “great ideas” that fit anything, only ideas that do or not answer the brief… and the better they answer the brief, the better the idea.
Unfortunately, writing for commercial, online and corporate work can sit outside of the traditional order because of the massive proliferation of demand for content creation, the variety of clients asking, and the speed of getting it done. People often don’t know what they want, what they’re asking for, why, or how to ask, and you are put in the position of making content that is vague or tangential to an existing (and undisclosed) campaign. They just want it done.
Rather than say no to business, you need to carry on and figure it out by building your own brief — if a formal document shared with the client isn’t appropriate, then you at least need to have a conversation with them and satisfy all of the questions that are relevant to the particular job at hand.
At a minimum, a good brief should contain:
1. The objective of the video
2. The target audience
4. Background of the product, participants or other key elements
5. Deliverables (ie. the quantity and duration of videos to be delivered)
6. Budget range
9. Any mandatories (ie. things that must or must not be included in the video).
Our first two criteria, the objective and the target audience, have been initially covered in our previous post about the creative process.
Your objective is to try to clarify the film’s primary goal. The level of clarity and specificity that you achieve are critical qualities in setting you down the right path. If it doesn’t have an implicit answer to “why are we doing this”, then that needs to be prompted. The why digs at the strategy or reasoning behind the objective. “To announce the launch of our new toaster” suggests that the what is “to inform the audience that a new toaster is coming to market” and the why is “because we have created a new product”. The brand film example wants to convince the viewer that Friendly Bank has great customer engagement but the why is unclear. It may be “to own the customer service space because our competitors dominate in number of branches and ROI.” This strategic context can have a critical influence on the direction of your creative ideas, so clarify this if possible.
Identifying the audience is the same — the more specific you can be about these people, the more you can imagine them and their psychology and come up with a concept that fits really well. Our example’s “fathers aged 35–50” is not very helpful, so try to find something that paints a vivid picture or has a specific demographic that is supported with background information.
The tone will help you sort out what is appropriate — light hearted, inspiring, respectful.
The background can offer critical context to understand where the client is coming from. Maybe this product is a new flavour in an existing range, or they’re trying to change direction from a previous campaign.
Deliverables is purely technical, clarifying how many of what you are responsible for handing over at the end of the job. From the creative perspective, it is important to know if your piece needs to work in abbreviated versions (cutting a 60 second video down into 30, 15 and 5 second treatments, for example). It’s much better to consider this at the writing stage than leaving it to the editor, because maybe writing an alternate version of a line of dialogue or a requesting an extra shot might make the cut down work a lot better.
The budget range really helps clarify if you can be thinking of a piece with 1000 extras in an exotic location or one actor talking to camera in the alley behind the office.
Timelines are often overlooked, but are critical to having an organised (and stress free) production process. While this information is critical to the producer, it also clarifies what sorts of things are feasible to the creative. A quick turnaround, for example, means you won’t have time for casting, as this usually takes over a week at least to arrange the call, confirm the cast, and give a stylist time to pull clothes. Experience (or a good chat with your producer) can help sort out what sort of creative ideas can reasonably be accomplished within a time frame. Also consider other restraints, like a short turnaround between the shoot day and the delivery of the edit could make a shoot that works “in camera” (with no or minimal editing) much more successful than a lot of footage and an intensive edit session.
Distribution, as we’ll look into in another post, can have serious implications to the formulation of your creative. Platforms with square aspect ratios could impact on your idea. Or if the sound doesn’t start until the video is clicked on then people will miss any of the audio track up to that point, and you need to consider that the video will be more successful if it still works despite missing what was said.
The final criteria, mandatories, is for anything else that you need to know must (or must not) be included, such as shooting taking place on a certain day, assets that must be used, or talent that must be featured.
Not every part of the brief will have an impact on your creative, but it’s really important to gather all of this information to judge for yourself. The odds of someone else correctly flagging what needs to be considered are just not very friendly, so go over the details yourself and let them percolate in the back of your mind as you pursue your great idea.
Going Without The Brief
This is the fast track to going back to the starting board. And a hard lesson to learn. Every time I have accepted to “just write something” without getting clarity on the necessary specifics, I’ve eventually had to scrap the work and restart. This in itself isn’t the problem. The incumbent demoralisation of wasting time takes a toll, but if your company tracks hours against a project then you face increased pressure due to the lost job hours.
It’s horrifying to meet with the client and realise before you present your work that you’ve gone way off track due to a lack of information or bad assumptions. Even if you sail past these early revelations of being off track, it will still hit the project at some point, and the later it is the worse it will be. It’s not pretty to show a client your first edit and they ask you basic questions that you can’t answer, like who the audience is, and you have nothing to say but a whole mess of waffle. It doesn’t matter that you were begging for the answer to that question earlier, because it’s now your problem. You went ahead anyway and now you have to own the mess.
So save yourself the pain, and put your energy, time and money into positive and proactive progress — love your briefs.