The creative process tends to be seen as an effervescent endeavor, ideas bubbling up from the subconscious and scattered across the wall of a brainstorm room. Brilliance can happen in this way. And we often fall in love with concepts and convince ourselves that this bright idea will save the day.

Alas, randomness can be exciting, but it can also just be plain ol’ wasteful and entirely miss the mark. That’s why we write briefs. A good brief not only gives that idea energy a trajectory but also defines the target, so that when the work is launched, the brand hits home.

Briefs tend to be both the most important and the most neglected part of the creative process in marketing, regardless of the organization. However big or small the business, the challenge, the team, the audience, a finely crafted creative brief will provide you the opportunity to get it right the first time. The alternative can be captured in a truism echoed around the industry, “There always seems to be enough time and money to do it over.” Let’s silence that echo.

Writing a brief is rarely a solo activity. The very nature of the exercise is to seek and to find agreement. So invite the input of the stakeholders at the brief stage. You’ll all be better able to judge the work at the execution stage. Then confirm success or failure at the delivery stage.

Of course, one of the greatest challenges is sustaining that agreement once established. Yet we must recognize that situations do change. As long as we’ve been honest and earnest in the brief going in, we can define what changed and decide how to adjust. Or to reboot.

An effective brief both guides and inspires the team: planners, creators, even clients! Counterintuitively, for a brief to be truly liberating, it must also be confining! A squishy brief invites wheel-spinning, which may be fun for a while. But eventually (where’d the time go?) the vehicle gets stuck in its own ruts. Then you’re crying out for a tow truck. Or cat litter. Or time off. Or a better brief.

The following template reflects a review of dozens of brief formats. Allow each category to guide your thinking. The content demands that you be earnest, resist the short-cuts of intuition, be true to the consumer, as well as the brand. Completing the form is a kind of zen activity, a loaded koan that asks you to leverage a kind of rigidity to arrive at liberation and inspiration.

Business Situation: Do we have a sense of the business situation we are trying to address? Do we understand the challenge this communication is supposed to meet or the problem it’s supposed to solve or the opportunity on which it is meant to capitalize? Is there a metric established against which we will decide success?

The Competition: Do we need to know anything about the competitive set? Can we illustrate a key difference between this product or service and its competitors? Are the facts provided based on intuition or hunch or are they rooted in a supportable insight that truly reflects the audience?

Target Audience: Do we have a clear sense of the person the communication element is meant to engage? Can we imagine a one-to-one conversation with this person? Is the definition too broad or too generalized? Do we need to break out separate audiences?

Mindset/Behavior: Do we know something pivotal about the current mindset and behavior of our audience, supported with genuine insight (rather than intuition)? Do we have a sense of what we want that mindset or behavior to be? (Once he or she has been swept up in the persuasive power of this creative expression.)

Imaginative Selling Idea: What is the compelling lever we have at our disposal to move or affect the audience — either to reinforce a behavior or to change it? Again, is that idea rooted in insight or intuition? What is that genuine insight that can shape a connection between brand and consumer?

Proof/Support: Do we see one clear reason why the audience should find this message incredibly credible or completely compelling? (You’ll usually see more than one, but one really good “reason to believe” is almost always a promising sign.)

Mandatories: Are there any requirements, legal or otherwise that must be honored? Are there language or style guidelines that must be represented when we get down to the actual execution of raw (but focused) ideas? Is there a time frame or geography or other condition that applies?

Brand Personality: Do we have a good feel for the tone or personality of the brand or the company? Are we providing the guidance to create a concept that contributes to the continuity and consistency of the brand itself? Are we leveraging the brand’s equity with the target audience, over and above the requirements of this particular communication element?

Deliverables: Does the brief identify in which media channel(s) the idea will be delivered? Is the client open to other, even unexpected communication channels? An integrated effort? What are the parameters? Are the ideas to be represented as sketches or as “sharpies?” Is the final product a :15 tv spot, a 1/4 magazine ad, a rich media banner, pre-roll video? A direct mail piece that must be produced and mailed for a whopping total expenditure of 50 cents a piece? Or copy for a text-link that is driven by relevance alone, defying all that wonderful branding we’ve either developed or been coached endlessly to support? Or does the team have free reign to suggest where and when this message may be delivered? Oh yeah, is there a hard and fast budget? (Back to the top, confinement can be liberating.)

Finally: Ask yourself if the brief shows the creative team how to channel its energies as well as delivering the inspiration to kickstart it?

After all, how can you do something original if the brief itself is tired and routine? The brief must share the burden of originality!

Of course, there are many formats for briefs. The above may just be a decent place to start. Good luck comes from good work.