AIM + Design Principles: The Formula for a Creative Brief
By: Christopher Lane
“Hey, Chris! I have a great new project for your creative team! My product group is going to have a major presence at an upcoming virtual event. We’re all in to make a splash with our latest innovation!” “Awesome! We love designing for events.” “We’re going to need Zoom backgrounds, collateral, social media and presentations.” “Right! I’ll send you a creative brief questionnaire.” (SFX: Record scratch) “Uh … wait, what?” “We need a creative brief. You know, telling the creative team things like who your audience is, the impact you want to have, what this show is all about, so we can hit the mark.” “You need me to give you that?” “I need you take a first pass at answering these questions. Don’t worry, it’s not as hard as it sounds! It just takes a little thought. If you like we can get on a call, go through these questions, and have something we can all agree to work against.” “Can’t you just start designing some cool stuff that I can show my boss?” “Yeah, we could do that. But we can’t show your boss something that’s actually going to work until we know what we’re aiming at. There’s a fine line between pretty and persuasive. And we want both.” The above is a composite of countless conversations I’ve had as a creative director over the years. It’s wonderful when people get excited about creative work, but not when work goes off the rails because the team didn’t think through what they actually needed.
When it goes right, creative design starts with a clear objective in mind. We’re here to change perceptions, feelings and behaviors. We’re here to drive business outcomes, not just create irresistible experiences (though I won’t lie—making things irresistible is also fun). Any project that wants to have an impact on business must start with a creative brief. The scalable methodology of a good creative brief I’m on the agency side once more, working with my friends and colleagues at Rob Roy Consulting. We pride ourselves on putting together actionable and meaningful creative briefs with our clients. We know what goes into them. Our CEO and Founder, Josh Reynolds, recently discussed his creation of the AIM Method—finding the Audience, Impact andMessage to develop strategies for persuasive storytelling. I recently wrote about the application of agreed-upon Design Principles to keep a team aligned and on-message during the challenges of a campaign rollout. And the two of us realized a while back that AIM + Design Principles = Creative Brief.
How does the formula work?
AIM is used determine the audience, the impact required, and the message that will do it. This represents the key strategic elements of any message.
Design Principles are crafted as ideals for the delivery of the message, most often representing the branding, purpose and vision of the organization. The Design Principles Rob Roy uses leverages most often are Choice, Co-Creation, Community, Cohesion, Compassion, Curiosity and Conviction.
And when you put AIM and Design Principles together, you get a straightforward, scalable and streamlined way of getting at the best possible creative brief.
Writing a good creative brief demands that you and your client tackling some occasionally difficult questions. This is the only way to uncover any unaddressed strategic issues and unanswered questions within the organization. A good creative brief takes communication, effort and multiple drafts. They don’t get dashed off in one sitting, and they require a commitment from the higher-ups—a digital signature, an actual signature, an acknowledgement by email that it’s been read. Without the buy-in from the executive decider, a creative brief won’t hold up in a crisis.
And speaking of crises, they will happen. Senior leaders will get cold feet, the competition will spread FUD ahead of an event, and development deadlines will be blown. Having a solid creative brief that everyone has agreed to can keep you proactive instead of reactive, and ready to pivot on a dime. If anybody questions whether it’s worth the time and trouble to develop one, just remind them how painful it will be when you realize your creative execution is off-strategy. To use an old adage, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And AIM + DesignPrinciples is that prevention. When your brief affirms your audience, your impact, your message (AIM) and the standards by which you will tell it (Design Principles), you can move forward when life tries to knock your project down.
The best part is this: leading the development of a good creative brief gives you an opportunity to step up and be a trusted advisor. You don’t have to be at the highest levels of a marketing or creative organization to do it. You just need to show that there’s a process, and communicate to all levels how it will lead to a better campaign or messaging exercise. Once you accomplish it, any colleagues who were initially reluctant to go through this process will be much more likely to actually insist on a creative brief the next time. It’s that valuable. AIM + Design Principles in action You need a simple set of open-ended questions to begin process of crafting an actionable brief. Work it into your process so that your skittish colleagues cannot simply drop a project in your lap without answering these elemental questions, which stem directly from our formula:
Who is our Audience? What defines these individuals, organizations or business sectors? What are they looking to achieve? How do they define their success? And what are the issues concerning them?
What Impact do we want to have? What do we want our audience to think, how do we want them to feel, and what do we want them to do? And how do we measure this desired impact as we move forward?
What is our Message? Why should this audience care about what we’re doing? What are they doing, and what could they be doing differently? How do we help them achieve their goals?What’s should they be thinking next?
What are the ideals—the Design Principles—that guide how we bring our story to life? Are they informed by a brand personality, by an organizational purpose? Is there an emotional touchpoint or sensibility that will be utilized? How do we define the authenticity of our message?
Four questions, that’s it. But these four questions can open the door to vital, engaging and collaborative conversations that are the only way to find agreement on strategy and goals. In short, you need to ask before you can assert—and a creative brief is the personification of strategic assertion.
Good creative briefs and the process of building them have enabled Rob Roy and our clients to adapt to some challenging situations—instances when panic is beginning to set in, and people are on the brink of going into fight or flight mode. We’re not naming names, but we’re sure these examples might sound like something you’ve experienced:
The Friday before a software client was going live with a virtual event, the protests following George Floyd’s death began around the country. With all of the opening speeches pre-recorded, we realized that our opening keynotes might seem out of touch with what was happening—or worse, disinterested. The creative brief gave the client and the marketing team the confidence to pivot quickly and incorporate the critical issues of racial and social justice into their event on a moment’s notice, while keeping the time and resources invested in the other segments.
A health information network working with us realized that many of their customers were understandably focused on saving lives, not consuming marketing and sales collateral. They needed a way to stay in touch and remain trusted advisors at a time when their audience had zero capacity for absorbing new information. By using AIM + Design Principles, we adjusted their marketing and sales outreach calendar to calibrate to the rapidly shifting attention spans of their audiences, and ensure that their outreach had a net positive impact on patient health, rather than being a distraction.
A video game company had to convert an annual live gathering of tens of thousands of fans into a virtual experience due to the onset of the pandemic. They’d worked with Rob Roy for years in the run-up to each live show, working out the AIM Model for each of their franchises. And this year, AIM revealed to the company leadership that a virtual event would mean fans would be even more likely to check out other games across their portfolio, not just the ones they’d traditionally been playing. And the Design Principles gave us solid footing for what kind of feeling, tone and experience we wanted to create, not just what kind of content we wanted to promote. And most importantly, AIM + Design Principles gives the company the flexibility and control they need when they need to adjust to that inevitable surprise that maypop up days before the actual event.
The Formula of Trust Rob Roy believes passionately that the best way we can enable our customers is through our role as trusted advisors. One of the surest ways to gain someone’s trust is to make them re-think their approach to a problem. So we invite our fellow creatives and marketeers to use the AIM +Design Principles equation, and see how it helps you be a trusted advisor to your own clients and execs.
It’s tough. We know. You have to ask questions and stand your ground, and demand answers and collaboration before you can move forward. From this you gain a solid creative brief, with buy-in from leadership, that the best messaging campaigns require. You gain respect, earn trust, and people will be happy to collaborate with you in the future.