How to write creative briefs and mood boards that thrill your clients

Two of the most important tools to ensure you thrill your clients are creative briefs and mood boards. If you’ve been a professional creative for more than a year, chances are at some point you’ve had a client not entirely happy with the final product. That’s bound to happen in your career, regardless of what amount of prep you do ahead of time. It’s part of the business and a rite of passage for anyone looking to make a living out of their art.

The art of setting expectations

There could be any number of reasons they’re not satisfied. But one reason you DON’T want them to be unsatisfied is due to a breakdown in communication and unmet expectations. That’s the worst kind of client dissatisfaction because it’s entirely unavoidable.

The best way to avoid a breakdown of communication and missed expectations is to set the expectations in the first place. Right at the outset, make it very clear what the client will get for the services you will provide. That’s why years ago I started using creative briefs.

What is a creative brief?

The creative brief is a short document (usually 2-4 pages) that details what your video, website, marketing plan, brand design, etc. will look and be like. In my experience, larger more sophisticated clients (e.g. global agencies, Fortune 500 companies, national NGOs, etc.) will come to you with a brief already created; they just need a firm to implement it.

Think of it as a playbook for your client’s project. It gives everyone on the marketing and design teams the direction and inspiration they need to deliver an end-product that thrills the client.

How to write the creative brief

When starting the process, I first learn as much as I can about the client and their objectives. I can’t express enough the importance of establishing the objective. This is done with in-person meetings, phone calls, and often times a formal questionnaire.

I then start writing.

There are many ways in which you can write a creative brief. There are no specific formats. It’s good if you create a template that you can use as a starting point. My template includes these sections:

  • About Section: a brief paragraph about the client.
  • Objective: a paragraph explaining the client’s objectives. Is the project meant to convert sales? Increase SEO? Educate? Spread brand awareness? Entertain employees? Etc.
  • Concept: this is the meat of the brief, wherein I explain the look and feel of the project. For instance, if it’s a video, I’ll talk about the kind of music I plan to use and I’ll reference creative inspiration (e.g. other videos; films; TV shows, etc.). I’ll usually include what’s called a “mood board” in this section (more on that below). This is a collage of images (video stills and photos) that convey the proposed look and feel for the video. In some cases, you may want to include an actual storyboard.
  • Logistics: I’ll then include a number of sections that delve into logistical details, e.g. locations, dates and times, fonts and color palettes to use (if applicable); whether or not professional talent is required; etc.

Below is an excerpt from a creative brief I created for Aline’s Cardboard, a Seattle-area artist who makes art and furniture out of cardboard.

Creative brief excerpt.

If you’d like to read the full brief and use it as a sample, sign up for my email list and you’ll get access to it (and some other goodies as well).

Collaboration before the collaboration

I like to work with my clients to get their feedback on the brief as I develop it. Since this will be the basis for determining success or failure, I want to make sure I have their total buy-in. I typically like to use Google Docs during this process because it has great collaboration features. But you could just as easily use Dropbox or Salesforce’s Quip.

Once I get formal approval, the brief becomes the basis for the creative direction and decisions moving forward.

Moodboards vs storyboards

I like to consider myself an artist who isn’t artistic—at least not when it comes to drawing. I cannot draw worth a lick. If I need to make a storyboard, it’s going to be stick figures all the way.

Stick figure storyboard.
Image by Rosenfeld Media. CC BY

But as effective as stick figures may be for me personally to get an idea of what a shot or series of shots will be like, they wouldn’t instill a lot of faith in my clients. That’s when I turn to “mood boards.”

A mood board is a collection of still images (e.g. actual photos, screen grabs from movies or videos, etc.) that capture the essence of the visual style you plan to incorporate into your video.

The promo film I referenced above was quite a unique endeavor. It was both a promotional tool for the Parisian ex-pat Aline Bloch, as well as an inaugural film for my SoundandSEA TV docu-series—a series of short docs about artists in the Seattle metro and Puget Sound area.

Given the wild idea I had in mind, effectively communicating the visuals was essential.

Conceptualizing the story

As is my usual M.O., I wanted to create a film that was beyond a traditional promotional film; something that captured the essence of Aline’s unique talent (making furniture and art out of cardboard), and also told a story.

As I wrote in the brief, I wanted to create something that broke the mold of most traditional “artsy” promo films—beautifully shot b-roll combined with pensive and poignant commentary in voice over. What I came up with was a premise based on this statement:

Do you ever feel like you don’t amount to anything? Ever have bouts of low self-esteem? Well this little film about a Parisian woman who makes furniture out of cardboard just may inspire you.

The story behind the film is that of a little girl who struggles with low self-esteem, and the loving mother who instills in her a sense of confidence and worth. The relationship between the two was a metaphor for what Aline does with the tossed out pieces of cardboard she fines and turns into beautiful art and strong furniture.

Here’s the mood board I created for it.

Mood board for Aline's Cardboard promo film.

For the mother and daughter scenes, I used temp download files from Shutterstock. To illustrate the color palette, tone, and visual composition, I used screenshots from various furniture store promo films like “Sebastian Cox Furniture” by Migono Films. I was also inspired by the story of the old Coca-Cola machine restoration artist in “The Perfectionist” by Variable. But the promo that I think offered the most inspiration for shot selection and visual storytelling was “Timber Furniture” promo by Kindling.

Making the mood board

Much like the creative brief, there is no set standard for a mood board. It could be a simple as a Google images or Flickr album. There are over a dozen apps you could use. StudioBinder and Adobe have free mood board creation tools online.

The ultimate goal is to get all the images centralized into one place. After that, it just comes down to presentation and how you want to present your work to your clients.

Here’s a collage of stills from the raw footage giving you an idea of how closely I adhered to the mood board.

Collage is raw footage imagery to compare to mood board.

Mood boards are great if you do a lot of documentary-style work. The film for Aline notwithstanding, most of the video work I do falls into this category. There’s no specific narrative story I’m telling, and much of the b-roll I get will be based on the interviews I capture. So mood boards work great for letting the client know what kind of b-roll I plan to shoot.

The final product

At the end of the day, you want to create something that makes your client not only satisfied, but ecstatic. As of this writing, nearly six years later, Aline is still proudly showing her little film on her about page. I’ll take that as a good sign mission was accomplished.

In my next post, I’ll talk about the value of using a fictional narrative story structure to promote your client’s business. I’ll use some successful real-world examples from global brands like Apple, and I’ll dive into more detail about this particular project. In the meantime, enjoy the film.

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