Long copy brief? Short copy brief? It’s your responsibility.

Let’s be honest: as with any service, there is uncertainty involved in copywriting, especially when it’s for a new client. It’s your job, as a copywriter, to take control and remove this.

The uncertainty is inevitable, and applies to both sides. At the client end, if they’ve never worked with you, or perhaps even with any copywriter before, then there’s naturally going to be some nervousness about taking on board a new supplier. Hopefully you’ll have been through some hoops before taking on the work – at least some emails, ideally a meeting or two – but even though your portfolio is great, and you’ve both enjoyed a coffee together, the client needs reassuring that they’re in safe, professional hands.

At your end, as a supplier, you really want to make sure you get it right first time. But by definition, the client doesn’t know as much about the copywriting process as you do – that’s why they hired you. So it’s your responsibility to guide them through it.

This is why the copy brief is so important. It’s the statement of what is needed, by when, and who has responsibility for what. As you develop your own working methods together the copy brief can become less important, but for those first few jobs together, it’s essential.

I have my own standard copy brief, which I use as a vehicle to help me guide clients through what’s needed. Sometimes I even write my own copy brief just for my own use, if I’m wrestling with a particularly thorny piece. I developed it during my time at Porter Novelli where, as half of the Writing Bureau there, I produced miles and miles of copy, almost in a production line, and this necessitated the discipline of the copy brief.

As well as the basic details around who the client is, contact details and so on, it covers several essential areas:

  • How many words? This is admittedly quite basic but you sometimes need to be quite militant on this one. There’s a tendency for clients to ask for ‘two or three pages’, which begs the questions around how large are the pages and how large is the font!
  • What is the piece about? This needs to be a succinct statement, ideally one sentence. I’ve done quite a lot of branding work and this is the equivalent of the killer question, ‘What do you do?’. Ask ten people in an organisation and you’ll get ten different answers. Same with the copy brief. Make sure someone absolutely knows what this piece is going to be about.
  • What is ‘the hook’? Why would people want to read this? As with branding, this is the equivalent of ‘What do you do differently’? It’s sometimes a really tough question but you both need to dig down and find a reason for the audience to want to read it. Ideas here could be that it’s a unique offering, or the first of a kind, or perhaps there’s been something big in the news that you could use as a hook. Be creative.
  • What are the points you want to make, and what is the proof for each point? This is where the rigour starts. You need to have ‘proof points’ for the statements that you’re going to make. These can be quantitative (5,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire) or qualitative, using anecdotal evidence such as news items that support your point. Certainly working in an agency I found this section incredibly useful, as I couldn’t be expected to be a subject matter expert on everyone’s account. This section made them think about what they were asking me to do, and we all ended up with better work as a result.
  • Where will it appear (publication name or type, email, PDF, printed newsletter)? To give an extreme example, if this is going to appear in the FT, it needs to have a completely different tone than for the Daily Mail. But even trade or vertical titles will have different requirements, so it’s important to ask where this piece is going to appear.
  • What effect do you want to create? This could be to drive awareness, or get more sales, or win an award. It might be less important in a copy brief but I know marketing clients like to see this, because you’re echoing to them that you know what they want from the piece.
  • Who is going to read it and what are their wants/needs? This is a basic question about the audience. Are they senior management who want a macro-level view across their industry? Are they junior staff who just want direct advice? Don’t forget, journalists are also audiences (and are also human, mostly).
  • Why now? Any tie-ins? This is similar to ‘the hook’ question but is explicitly looking for tie-ins. The point here is that the client is often the subject matter expert and they should know what’s been going on in their marketplace. So, ask them.
  • What is the tone of voice? This is important. It’s an expression of the client, the publication, and the audience. You need to decide whether you’re going to be authoritative, or direct, or friendly. If you’re a challenger brand you might want to be a bit pushy. If you’re a retail or consumer brand then maybe err towards the side of informality.
  • Is there an in-house style? This can just be a shortcut to the tone of voice, but consider that the graphic design can also be a pointer towards tone.
  • Do you have any examples? If so, then perhaps you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I tend to find that previous successful examples are the key. I don’t think you can get away without asking all the other questions, but if the client can show you something they liked, and that worked, then this can get you a long way towards knowing what’s required.
  • Do you have any background material? Again, this is where the client needs to work hard, not just in helping with the ‘why now’ question, but with providing you with what you need. Obviously you’ll have to do your own research, but if the client can help with recent articles they’ve seen, or their own research/data/publications, this can help immensely.
  • Timings. This is where you become a project manager as well as copywriter. You don’t need to go crazy here. Just list the stages, responsibilities, and estimated time. The stages and responsibilities should be along the lines of first draft (copywriter), first review (client), second draft (copywriter), second review (client), final draft (copywriter),  and sign-off (client).

So you see, this pretty much covers everything. There can be overlaps, for example with the ‘why now’ and ‘what’s the hook’ questions, but this brief has never let me – or my clients – down. You could maybe distil it further and create a ‘brief copy brief’ but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

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