‘This is when creativity is at its best’: Creative leaders look to push boundaries in 2021

Mumbrella's Zoe Wilkinson asks Laura Aldington, Ben Lilley, Stephen McArdle, Lindsey Evans, Cade Heyde, Jim Gall and Anthony Gregorio what clients will expect from creative agencies, and how creativity will evolve in 2021.

At the start of the year, the creative industry was focusing its efforts on how it could aid those who had been affected by, and were on the fighting on the front lines of the bushfire crisis. Then, it was all turned on its head when COVID-19 hit.

Being dependent on the demands of clients meant that some agencies were definitely harder hit than others. But agencies got by, not just due to the sacrifices made by staff and leadership, but by becoming the exact partner their clients needed to navigate the chaos and prepare for what’s next, getting scrappy to pick up all small pieces of work, and chasing after a surprisingly busy pitch calendar.

There is a hunger within the creative industry for clients to want to push the boundaries in the 2021 and for agencies to break free from the binds of traditional advertising. The call from clients for their agency partners to solve business problems with creativity has been growing over the last ten years. And the resounding thought from the industry is that the changes it will see in 2021 have been happening for a long time, but thanks to ups and downs of 2020 those have only been accelerated.

How do you think clients’ needs and expectations of their agencies will change in 2021? And, how will creativity change in response?

Laura Aldington, CEO of Host Havas: This time last year, I was predicting a bold and brilliant 2020 so it’s fair to say my predictive confidence has taken a bit of a bump.

Host Havas’ Laura Aldington

If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that literally anything can (and actually might) happen. So, this is perhaps less of a prediction, more ambition.

Both marketers and their agencies have proven their unbelievable resilience in adapting to changing conditions at warp speed, doing even more for even less. Understandably, that has taken its toll at times on our collective ability (and energy) to push boundaries, take risks, surprise, delight and innovate.

I hope in 2021 that we can all shake off the shackles of fear and uncertainty that have dominated us for much of this year and, as we move towards a brighter year ahead, I’m hopeful that we will all use the lessons we’ve learnt and apply them to being much bolder and more brilliant than even I could have predicted a year ago.

Lindsey Evans and Cade Heyde, founding partners at Special Group Australia: 

Evans: I think there’s never been a greater appetite for creativity or a greater understanding of the role creativity can play in creating value for businesses. And so I think there will be a new appreciation of what’s involved in creating environments for that creativity to thrive. And I just think everyone will benefit from it.

I think people will be more creative in the ways they are working, more creative in how they unearth insights, and being more empathetic, being more human. Bringing all those things that are much more instinctive elements of creativity to the fore. And I think the creative industry will only thrive because of it.

Special Group’s Lindsey Evans

Heyde: This is when creativity is at its best and certainly in the last six years we’ve tried to firmly position ourselves outside of the advertising box and more around how you use the power of creativity to answer business problems. If ever there is a better time for agencies to punch out of advertising and to get closer to their clients, to genuinely understand business problems and put solutions forward that might not be advertising but might be experience or product design or service design, this is it. And I think some agencies will struggle with that and the more progressive will certainly grow their remit and the types of relationships they get to have with clients.

From our perspective it’s far more rewarding to be influencing what goes into the brief as it is to be making the ads out the other side.

Evans: And, that will just attract different kinds of creativity into the industry, and we’ll all be richer for that more diverse talent because it’ll be bringing more different kinds of creative minds together, which is exciting.

Jim Gall, CEO of Clemenger BBDO Melbourne: There is no doubt that COVID has driven sometimes extreme expectations around efficiency and effectiveness. Whilst effectiveness has always been at the heart of every brief, efficiency and how we become faster, more valuable and more consistent, whilst maintaining a creative standard will be our biggest challenge.

Clemenger BBDO Melbourne has not wasted the COVD crisis to both focus on and accelerate the operational evolution of the agency and equally the opportunity to get closer to our clients and their business challenges.

With many Clients moving to more agile ways of working, their efficiency needs have changed and require us to have:

  • Less hierarchy, a more empowered workforce and shared accountability and responsibility
  • To solve business problems, not just marketing issues and they need carefully scoped problems that are defined by appropriately trained business managers and consultants, not advertising account managers.
  • To have agency leaders driving team success and being strategically involved across their business, all operating to a shared goal or outcome.
  • To evaluate and invest in technology and tools that allow us to work smarter and faster, together.
  • To distribute the workload across our talent pool, not just a few individuals.
  • Consistency from us and believe repetitive tasks should be automated where possible so they are cheaper, faster and more effective.

Clemenger BBDO Melbourne CEO Jim Gall

2020 has clearly demonstrated that the biggest challenges of the 21st Century will be human-made. As the world around us changes and change becomes the only constant, we need to rethink our approach to hard-to-solve problems.

Through understanding humans more deeply and by impacting and influencing them more broadly, our role as creative custodians will be to ‘take creativity to places it’s never been’.

Through technology: As we experience greater incursions from technology companies, how we adapt, collaborate and partner with these organisations will be critical to our creative success.

Shifting focus from conventional advertising structures: To re-invigorate not only the role of creativity, but its impact in areas of business beyond traditional advertising effectiveness narratives.

Complexity and attribution: As the ecosystems of ideas become more complex and fluid, ascertaining the true impact of ideas and which aspects were responsible need to be better understood.

Time and resource devoted to the work: After a year of chasing different priorities, getting back to protecting the people, time and resources needed to delivering great work will be critical to the quality, impact and ultimately, effectiveness of our work.

Anthony Gregorio, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi: The pressure to balance short and long term marketing objectives will come under greater scrutiny throughout 2021. This year was about survival, so naturally it drove a short term focus. However, clients understand you can’t just rely on short term tactics at the expense of longer term initiatives that drive brand success. In a marketing sense, if 2020 showed us anything, it proved the strongest brands have a clear advantage over their weaker competitors.

Brands with the best ideas win. Period. Ensuring we get the best work out, regardless of its intent is crucial.

Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Ant Gregorio

Ben Lilley, creative chairman of McCann Australia: Please pretty please let 2021 be the return of blockbuster creativity. And the end of creativity-killing agency mega-mergers (we certainly won’t be changing our name to McCannMRMFuturebrandMomentum.)

We’ve seen a flight to conservatism on the part of many brands in 2020. Now I’m optimistic that marketers will be looking once again for greater creative effectiveness and integrated agility into the new year, as they seek to make up for lost ground this year and to rapidly regain market share.

It’s understandable in a ‘please never again’ year like this why many brand custodians may not have wanted to take bigger creative risks. Countless studies though, and prominent researchers like Peter Field, have clearly proven the exponential power of creativity for boosting marketing effectiveness and shareholder equity. Those who’ve taken a stronger creative lead in 2020, like our client Menulog among others, were rewarded with significant gains. Now as we surge into 2021, it’s the marketers ready to embrace more courageous creativity once again who will best benefit from the return to economic growth ahead.

McCann Australia’s creative chairman Ben Lilley

Of course, creativity alone is not enough. Marketers need agencies who know how to apply and integrate that creativity across an ever more complex array of owned, earned and paid media channels. While also properly tracking, reporting and iterating for the performance of each. This requires a much more integrated and agile agency offering than ever before and it’s where specialist independents stand to benefit alongside larger integrated agency offerings.

The key word here though is ‘integrated’, not ‘consolidated’. A number of agency groups have rushed this year to mash their creative businesses into a one stop shop with a random array of service offerings, killing off or substantially dulling the creative might of several once great industry powerhouses. The confusion over who and how these merged groups should be lead and structured is understandable, resulting in leadership turmoil, confused service offerings and muddled creative output.

The agencies and clients who’ll thrive in 2021 will be those able to integrate the various creative, strategic, media, data and technology needs of every campaign, by integrating – not consolidating – the right best-in-class partners to deliver every campaign requirement. So no, at McCann and our independent agency group HERO, we won’t me merging our agencies into one hot mess. Although I’m not averse to the idea of merging our top talent into a new species of agency superhumans. Ben Lilley Coulson Hegerman Baron does have certain ring to it…

Stephen McArdle, CEO of BMF: The positive by-product of a year of total and utter pandemonium is that clients want and need our support, guidance and creativity more than ever. That deeper, more rewarding and effective level of partnership will continue in 2021 and, I very much hope and believe, well beyond. The more challenging unintended, yet totally understandable, consequence is that their expectations of how much work can be delivered in eye-wateringly tight timeframes is unprecedented (I had to use that word, didn’t I?!!!).

In the first six months of the pandemic, we were churning out fully integrated, TV-led campaigns from brief to live, for multiple clients, in weeks. Work that would have – in a “normal” planned world – asked for and happily been given three months to create.

This has started, and will continue, to swing back to pre-COVID levels of considered thought, but it will never be forgotten and will forever be used as a benchmark when screamers get briefed in. And that’s OK. It can be done and done well. But let’s make it the exception, not the rule. The very best work will always benefit from as much craft as time will allow, not forgetting the odd moments of reflection…does anyone remember those?

BMF’s Stephen McArdle

The shift in creative output in response to COVID has, thus far, come in two stages: The empathetic “we’re in this together” phase, of which we were all a part, which distinguished itself for being entirely necessary, but creatively repetitive and rather dull.

We’re currently living through the second phase. Let’s call it the “vaccine is on its way and I’m really, really over it” phase. It is notable for its celebration of human resilience and/or bringing joy to one-and-all, as an antidote to the extended misery we’ve had to endure. In Australia, the Myer Christmas ad is a great example and ALDI’s holiday spot is shameless in its synchronised-Santa-lycra-clad exuberance. Around the world you only have to look at the Top 10 Holiday ad lists to see, and thoroughly enjoy, how extensively this phase has been embraced.

Now, for phase three. 2021 will bring with it a more extreme level of creativity, much of which will be life affirming and characterised by unapologetic levels of positivity and an uncanny ability to put a smile on your dial. It will mark the beginning of an extended period of levity to balance out the gravity of 2020. It will also be delivered in ways we have yet to experience, driven by the warp-speed development in technology and channel that COVID has forced upon us. So, open your hearts and minds to 2021, it promises to be fun-filled and creatively mind-blowing.


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