Chemistry News

Mar 01, 2023


By Brian Bonilla

Leeann Leahy, CEO of the Portland, Maine agency Via, was watching TV early in the pandemic when she spotted three campaigns for three separate brands with the same premise. The main character in the commercial was “talking to the various versions of themselves—the sassy me, and conservative me, and fun me,” recalls Leahy, noting, “That’s a campaign that I’ve seen killed by creative directors 20 times in the history of my career because it’s been done and it’s sort of a go-to idea.”

For Leahy, this was confirmation of her suspicion: That remote work was resulting in a decline in the creative product. She’s not alone in that belief. Troy Ruhanen, CEO of TBWA\Worldwide, told Ad Age last month that remote work has “hurt creative” industry-wide over the past few years. “If you take the last bunch of festivals, no one talks about great work right now,” said Ruhanen. “I honestly do believe that’s been a consequence of what’s happened of being apart.” 

“The work was not as good, period. There’s no debating,” said Keith Cartwright, founder of independent shop Cartwright, who judged several panels for Cannes and D&AD throughout the pandemic.

Even now, nearly three years after the pandemic started, the effect is being felt. There were few standout commercials in the Super Bowl,traditionally the ad world’s largest showcase. Many of the spots were criticized for being jam-packed with celebrities and bereft of solid creative ideas.

Ad Age spoke to a dozen ad execs who agree that the quality of creative has declined over the past few years, but they said that remote work is only partly to blame. They fault factors including a shift in marketing and budgeting priorities, a project-based environment that erodes trust, a fragmented media landscape that buries good ideas, the pressure of shorter timelines to deliver work, and a general fatigue due to the pandemic and all of the above.

“The fact that we have to ask ourselves what is to blame for the decline in the quality of our industry’s work is a sign of two things,” said Susan Credle, the global chief creative officer at FCB. “First, that finally there is an acknowledgment that a lot of work out there is not as good as it should be. And second, that people are worried about that. Both give me hope.”

Behind the decline

“I can’t point to anything that has changed as dramatically as the way we are working,” said Danny Robinson, chief creative officer of The Martin Agency, which asks employees to come into the office any two days a week. 

Robinson, who participated as a judge for the Effies and the London International awards last year, says it’s been harder for him to point to one or two pieces of work that has the industry talking. 

“There’s been some fatigue that came with the last few years that may actually also be contributing,” said Robinson. “Maybe [it’s a] lack of focus or lack of energy, or a difficulty continuing to stay at a high level.”

In early January, Anomaly laid off 8% of its staff, partly due to “inefficiency that inevitably came with remote work during COVID,” Carl Johnson, a founding partner and CEO, said in a statement at the time. That same month, Anomaly mandated that employees come in on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. 

“We want people in the office because we do not believe we can be Anomaly unless you are,” said Johnson. “Creativity comes from creative collisions,” he said. “If you cannot interact, you cannot create.”

Kat Gordon, founder of The 3% Conference who also has taken a “creative entrepreneur in residence” role at agencies such as Eleven, said agencies are “likely producing lackluster work,” but the answer isn’t returning to the “last permutation of office life.”

“The real creative work, as I see it, is to remove all the joyless urgency of meetings and email threads that kill the creative muse and fetishize productivity culture,” Gordon said. “The more breathing room creatives have in their schedules, the more empowered they are to decide when to prioritize in-person, that’s where our pitches and brainstorms will not just return to old heights, but soar beyond them.”

Via has started to build in some breathing room. The shop returned to a four days a week in-office schedule in 2021, but six months later adopted a policy of curtailing meetings during work-from-home Wednesdays.

“If you’re going to be working from home, you should be able to do some independent work,” said Leahy. “That’s when we introduced no internal meetings before 3 p.m. on Wednesdays.”

Killing creativity

Gerry Graf, co-founder and chief creative officer of Slap Global, said blaming remote work for the drop in creativity is an excuse. Graf is based in the U.S., while Partner and Co-founder Maxi Itzkoff lives in Argentina. Since the agency’s launch in 2020, Slap has picked up clients such as Netflix and Doritos and has employees across the U.S., Mexico, and Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Graf said he is seeing fewer fresh creative ideas in the industry, but he blames “exhaustion [due to all the changes that have happened over the past two years] more than remote work.” 

Translation Chief Creative Officer Jason Campbell said the agency did its best work during the pandemic, referencing its award-winning “You Love Me” work for Beats. He did, however, note that remote work promotes results over process, which can limit creativity.

“In creativity, it’s often said the process is the actual space that is the most fertile,” Campbell said. To get the best ideas, Campbell said he intentionally takes more time to “provoke work” even if it means blowing past set meeting times. 

Creative development

Several executives said that remote work is hurting the development of creatives more than the output. Campbell, who learned his craft working at shops such as Wieden+Kennedy and Goodby Silverstein & Partners, noted that “creatives who came out in the last three years are missing out on being next to someone and watching them do their thing.”

Remote work “hasn’t affected experienced creative thinkers,” said Graf, adding that “it’s a little harder when mid-level junior people are involved” who may require guidance from more seasoned talent that might be lacking in a remote environment. 

“It’s really hard for juniors to start out in a different city and try to do it all remotely,” said Greg Hahn, co-founder and CCO of Mischief @ No Fixed Address. “There’s so much you have to learn about just what it takes to go through production or to present to a client or to get stuff ready,” he added. “People who started out of college in the lockdown were at a disadvantage.”

New vs. old methods

Hahn’s agency was formed during the pandemic when remote work was at its height, yet has trophy cases stuffed with creative awards, including Ad Age’s Agency of the Year honor for 2022. “We were built during this time and could sort of flex and see what works as we were going along,” he said. “It’s harder for these places that have massive office structures that have  been doing things the same way for the last couple of decades and had to figure out a way to make that work.”

For an agency like We Believers, which has been operating remotely since 2014 and has racked up Cannes awards each year since its launch, the creative conversation is moot.

“We’d rather have the right talent having the freedom to work from their place of choosing than a bunch of energy and hours wasted on the daily commute,” Marco Vega, president and co-founder, said. “We’ve grown steadily every year since we started the agency and, if anything, our creative output has thrived … A remote setup opens up space to choose the right partners for the idea rather than just using your full-time staff.”

Other agencies, including 72andSunny, Circus Maximus and Movers + Shakers, continue to have a work-from-anywhere model.

Chemistry Chief Creative Officer Chris Breen believes one reason some feel the quality of work has dropped recently is because of the fragmented media landscape in which ads exist.

“It was much easier 15 years ago to point towards five amazing [creative ideas],” Breen said. “Now, maybe three of those amazing [ideas] you never see because it’s not all mass media,” he said. “It’s going to a much more defined audience and you may not be a part of that.”

“I’m not sure that it’s the creative that’s worse, but more that advertising itself is,” said Katie Keating, co-founder and co-chief creative officer of remote agency Fancy. “Not only are budgets shrinking, but what’s left must be spread further. Much more is going into tactical work and that’s often done in-house. My feed is full of product shots, demos, influencers. When I have the occasion to watch linear TV, I see a lot of interesting DTC brands doing a bunch of uninteresting commercials.”

Credle believes one of the reasons for the decline in work is related to the rise in project-based assignments. A recent report from consultancy R3 found that even though there was an 11% increase in the number of global pitches in 2022, overall those pitches brought in 35% less revenue compared to the year prior.

“Great work comes from trust and mutual respect. Great work is often the outcome of a commitment to a point of view and multiple attempts at expressing that POV creatively,” Credle said. “Hire agencies by the hour, and it’s hard for client or agency to drive the work where it needs to go.”

Credle also said the industry needs to do a better job of championing more “brand-defining work” rather than just award-winning work.

“If we want great creative work to work, we have to prove we can do it on our biggest brands,” Credle said. “Most agencies do their best work on special projects—those that sit off to the side of where the working dollars are being spent. We have to motivate, inspire and pay our people to do their best work on our clients’ greatest media investments.”

See full article here.

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