The pandemic created a perfect storm for brands and agencies. The way they operated changed overnight and so did the way their customers behaved: how and where they shopped and worked as well as the way they interacted with each other to get things done.

But, as Benjamin Franklin said, “out of adversity comes opportunity”, and, for our industry, the global pandemic and corresponding cultural and economic shifts, resulted in a reset.

The start of this year had a different feel from last year, with everyone hitting the ground at 100 miles an hour, but a state of uncertainty and change remains.

New problems had to be solved, different challenges were presented, and innovative thinking was expected, all against a background of high stress and health concerns.

But when our backs are against the wall, we must come out stronger, and our industry’s ultimate strength is its creativity; we are at our best when we use the full extent of our creative resource.

Because bold and courageous creative, media innovation and digital exploration are all central to growing brands. They make brands more memorable and relevant, which is essential for gaining market share and revenue.

Businesses have had to adapt to hybrid working, budget cuts and adjusting their mindset to embrace recovery, sometimes at the expense of long-term strategy, with a consequent adjustment of client/agency relationships to accommodate this.

And our industry is once again adapting to a changing working climate. Some of what we learned at the height of lockdown will remain, while other elements will be ditched at the first opportunity.

Extreme experiences change us all, and much of the more subtle consequences of the pandemic are only just manifesting themselves.

These are the topics we explored in depth at our first Oystercatchers’ Club Event in March, with Ellie Norman, former chief marketer of Formula One, Sara Holt, UK sales and marketing director, Merlin Entertainments, Cheryl Calverley, chief executive, Eve Sleep, and Dede Laurentino, chief creative officer, Ogilvy.

Managing disruption

In response to the pandemic, ANA’s poll states 92% of enterprises have adjusted their marketing creative, with 46% agreeing these changes had been substantial. Pulling price and item-focused messaging, and reworking existing footage for new ads to ensure cultural relevance, are just some of the creative ways marketers have addressed these consumer needs.

For example, McDonald’s reimagined its logo by separating the two halves of its famous golden arches to comply with the new Covid-19 reality of social distancing.

Sara Holt points out that Covid disruption allowed Merlin to think creatively to focus on its core vision and ask: “How could we do this better?”

It brought in a lean operating model – a more efficient way of running a location-based entertainment business – and led Merlin to reconnect with its purpose and ultimately deliver better experiences for its audience.

It also led to the London Tourism Recovery board being set up, for which Holt leads the marketing work. This resulted in the “Let’s do London” campaign, aimed at boosting footfall and spend by inspiring visitors to London and reassuring them it was safe to visit.

Crises drive a sense of urgency, and this, Dede Laurentino says, is good for the creative process. Although there is a balancing act here – a fine line between constraint and creativity – how much constraint can we handle until it completely stifles creativity?

The pandemic brought health and wellbeing to the forefront of the public and employees. Brands and agencies must consider their creative messaging against this backdrop as they try to turbo charge brand growth, while chiming with consumer needs. This may require greater empathy to ensure content isn’t tone deaf or insensitive – once again reinforcing the role of creativity.

Ellie Norman believes creativity has always benefitted from constraints, and Covid accelerated that. F1 went from an average of 75 million viewers per race weekend in 2020 and 4.2 million attending the races in 2019 to no races, viewers, or spectators when Covid struck, but while there was no racing there were still 40,000-plus employees connected to the sport.

So, the sport did what it does best, and found engineering solutions to problems – in this case, getting its engineers to develop and deliver 10,000 breathing aids and ventilators to the NHS in a matter of weeks, while the business switched to virtual grands prix for viewers and working to get back physically racing, which it did in July 2020.

Client/agency relationships

In any client/agency relationship, collaboration and support are needed to nurture creativity. Covid certainly offered that moment of truth to test how these relationships fared under pressure, among both internal and external teams.

However, Cheryl Calverley argues that clients who strive to be the best will have the best agencies working for them. So, for her brand, Eve Sleep, the pandemic didn’t present new challenges to this relationship because she has complete trust in the people she works with.

When approaching an agency with a creative brief, the best relationships are ones where you have “absolute clarity on what you want to achieve, and absolutely no clarity on how”, she says.

From the agency side, Laurentino believes the point of a good relationship is where both clients and agencies recognise each other’s strengths – one side is better at some things, and the other side at others. Balancing this may take some time as it can take 100 ideas to sell the “one”.

He adds: “You don’t need to be a creative to have the creative spirit, you need the humility to understand that any idea can be improved.” This means that agencies need to understand where the “nos” are coming from, and why, to earn the client’s trust.

As we move past the pandemic and the public tries to navigate a long list of current troubles – disruption to supply chains and employment, the rise in inflation and cost of living – brands and agencies must ensure they do not lose connection to their audience.

Looking at the long term

Creative advertising can and always will create long-term impact from delivering lasting impressions that keep brand position meaningful, but, as we have seen from the pandemic, it is important these impressions can be shifted.

When the pandemic plunged everyone into uncertainty, the focus was on the present: how to survive, how to manage and how to adapt in the short term. While initial adversity propelled creativity, organisations need to once more start focusing on the long-term and return to planning, a topic we will be focussing on at our next Club event in May.

Brand and agency partnerships can, and should, resume planning sessions to determine long-term objectives and build a vision. This way, creativity can be baked into building back better.

This article was originally published in Campaign.