Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Why the Creative Space Will Always Belong to Ad Agencies

Published in Nov-Dec 2021

Covid-19 displayed the power of creativity in making consumers feel safer & brands more effective...

Advertising has always been about the creative product. As agencies, we have to obsess about it and ensure it is the best it can be. Creativity is in our DNA – and this comes down to culture; being curious and wanting to consistently produce great creative work. We often use words such as bravery, passion, ingenuity and imagination to describe agency life. All this with the singular goal of building brands and driving growth or what Grey calls ‘famously effective’ work. In such circumstances, rather than wonder whether the creative agencies have lost ground to their (so-called) rivals or been rendered obsolete by the plethora of advertising service providers that have emerged, I would say the new service providers have in effect ‘enhanced’ creativity.

Agencies have proved their worth throughout the pandemic. They have driven business impact when clients needed it most, used convention-breaking ideas to help brands grow, and demonstrated that data-driven creativity works. In other words, the best agencies have been proactive in providing advice and leadership, producing outstanding work and highlighting the importance of authentic brand purpose. In fact, the latter has been integral to creating meaningful connections during a time of crisis, with consumers opting to purchase from brands that commit to worthy causes. Brands must seek to be useful to the communities they serve – a great opportunity to combine purpose and practicality. For example, in Hong Kong, QR codes are scanned when checking in to restaurants and cafés by using a Leave Home App and a tracker to keep people informed and safe. The creative design of the app makes it easy to use. This is just one example of creativity in a time of crisis; the campaign’s ads asking people to keep their distance, wear masks and follow SOPs are in abundance.

However, QR codes were around even before the pandemic. Designed by Masahiro Hara, they were created to improve the manufacturing process of vehicles and parts. Add creativity, and one can transform the original, useful, but dull black and white QR codes into eye-catching, creative business solutions. In pre-pandemic 2018, the Hong Kong Tourism Board wanted to encourage visitors to explore a newly revived area known as ‘Old Town Central’. Grey HK enhanced the experience by introducing art-inspired QR Codes displayed at various locations. Each element represented real-life experiences on offer, such as visiting a historical temple or drinking traditional Chinese tea. The scanned QR code provided information about the cultural, art, heritage and dining routes. A functional product was transformed into a creative and insightful one.

Agencies have enabled brands to address customer concerns, brought people closer together and placed a far greater emphasis on e-commerce and digital channels. This has meant working ever closer with social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, to increase engagement with brand communication. It has meant utilising technologies, such as augmented reality to bring virtual experiences to life. It has meant using data, research and social listening tools to help clients understand the social, cultural and public health landscape that has been shifting rapidly.

Sustainability and plastic pollution are issues that most countries have on their agenda; what if creativity can persuade people to act upon this important issue sooner rather than later? An example is a campaign launched by our Grey Malaysia studio – ‘Your Plastic Diet’ for WWF. It brought creativity and data together and became the single biggest call for action to fight against the perils of plastic. The data and insights were quantified into a message to raise awareness in an innovative way. If creativity is leveraged correctly, good work can make a message travel faster, and make it relevant and informative too. This work has won every award on the global stage, including Cannes Lion, D&AD, Clio Health, Spikes-Tangrams and WARC Effectiveness.

In short, creative agencies have innovated in myriad ways, helping clients to navigate months of uncertainty by creating campaigns, products and experiences for a new shared reality. They have supported brands in reprioritising their messaging and have been one step ahead in implementing effective rebound strategies.

This laser-like focus on ideas will be of considerable importance as we begin to navigate the post-pandemic world. Super apps, health-driven wearables, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), even the theoretical possibility of the metaverse, have all grown in stature in the past 18 months, providing the challenges and opportunities that agencies are ideally suited to face. In Indonesia, the super app Gojek offers food delivery, safe rides for commuters and drivers, digital payments, shopping and over a dozen other services. In South Korea, Kakao has delved into music streaming, investments, ride-hailing, video games and social media. In China, WeChat has over a billion subscribers and offers everything from gaming and bill payments to medical appointments. Apps are no longer singular; they are multidimensional platforms changing the way we access a multitude of services.

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the life-saving potential of wearable tech. Gartner predicts spending on wearable devices will hit $81.5 billion this year – an increase of 18.1% – and we are only beginning to scratch the surface of what is possible. According to Gartner, as device makers focus on improving sensor accuracy, the performance gap between medical and non-medical-grade wearables will close, driving growth in multiple wearable devices categories.

Then there are the NFTs – digital tokens that exist on a blockchain and are unique; they also cannot be replicated and are becoming increasingly popular in the art, music and gaming worlds (Hypebeast March 2021). The metaverse, a hypothetical universe of interconnected virtual worlds, is growing in importance. Within these worlds, identity and self-expression are paramount and creativity will play a big role in making the metaverse world intriguing enough to capture the attention of brands and consumers.

Earlier this year, Pringles released a limited edition of a never-before-tasted flavour in the form of an NFT. Grey NY and Grey South Africa launched CryptoCrisp, a virtual flavour created by artist Vasya Kolotusha. Limited to 50 versions, the ‘flavour’ is a digital asset that shows an animated spinning golden Pringles can with crypto-themed chips. All the sales proceeds went directly to the artist. Similar NFTs have raised money for charities or become collector items – or both. The most famous is the one of Jack Dorsey selling his first ever published tweet for an eye-watering $2.9 million – the sale was converted into bitcoin and donated to GiveDirectly – a charity that helps people living in poverty.

Video: YouTube

As we step into this increasingly complex future, the ability of brands to capitalise on any form of blended reality will depend on creativity, technology and data – the very capabilities that are hot-wired into any successful agency.

If brands are to be an intrinsic part of the metaverse and successfully experiment with NFTs, they will need a creative partner who believes in brand disruption and innovation – and this is the reason why we should not be discussing whether agencies have monopolised the world of advertising, whether that monopoly is good for brands or not, or whether advertising works in the ways it used to. We should be discussing how to create standout work consistently. How to push the boundaries of communication; innovate, disrupt and champion data-led creativity – and ensure that more of our campaigns are talked about globally and that our clients are embedded in this cultural discourse.

Clients are concerned about two things. One is how to navigate the often-daunting world of digital. The other is growth. If you deliver on those two important things, the relationship becomes more than just a signed contract, it becomes a partnership. And with partnerships, you can create work with the power to transform businesses. It is creativity that binds everything together and enhances the end game.

Huma Qureshi is Regional Chief Communications & Reputation Officer, Asia-Pacific, Middle East & Africa, GREY Group.