HONG KONG — Brands and agencies must continue to push for creativity, despite the human and business challenges of the pandemic, according to speakers at this week’s PRovoke Asia-Pacific Summit.

Diageo’s head of communications and society, Azmar Sukandar, told attendees at the virtual conference that the pressures of the ongoing crisis were leading to greater creativity and innovation in communications campaigns, because “we don’t have a choice.”

Sukandar said: “You really have to push yourself to make things work, and that is a propeller of energy for creativity. It feels like the world is full of lemons, so how do we Beyonce and lemonade it all?”

She pointed out, however, that – more than ever – campaigns could not just be creative for the sake of creativity: “You need to look at what you are actually trying to achieve. Brands still want to raise their profile, but they also need to sell products.”

The challenge, Sukandar said, was to balance “putting yourselves into the shoes of consumers and being sensitive to what they are going through so you can appeal to their emotion, without crossing the line into crassly selling.”

This was echoed by BCW’s managing director of integrated communications for Asia-Pacific, Polka Yu, who said: “We’re lucky to have the technology that has made the transition from the usual events to virtual collaboration more smooth, but we still miss the togetherness of human beings – nothing can quite replace the warmth of human interaction. So it’s not about throwing another virtual event – it’s also about how can we still add human warmth. It’s beyond creative gimmicks – it’s about having a purpose.”

And she said brands had “a responsibility to spark joy” in tough times: “Brands need to provide optimism, give hope and put things into perspective. Every year has different challenges, whether tight timelines or high sales targets, but just look around and see all the amazing cases and try to find your motivation. When you’re being creative for the sake of it, it’s hard to keep that passion, but knowing you are trying to make a positive difference to people’s lives keeps you positive.”

Yu showcased recent campaigns from the region that demonstrated this point, including a virtual event for AliExpress where Chinese influencers gave tips to other livestreamers around the world on how to make money out of the growing trend for “shoppertainment” – a new way for brands to engage consumers, where influencers sell products while being creative and entertaining.

She also highlighted an emotional Indian campaign for the Britannia Marie biscuit brand (pictured), helping homemakers pitch start-up ideas to investors on video calls. Of the 1.5 million women who took part, 10,000 received national skills courses and the top ten won $13.6k each in investment to start their business.

At Diageo, Sukandar also highlighted how the campaign to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Johnnie Walker whisky brand had evolved creatively with lockdown: “Of course a lot of the initial plans we had to celebrate the milestone were shifted, so there was a lot more introspection into the quality of the product, what it means to people, and the values of the brand.

"We realised the brand’s motto – 'keep walking' – was more relevant than ever, for ourselves as a team and externally, so we galvanised that idea of resilience, of thinking about doing things differently in this environment, of helping people make the shift so they see things as an opportunity rather than a challenge.”

During the session, attendees contributed their thoughts on the biggest barriers to creativity at the moment, with comments including getting the team to think differently, the constant stream of negative news draining energy, an undercurrent of stress and anxiety among team members, and staying creative while working at home. The biggest response, however, was the challenge of budget cuts.

Yu said: “With smaller budgets you can still be creative, but it gives you pause to think about how to make the angle more interesting. As agencies, our value is as outsiders with a helicopter view of the next hot topic, what motivates or dampens or bothers your audience, or makes them emotional. When you get to the human truth you have loads of content and can achieve a higher ROI for the client. Brands have harsher KPIs in lockdown, so need to move faster from communication value to commerce and convert to sales.”

She added: “Budget cuts push you to go back to the roots of PR: what can go viral, what platforms you’re using, where there can be collaboration. You can come up with inspiring creative campaigns, you just have to be diligent, to push, and brainstorm for another half an hour how you can make the idea even better.”