Our latest look at Covid-19’s impact finds remote working has largely been a boon for creatives working within PR agencies around the world, who have adapted quickly following the initial shock of being outside of a regular working environment. Their stories offer inspiration and tips for working effectively under constraints, and where to look for stimulation and constructive distraction.

Participating in the discussion:

  • Dushka Zapata, former Edelman and Ogilvy exec and author, ‘How to be Ferociously Happy’
  • Judy John, global chief creative officer, Edelman
  • Jason Schlossberg, managing director of strategic communications, Huge 
  • Shouvik Prasanna Mukherjee, executive creative director, Golin Singapore
  • Motoko Kunita, managing director, Dentsu PR
  • Peter Mountstevens, chief creative officer and managing partner, Taylor Herring
  • Steve Back, executive creative director, Weber Shandwick London

Have creatives, brands and agencies been more or less creative than usual this year? And more or less brave with creative ideas?

Dushka Zapata: I think it's creativity that saves us. Finding our own form of self-expression; feeling inspired, understood, seen by what others have to offer. From where I sit, every single creative has had to step up, be brave, and redefine her place in this surreal world. It's a tall order: both output and finding your feet. From where I sit, creatives have delivered.

Shouvik Prasanna Mukherjee: This year, being brave with ideas is not a choice, but a compulsion and a business imperative. Creatives thrive on challenges. The added layer of complexity in the business environment has actually been a motivation for us to find innovative solutions. We have been forced out of our comfort zones. We have to shed the baggage of our experience to look at the new realities of our world. As we are exploring uncharted territories, coming up with brave and never-tested-before ideas becomes inevitable.

Judy John: In this environment of the pandemic, racial injustices, the economy and political divide (I’m sure I’m forgetting a few more influences), I would say it’s been less creatively brave out there. But the few that are brave are the ones who are noticed, standing out above the clutter of what feels like more content than ever.

Jason Schlossberg: I still think it’s a little early to say with any confidence whether on the whole creatives, brands, and agencies have been more or less creative. But I definitely think that we are seeing a lot of creativity and innovation in particular categories, especially in events and experiences. I think this makes sense because as the saying goes, ‘creativity loves constraints’ and the global pandemic has created so many obstacles for large-scale live events and experiences.

Motoko Kunita: Under Covid-19, companies and agencies have become more conscious of developing a stance, and messaging, that shows how they are contributing to society or supporting people’s lifestyles and mental wellbeing. That requires broader, more creative ideas and perspectives than before, and in that sense, I believe we have become more creative. On the other hand, economic stagnation and concerns about the future are weighing heavily on all of us (clients included), which has made it harder to be brave.

Peter Mountstevens: There was a period of shock and adjustment as the creative industries recalibrated to life and work within a pandemic. However, adversity often gives rise to great work and the subsequent lockdown saw a surge of creativity from brands, agencies and the public. The creative response has been led by the public who proceeded to fill social timelines with a seemingly endless flow of memes, GIFs and sketches. The sheer quality and scale of DIY ‘Covid-Comedy’ content couldn’t fail to inspire both brands and agencies. Campaigns from Guinness, Lego, KFC and Brewdog stood out for me among a host of great work.

Steve Back: I’ve always found as a creative that the best ideas are generally conceived from being confined by a set of rules or restrictions and then breaking them. For me with lockdown came new rules and restrictions overnight that we had to get used to: new rules = new context = new thinking. I do believe this year, with all its “new normals” has given us one of the most creative periods we’ve seen in marketing and communication for a while. A few that that caught my eye are Burger King’s ‘Quarantine Burger’; Netflix’s outdoor ads telling people to stay home and avoid the spoilers; Zara sending its latest products to the homes of its go-to models so they could self-shoot; and the BBC’s iconic show backdrops for Zoom.

Personally, what have you found to be your biggest challenges of the past few months, as a creative?

DZ: I am a creative, and I'm in a trench. I am in survival mode. I am in fight or flight. This year has been stunning. I don't think any of us have had the chance to process just how much we have lost. It's in this environment that I beat myself up for not being productive enough. My biggest challenge is my own lack of self-compassion.

SPM: I am missing the physical human connection the most. Being together with the team, throwing ideas around and feeding off each other’s energy and passion is what fuels me. And that is difficult to simulate virtually.

JJ: I’ve actually been more inspired and creative the past few months. Because I’m not travelling every week, I’m more focused. The biggest challenge is wanting to do more and not having enough time. There is so much opportunity to help, solve and have impact. I hate the feeling of a missed opportunity.

JS: It’s hard to think creatively in times of anxiety and stress. Research has shown that individuals have an even harder time thinking creatively under stress because it causes us to retreat to old habits. To think creatively you have to feel safe, respected, and be comfortable with failing. But for most of us, myself included, the stakes have never been higher and the risks never greater. The pandemic has shown us how fragile our systems really are, which is a very scary realisation. So personally, I have been working hard to pivot my thinking away from fragility and reframing it as resilience and adaptability.

MK: I am currently busy with management-related tasks, so am not able to be as involved in creative work. But looking at the wider company, the biggest challenge is how to be as proactive and efficient as possible about making the most of the current situation, in which face-to-face interactions have been replaced by online ones due to the introduction of remote working, and events and other communications activities have also transitioned to virtual formats.

PM: I’ve felt the months spent out of the office working remotely while also discovering my local area, taking up new hobbies (running) and reconnecting with family have had a recharging effect and aided creativity – something that six months spent in the office could never replicate.

SB: The biggest challenge for me has been starting a new role at a new agency, in the middle of these unprecedented times. Getting a handle on a new agency, new team and new clients has had its challenges, especially when done over Zoom or Teams. My first three months at the agency have been through a small video window on my computer screen. But to put that into perspective, I do feel blessed to be working when many aren’t.

How has creative brainstorming/working together to come up with the best idea evolved as a result of remote working?

DZ: I am an avid reader. Many years ago I added a three hour commute to an already busy day, and switched to audiobooks. In the beginning it was so hard. I couldn't follow anything, and taking in the book was simply not the joy I found in reading. But little by little audiobooks became such a delight. My brain just needed time to adapt – to shift from visual to auditory, from one type of experience to another. I think this is a good analogy to remote work. At first it felt lonely and isolating and artificial and hopeless. Now I feel I have overcome geographic barriers, made new friends, established true connection. Our chemistry zips through phone lines, jumps out from our monitors. I won't say remote work is the same as your presence. Instead I will say we underestimate our own resilience and are infinitely adaptable.

SPM: We are doing more proactive preparations, with more defined roles and rules of engagement for brainstorming. One interesting observation for me is that everyone seems to be coming more prepared and researched for the virtual brainstorming, rather than just showing up and building off on the few who came prepared with ideas. Further, thanks to the defined roles of each participant having to share something on an assigned topic, it’s offering more equal opportunities to introverted, soft spoken team members to voice ideas.

JJ: Ironically, remote working has brought us more closely together, globally, across regions, offices and disciplines. There are always people available to hop on a call, so we are tapping into people around the network every day to brainstorm.

JS: In many ways creative brainstorming has thrived as a result of remote working. At Huge we’ve embraced a number of collaboration tools that makes brainstorming easy. Two of my favourites are Miro and Figma. But the biggest benefit to no longer being bound to a physical office has been the ease in which we can collaborate with colleagues from around the world. It’s never been easier to assemble talent from across our network to help with brainstorming and to share work and ideas.

Recently a client asked us to help them to develop some newsworthy enhancements to their product platform. We coordinated a global innovation sprint and within 10 days the ideas were being presented to the board. We could have done that in an office but it would have been highly unlikely that we would have been able to include the same talent pool. It’s also not unusual for us to now open up high profile brainstorms to the entire agency. We’ll record the brief via Zoom and then over a specified period of time we encourage people to contribute their own ideas or to build off of others’. It’s been amazing to watch ideas spread, grow and evolve in real-time. This is definitely an activity that we will continue beyond the pandemic.

MK: One of the benefits of remote working has been that it’s easier for teams from different departments and generations to connect horizontally with each other and conduct activities on a voluntary basis. Internally we had one such team that held daily discussions about how the company could give back to society and ultimately initiated a project to support medical workers. These activities have also helped to alleviate the loneliness that remote working can bring.

PM: We had been set up for remote working before the pandemic hit so we were pretty much able to carry on as normal, meeting via Teams and Zoom when needed. We have various tools we use at Taylor Herring to ensure creativity is ‘baked in’ and something everyone in the office can contribute to. These include creative breakfasts with a revolving cast of staff and creative ‘pairs’ where individuals are teamed up to brainstorm. All of these things have continued remotely during lockdown.

SB: To be honest I don’t think working remotely has had that big an impact on the creative process itself. If anything it’s given creatives more time to focus; it’s just part of the adjustment. We all try and get on a call every day to share and discuss projects. It also lets us have regular face time and a laugh, which I think is really important.

Has this situation yielded any opportunities or advantages in terms of creativity?

DZ: This is a dangerous question. Some days, I'm just proud I got through the day. Honestly, proud that I haven't given in to wrath or despair. Getting through the day is already a lot. I will add that in recent months I have been writing up a storm. I've somehow moved from a state of paralysis and isolation to an inspired, connected place. But if getting through the day is where you are at, this is more than enough. I can't stress this enough. It doesn't matter where you are. You are in the right place.

SPM: The scenarios arising from Covid-19 have created interesting opportunities to explore creativity. Whether it’s reimagining a global corporation’s employer branding and recruitment efforts into an end-to-end technology-driven and interactive virtual experience, or engaging diverse audiences to virtual launches of beverages to automobiles, to finding new ways of repurposing old materials or driving user-generated content while shoots are out-of-bounds, it has been a troubleshooting and learning exercise every single day. There’s no playbook for creativity. But what we are doing now is writing the new rules of engagement while in the middle of action. And that’s exhilarating.

JJ: Doing more brainstorming workshops together is building a stronger culture of collaboration and respect for what we can all bring to the table. The diversity of the team is unlocking great ideas. And it’s the best meeting of the day.

MK: This relates to the point above, but certainly remote working has made it easier for spontaneous teams of individuals that transcend the physical organisation to get together and take action. A lot of creativity has been exercised in that area. Clients have also become more receptive to creative strategies that are based on the idea of contributing to society.

PM: One of the upshots of lockdown and the subsequent rise of flexible working practices is that creativity has been allowed to flourish. The best ideas are rarely generated within the confines of the office walls, so remote working has provided a far more fruitful environment to ideate as people have shaken up their routines and adopted new ways of working. Recent events have also provided the communications industry with new opportunities. We have seen a huge decline in spend when it comes to traditional advertising formats, but at the same time we are seeing brands investing heavily in shareable, newsworthy content with the ability to scale organically.

SB: While I was at the BBC and audiences were homebound for the foreseeable future, there was a realisation more than ever that as the national broadcaster we had a huge responsibility in keeping people informed, and sane by bringing some positivity. A couple of projects of note included a brand campaign for BBC News, which showed its presenters coming together to reassure the British public that the world will someday return to normality. Then there was the Great British Singalong, which was a multiplatform idea that celebrated the British public’s resilience and spirit despite the pandemic. A good old singalong can do wonders for morale.

Where have you found creative inspiration under lockdown?

DZ: I want to recommend that you consider drawing instead of words. I know that's strange coming from a writer, but I have found something fresh and deeply comforting in drawing, even doodling. Do yourself a favour and go buy all of Dan Roam's books. See if your company strategy fits in the back of a napkin. See if you can make sense of what you are feeling with a sketch rather than a torrent of words. There is something primal about drawing. Remember? Remember when you used to draw? Go back to that. So much of what you think you cannot find you had when you were a kid. It's all there inside, waiting for you. 

SPM: Being locked up indoors has heightened my appreciation of and connection to nature. I have been putting on a mask and face-shield daily to go out running and walk my dog. It helps me declutter my thoughts and stay connected to the world outside. Gardening on our terrace has become a new hobby that I also find inspiring and rejuvenating.

JJ: I love learning new things. I looked at my search history and this is what I’ve been looking up (don’t judge): uncontacted tribes on island; do tribes in the Amazon farm; who invented the wheel; Chinese offerings to the dead; Second World countries; Rorschach test; furry moths; caterpillars; transformer clothing; multi-purpose clothing; how to plump raisins; how to moonwalk; supreme money gun… I’ve also found inspiration in people. People being generous, resilient, funny.

JS: My primary source of inspiration has always been reading books and I’ve continued my book reading habit throughout lockdown. I’m almost finished with Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, which is a critical biography of Robert Moses and his impact on New York. In many ways it's also a condemnation of the media. It’s incredibly engrossing and is as relevant today as it was when it was written in 1974. In general I try to read about topics that are not directly related to my job or my direct experiences because I enjoy trying to make connections between my work and seemingly disparate topics. I consider it an ongoing exercise in creativity. I tend to read a lot about science, design, politics, and technology. 

MK: In collecting as much information as possible about this unprecedented situation where the entire world is facing the same ordeal, and trying to imagine what we personally can do about it. For me, being a judge for the SABRE Awards this year was an opportunity to see a range of PR campaigns from all over Asia, and that was inspiring in many ways.

PM: Social media. I have never seen so much brilliant home-grown creativity from so many people as I have during the first few months of lockdown when the nation seemed to collectively decide that comedy was the next best thing to a cure. I also subscribe to numerous creative websites which curate the best work and ideas from around the world and which never fail to spark inspiration: our own site, Famous Campaigns where we blog about the best work daily and a series of creative magazine staples such as Design Taxi, Laughing Squid and Bored Panda, to name a few.

Can you recommend a selection of cultural resources that have helped to keep the creative juices flowing?

SPM: There is a great array of documentaries and docu-series on Netflix and Amazon Prime, from inspiring lives of artists, musicians, to shows on design, architecture, culinary culture or sports. It’s inspiration on steroids.

JJ: I’m glad you asked this question because I’m always looking for new content and inspiration.

  • Designers: Prabal Gurung, Virgil Abloh
  • DJ: Peggy Gou
  • IG: Somegoodnews, art_helps, babyanimalstagram, wantshowasyoung,
  • Podcasts: The Daily
  • Shows: Rick & Morty, Big Mouth, Fleabag, Euphoria (mind-blowingly good in its storytelling and direction)
  • YouTube: Daily Dose of Internet, twinsthenewtrend, marble racing
  • Movies: Parasite, Captain Fantastic, In the Mood for Love by Wong kar-wai.

JS: I think the key to keeping the creative juices flowing is to remain curious and to always keep learning. I’m hesitant to recommend a list of cultural resources because I think it’s really a matter of personal taste. But since you asked here are a few things that come to my mind right now.

Books: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman; Behave by Robert Sapolsky; How Emotions are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett; Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari; The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt; Consilience by Edward O. Wilson; Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker; User Friendly: How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live, Work, and Play by Cliff Kuang.

TV Shows: I May Destroy You; Devs; Schitt’s Creek; The Politician; Snowpiercer; I’m Sorry; Terrace House. Movies: Other Music. Podcasts (now that I don’t commute, my podcast listening has significantly dropped off, but these are some of my favorites): 99% Invisible; Lexicon Valley; Hidden Brain; HBR Ideacast; This American Life; Reply All; RadioLab; TED Radio Hour.

Newsletters: Quartz Daily Brief; Vanity Fair’s Hive; Muse by Clio; Ad Age Wake Up Call; Fast Company; WSJ Pro AI; Adweek Morning Digest; Fortune CEO Daily; Fortune Business x Design; The Business of Fashion; The Economist Today; Atlas Obscura; The Poynter Report. Magazines: The New Yorker; The Atlantic; Fast Company; Vanity Fair; Fortune.

MK: As a PR professional, the source of my ideas is definitely news and articles in mainstream media, as well as social media influencers and content that has generated conversation.

SB: I have a long list of the weird and wonderful I frequent; it usually depends on the project as to where I end up. Enjoy. Instagram: @_theblessedone @soyouwanttotalkabout @shootfilmmag @somewheremagazine @anothermagazine @kadirnelson @creativereview @photodre @itsnicethat @cachebunny @thisiscolossal and many more. I live on Pinterest and I love building boards of stuff I like or find. I love local galleries and art fairs like Frieze but as you can imagine, they are tough to get to these days.